I loved every word of John Green's novel called The Fault In Our Stars. I loved every moment of it. But this was my favorite part: our narrator and heroine, Hazel, has just boarded a transatlantic flight. I won't tell you why; that would ruin something. I can tell you Hazel has an advanced and rare form of cancer, far too advanced and far too rare for someone of her teenage years, and that getting on board a transatlantic flight has involved no small degree of logistical planning. She happens to be sitting next to her boyfriend, Augustus, whom she met at a cancer support group for adolescents. For his part, Augustus knows a thing or two about facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, but in his particular case the tumors have receded. He's in the clear, except for the fact that he has fallen hard and fallen mad for the slowly dying Hazel. And as they're sitting next to each other on the airplane, and as the flight attendant is slowly making her way down the aisle and checking the overhead bins and briefing the folks in the exit rows, Augustus, as he is occasionally wont to do, pulls out a packet of cigarettes and pops one in his mouth.
Now, in the book, this isn't the first time we've seen Augustus do this. In fact the first time he did it Hazel just about lost her mind. You can imagine it: every single day she deals with the cold hard challenges of having a terminal diagnosis, and every single day she does everything she can to fight for every single day. She's on the respirator. She's on the oxygen. She's on the medication. Her energy is rationed; her schedule is rationed; everything in her life is rationed to help her die as slowly as possible. And she meets this boy who has already beat the odds, this boy whose lungs have only just emerged from the same fog of inevitability, and the first thing he does is put a cigarette in his mouth. The first time she sees him do it, it just about tears her to pieces. But now, sitting on the tarmac, it's something like old hat. She knows now that he never actually lights the thing, that he just likes to leave it hanging there. So when the flight attendant anxiously rushes over and says to Augustus, "Sir, I'm sorry, that cigarette is prohibited on today's flight," Hazel's got the answer ready.
"It's not a cigarette," she says. "It's a metaphor. He puts the killing thing in his mouth but doesn't give it the power to kill him."
"Well," says the flight attendant, "That metaphor is prohibited on today's flight."
This morning our summer journey through Genesis brings us, finally, after some weeks of working through the language of creation, to the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the oh-so-infamous forbidden fruit. Don't put it in your mouth - it has the power to kill you. Now, next week we will read the rest of the Adam and Eve text and take something of a different angle on the story altogether, but this week, in this first part of the Adam and Eve journey, we have to confront the threat, the promise, the very existence of this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree at the very center of the Garden. The tree about which God makes this commandment to Adam: that he should not eat of its fruit, for "in the day that you eat of it you shall die." But of course Adam does eat the fruit. We haven't read that far ahead but I'm pretty sure you all know where this story goes. Adam eats the fruit; Eve eats the fruit; and then, from a storytelling point of view, a very strange thing happens. Or fails to happen, rather. Which is to say, despite God's most emphatic promise, neither one of them dies. I mean, if we're being honest about it. They're both very much still there when the story ends. And so the question is, is God's promise a metaphor? When God says death, does God really mean death? And is that metaphor allowed on today's flight?
Now, I know the objection. Even though Adam and Eve make it through the story intact, they do die eventually. And the objection says: if they hadn't disobeyed, Adam and Eve wouldn't have died, ever. The objection says that what we have here is the very origin of death and mortality itself, and if that's your objection, pat yourself on the back: you're in the company of centuries of Christian theological tradition, dating back to Paul or at the very least his interpreters. This is no mere tricking stream in the great river of Christian thought; no, friends, we are standing up our neck in the depths of our own tradition, and with some nod to the foolhardiness of the endeavor, I'm here to suggest that it's just plain wrong, because it's just not in the text. God promises that "in the day that you eat of it you shall die." And fast-forward a chapter and a half to the actual consequence of Adam's disobedience, the words of punishment. This is chapter 3, vs. 17-19.
Because you have ... eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Now, Adam was already created from dust, prior to his disobedience. That he should return to dust seems intrinsic to the material of his creation and not to any consequence of his behavior. Genesis has no interest in arguing that real death, physical bodily death is anything but a natural part of God's created order. And the actual punishment is rather different: the expulsion means that Adam will have to work the land for himself and not just hang about in Eden all day long picking fruit off the trees. What's more, remember that the language of God's promise put an ETA on Adam's death: "in the day that you eat of it." Not 60, 70, 100 years down the road, long enough for a smattering of kids and a bunch of grandkids. On the day. All of which means that there's a real problem in this text. God says that in the day that Adam eats of the tree, that in the day that Adam puts in his mouth the thing with the power to kill him, he shall die, but no matter how you slice it, it just doesn't happen. So when God says death, does God really mean "death?" Or is it just a metaphor?
I say "just a metaphor," but if you remember Augustus with the lung cancer in remission and the cigarette in his mouth, "just a metaphor" is an incredibly important distinction. In one sense he's channeling this rebel bad boy image, he's the heir apparent to James Dean, he's in the hot rod playing that game of chicken from Rebel Without a Cause except the other car is named cancer and it's driven by time. But it's absolutely critical that he not actually light the cigarette. The distinction means everything: if he lights it, it's reckless, it's suicide, it's laughing in the face of death, it's laughing at the value of his own life; but if he just holds the cigarette there, it shows death a healthy respect, and, moreso, it shows his own life a healthy respect. It shows his own life its own due dignity. Augustus is not the teen rebel of days of yore desperately not asking to be born. On the contrary, Augustus has something to live for, and, more to the point, he knows it.
And I think the Genesis text has a very similar logic to it. The death God promises has to be metaphorical because to be anything else would be nothing short of an affront to the dignity and majesty and labor of the act of creation that just happened. God breathed life into Adam not ten verses previous. God blessed Adam with the call to till and keep the Garden, so Adam clearly has a place of some importance and some uniqueness in the order of God's creation. Every moment of Genesis leading to this verse has pointed to the purposefulness of Adam's calling, which would have been undone in a moment had God's promised death been anything but a metaphor. All of which means that this metaphor isn't really about the spectre of death. It's really about the value and dignity of Adam's life, of human life. And of course we need the reminder as much now as ever. One has only to look at the headlines: the continued bloodshed in Syria; the brutality of sexual abuse in Tahrir Square; the grim occasion of Texas executing its 500th prisoner -- though they have a long way to go before they equal Virginia's historic total -- not to mention the thousands upon thousands of people around this country and around the world deprived of the dignity of their lives by reason of unjust incarceration, substandard medical care, insufficient housing, hunger, poverty, disease.
After all, even in the language of metaphor, something about Adam still dies. Something breaks that wasn't broken before. As the Biblical story unfolds, as the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve find their way into violence and injustice and idolatry and desperation, there's no escaping a certain nostalgic longing for the time before it all went wrong, back there in the Garden. As Israel reads this story in the midst of wilderness, or in the struggle of civil war, or in the shadow of exile, how can they do anything but mourn for everything they'd suffered and everything they'd lost? As we read this story, in the midst of our own daily struggles, in the shadow of our own despair, how can do anything but mourn for everything we've suffered and everything we've lost? Something here has broken, something here has died, and it seems we have done the deed; how can we do anything but look back at the long arc of creation and see only the blood on our hands?
Fortunately, then, in this text, death isn't just a metaphor. Fortunately the long arc of this text isn't just about the fall from grace but also about the promise of resurrection. If we take God's promise of death to be the promise of literal, physical, corporeal death, then the final scene of the Eden story, the expulsion from the Garden and the charge to work the land and the soil, if the promise of death is real then the expulsion begins to look a lot like a stay of execution, something a lot like pardon, something a lot like forgiveness, something a lot like grace. Adam and Eve should by rights be dead - actually, literally, physically dead - but instead they are set free to live into the calling that God has already given them. That's the true power of this story: that even the blood on our hands will be no obstacle to the long arc of God's vision for creation. That death itself - the very real, very literal, very non-metaphorical death - is nothing compared to the power of God and the cause of God's righteous love.
As Christians, of course we celebrate this ultimate power of God in the early dawn hours of Easter morning, as we remember Jesus' very literal, very physical triumph over the confines of the grave. But just as in the Genesis story, the power of Easter Sunday only works next to the passion of Good Friday; God's triumph over death itself only works next to God's suffering insistence on the dignity and value of human life. This is the paradox of the Gospel, the paradox of what we believe and the paradox of what we are called to do: that we insist on the dignity of human life while nonetheless proclaiming God's power even over the grave. That in the midst of violence and warfare, we fight for the dignity of life. That in the darkness of the prison and the workhouse, we fight for the dignity of human life. That in a world overrun with poverty and hunger and disease, we fight for the dignity of human life. That in the bleakness of our own human hearts, even with the blood of the world on our hands, we fight for the dignity of human life. But that we do so grounded in the hope that the fight is not ours alone to win, that the great power of God, triumphant even over the grave, is fighting through us and with us and despite us and for us and that the long arc of history is not finally upon us to write.
We've almost forgotten Augustus, still sitting on the tarmac, unlit metaphor still dangling from his mouth. "He puts the killing thing in his mouth but doesn't give it the power to kill him." On one hand, I get it. It's a metaphor. I don't want him to light the cigarette; his life has dignity, too, and I think we're well off-track of the Christian journey if we go around glibly inviting death just because we proclaim the resurrection. On the other hand, I'm quite sure that the power of life and death was never his to claim or to give. I'm quite sure, as he wraps his lips around that cigarette, that it's not real power he wields; it's just the illusion of control. And I'm quite sure he knows it. But in just a few minutes, we here in the real world will celebrate the service of communion. Our liturgy will proclaim that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are made present with Jesus and the disciples on the night of his arrest and on the eve of his crucifixion. The bread unites us with his dying body. The wine unites us with his spilt blood. In a very real way to observe this sacrament is to join across the expanse of time and with the vast household of saints in the suffering, and the dying, and the death of Jesus the Messiah. We put the killing thing in our mouths. It's a metaphor, of course. Neither the bread or the juice we serve today will actually kill you. But still: we put the killing thing in our mouths, and we swallow, knowing that the power of life and death is in more gracious hands than ours.