This Sunday’s first reading is the familiar story of Adam and Eve and the “first sin” in Genesis 3.
The central verse is when God asks Adam, who, with Eve, is hiding from God, where he is. Adam explains that he is fearful and hiding from God because he is naked. Then comes that profound question, “Who told you that you were naked?”
In the context of our weekly pastors’ Bible study about the coming week’s lessons, and when we had just read this lesson, we noted first how remarkable that in the culture of ancient Israel nakedness was indeed a sign of sin and shame, yet here is a recognition that the primal state of harmony with God in the garden was not an occasion of shame or fear. There is ambiguity here. It matters how and from whom we learn about nakedness. In truth it is within families and communities where people are the most rigid in their rules and enmeshed with others in their emotions that the worst kinds of sexual abuse occur.
The discussion at our pastors’ study then turned to a congregation wracked by decades of shame and guilt over clergy sexual misconduct. It is now over 20 years since the acts in question occurred. Much pain and brokenness has come in the wake. But the congregation is only now coming to grips and discussing matters openly. It is very painful indeed.
So here is the question: Who told you that you were naked? And what have you been led to believe about your body and sexuality? Nakedness is one thing–sexual desires and sexual expression are one thing–sin and shame and guilt are quite another. Where is the hurt? Where the pain? Where the sin?
Indeed, we are by nature bodily creatures. No amount of religion or nagging or wishful thinking will make us “spiritual” or “holy” or “righteous” or “good” people if that means we must be less sexual or less bodily. Beneath our clothing we are naked. Beneath the secrets we keep we all have fantasies and urges.
It is true that sexual abuse, like adultery and promiscuity can be horrible forms of sinfulness, because they are expressions of breakdowns in honesty and of walls of autonomy that we all need. All of us have strong and often confusing emotions attached to our bodies because that is where our need for love and our capacity for love are so immediately touched. That is where our identities are obvious and vulnerable. So when we are involved in sexuality without honest love, we are injured. It doesn’t matter who is being dishonest and using the other—all involved are hurt deeply in abuse of this naked and vulnerable state.
But the worst injury of all comes if we are seduced into believing the lie that nakedness itself is the sin—that our core identity, which inevitably involves our need for love that touches the body, is itself evil. Touching others with our bodies is the most direct and powerful way we have to share who we are, and when we are so confused as to think that this is dirty and shameful, we are alienated from our selves and from the One who made us this way—indeed the One who embraced our full humanity in the Incarnation and Crucifixion.
This story in Genesis is a story of the syndrome of sin, in all of its complexity. When we are alienated from the God who made us and knows us naked, we lose trust that the power of this loving God is more than a match for the power of our own sexuality and even the power of sin’s syndrome.
Whe we lose this trust we are filled with fear. We hide. We cannot be honest with our selves, with each other, or with God. We keep secrets. We can’t face the truth of our own nakedness and frailty and sinfulness, and so we blame others. We maximize their sins to suppress and minimize our own.
And in the middle of this is another actor: One whose job it is to obstruct, accuse, discourage, confuse and wedge us away from the God who wants to forgive, heal, love and encourage. This Great Deceiver’s first empty promise is a radical and foundational one. God’s identity is tied with the tree of life. God has put it in the center of our world. “I want you to eat and live. I put this in front of you.” But the Deceiver’s first lie is that real life begins when we no longer depend on God for life, but we launch out on our own. “God wants to limit you to your humanity, I offer you the chance to be more than human. I promise you infinite possibilities once you determine that you yourself will depend only on your own wisdom of what is good and bad for you.” In real life this can look like reckless youth determined to do the opposite of what their parents have told them because they have more street smarts. Or, ironically, it can look like the religious ones who, rather than depending on a gracious God to guide and forgive them when they are wrong, would rather have the knowledge of rightness itself. As one of my favorite professors once said, “Sometimes you can be so right you can’t be saved.” Bad religion is always religion that has traded the righteousness that comes as a daily gift from God for some form of self-righteousness.
In Christian congregations where we treasure having the right answers about values and morality, it is shocking to discover that those we trusted have been stealing our innocence. But even in our sexually “liberated” culture we are not immune from this syndrome of sin. We still haven’t come to peace with our nakedness. We are still confused and vulnerable to cycles of shame and blame.
Therefore, for the good of all, Christians must reawaken to the treasure of the gospel and rededicate themselves to exploring and expressing the practical implications of it. The gospel tell us that God has embraced and affirmed our full humanity in the Incarnation of Christ. Nakedness is no sin. Abuse of one another’s need of touch is a sin and a crime, but as powerful as these crimes can be, they cannot be so dark that God cannot illumine them. The brokenness cannot be so profound that grace cannot heal it.
Only if we attribute too much power to the serpent with its empty promises and lies can sin overwhelm us. Only if we keep hiding in our secrets and blankets of blame can our guilt and shame keep eating away at our faith. If we pray and give praise and loudly proclaim that Christ died for the ungodly and that we rise with Christ to new life every day in our repentance and return to our baptisms , then we can face the ugly sins that have occurred. We can confront others with their responsibilities. We can understand also where we ourselves have been faithless and where true and false guilt really lie. We can call on the healing power of love and of appropriate and necessary bodily touch once more.
We need to ask ourselves who told us we were naked and what this means to us. We need to remember that our Creator knows us naked. Christ knows each of us as weak and fragile and needy, but also as glorious and good. We need to proclaim this and pray about it, especially when we must work at congregational healing.