September 10, 2017

2nd Creation Sunday

Genesis 2:4 – 3:17

Romans 5:12-19


In the epic novel, the Lord of the Rings by J. R. Tolkien, Eärnur, the king of Gondor, one of the most powerful kingdoms in middle earth, rides against his enemy.

But he never returns from the battle and his fate cannot clearly be established. Since he does not leave an heir to the throne, his steward, Mardil, administers the kingdom in his absent. Mardil’s descendants rule Gondor for 25 generations and they become known as the Ruling Stewards of Gondor.

But these Ruling Stewards are not kings; they rule the Kingdom in place of the King. They swear an oath that they will rule the Kingdom ‘until the King returns’. They disassociate themselves from the kingship symbols. They sit not on the throne, but on a simple chair made out of black stone and placed at the lowest steps surrounding the throne. They wear no crown, hold no scepter, and garb themselves only with white robe, the emblem of their office.

In reality, however, they hold all the powers that once belonged to the King. They change the King banners with their own flags. They discourage speculations about claimants to the throne. The last Ruling Steward of Gondor even refuses to give the throne back to the rightful heir of the kingdom. The throne does finally return to the heir, but only after the last Steward kills himself.

Our reading this morning from Genesis is also a story about humans’ struggle to gain control over something that was not rightfully theirs. This story in Genesis is probably one of the most popular stories in the Bible. But we need to be careful with what we have learned about this story before because it may make us fail to truly understand what this story really means.

In the story, the snake tempted the woman to eat the fruit that God, in the previous part, had told the man not to eat. God told the man that if he ate the fruit, he would die. The serpent, however, craftily seduced the woman to eat the fruit anyway. And she fell to the temptation. But she didn’t only eat the fruit: she gave it to her husband who also ate the fruit. The story closes with curses that God gave to each of the perpetrators.

Traditional Christian doctrine has often read the story in Genesis as the story about the birth of the ‘original sin’. According to this view, sin is like a disease that the first human contracted by eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. As the result, their descendants have now been infected by the ‘disease’. 

But the story itself never mentions the phrase ‘original sin’. It never even mentions the word ‘sin’. Historically, the story was a beautifully crafted tale that ancient people used to explain the origin not of sin, but of different realities in their day to day life. This story was the way ancient people tried to make sense of the origin of the enmity between human and snakes, or the painful birth pangs that women had to endure during childbirth, or the hardship that ancient people, living in an agricultural society, had to face when tilting the land to make it produce food. The story tells us that the hardship that we endure in life is born out of our disobedience to God and to what God has intended us to be.

Previously, an ideal relationship existed between humans, the animals, the land, and God. Under God’s authority, human lived side by side with the animals, supported by the land who gave its produce abundantly. These intimate relationships, however, were broken by human’s desire to take over God’s place as the rightful ruler of creation. As the result, alienation, not intimacy, now exists between men and women; between humans and the animals; between living creatures and the land; and between all parts of creation and God.

The story, thus, is indeed about our original sin, but not original sin as it is traditionally understood. Our original sin, according to this story, is our deep-seated desire to be like God; to rule over the universe as if we were the creator of it.

ABC once aired a report, on Foreign Correspondent program, about a massive land clearing project in Riau, an Indonesian province in Sumatra Island. The project was undertaken by one of the biggest pulp and paper companies in the world: Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL). The company logged forest and planted acacia trees in the area. APRIL’s Director of Operations boasted that they had the biggest paper mill on the planet in Riau.

But Bill Laurence, a leading Australian forest scientist, called what was happening there as an ecological Armageddon. He claimed it as one of the worst forest destructions he had ever seen. Something in the order of about seventy thousand hectares of forest were cleared in one year. That was about a hundred and forty thousand footy fields of tropical rainforest cleared in one single year to feed the giant pulp plant.

From this forest clearance, APRIL’s mill produced three and a half million tons of pulp and paper each year. Its end result are the blocks of A4 paper that we are familiar to; blocks of papers that are readily available on the shelves of our office retailers. Alarmingly, they are sold with a green label on the package, lauding the use of plantation wood.

What disturbing me the most was the direct effect that the paper production had on the local population; the eldest of which were the Sumatran tigers who had been there for six thousand years. But their home had been under relentless attack. As the forest was cleared to make way for the plantation, the tigers were running out of space. Without the protection of the jungle, their natural habitat, they easily fell into the hands of the poachers. Then, there were only about four hundred of the tigers who were still alive.

The paper production also affected the human local population in the area. While many villages welcomed the jobs and the facilities that the company brought to the area, other villagers felt threatened by the company’s presence. One of them was Pairan, a farmer in Pulau Padang, a tiny island in Riau province.

Pairan and his family had lived and farmed sago in the island for six generations. He had high hopes and dreams for his family, especially for his children. But his hopes and dreams were under threat when his sago farm was in APRIL’s newly granted plantation area. He had a longstanding deed of the land, but his deed was annulled by the corrupt local government and given to APRIL.

Similar cases happened to other people in the island. As the result, tension was running high. One day, hundreds of people protested the governor’s decision to grant APRIL concession to one third of the island. On another day, a group of people attacked the contractors who were clearing the land for APRIL. Their machines were bombed, one man was stabbed and burned alive.

So friends, here in Riau, we can see the links between the destruction of our environment and the destruction of the relationships between humans and other creatures, and between humans and humans.

Let’s go back to our reading from Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome. Here in his letter, Paul reads the story in Genesis as the story about the origin of our estrangement from God; of our broken relationship with God. For Paul, Adam, the traditional name of the first man in the Genesis story, was the forefather of all human races. And as Adam was estranged from God, we all are estranged from God.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He then compares Adam with Christ. For Paul, Christ, not Adam, is now the blueprint of all human beings. For him, we are no longer created in the image of Adam, but in the image of Christ.

And Jesus Christ has undone what Adam did. Through his death on the cross, he has brought healing to the broken relationship with God that Adam brought to the world. Therefore, in Christ, we are no longer condemned, but justified. Because of Christ, we are finally accepted back to God’s bosom. “… just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” Paul says in his letter.

Salvation thus is not only about us getting to go to heaven after we die; salvation means more than that. Salvation is about getting our relationship with God right. This broken relationship with God is the source of our broken relationships with other people, with other creatures, and with the land. Christ has brought healing to these wounds however. And if we dare to proclaim that we have been justified by Christ and now live in his grace and dominion, Christ’s justification must now permeate into our relationships with God, with other people, with other creatures, and with the environment.

True salvation will make us humble. True salvation will constantly remind us that we are not the lords of the universe. God is the Lord of the universe. Salvation thus means repentance; repentance from our arrogance of trying to be the masters of the universe. Salvation means recognizing once more our role in creation; recognizing that we have no ultimate authority in the universe. That authority belongs to God, and God only. We are only dust and to dust we shall return.

Today, the earth is suffering. It suffers because of our wrong assumption that we are its masters and thus we have the rights to treat it as we like. But our reading in Genesis reminds us otherwise. Just like the Stewards of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings novel, we are mere stewards of creation. We have no complete authority over it.

God has and God has the paid the price of restoration through Christ.

Pairan, the sago farmer in Pulau Padang, whose dreams were jeopardized by the pulp and paper production in his island, made this plea to all people around the world.

“I suggest to all people in this world, please don’t use paper wastefully. And I hope all people in this world work to save the Earth, save the forests, and small islands such as our Padang Island”.

This plea is a moral call for all of us. It’s a call from God our Creator.  Let us not fail to heed it.

Toby Keva