“If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” These are the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In that phrase he was talking about Adam- and his trespass or sin of eating the fruit in the Garden. We learn that in the beginning because of that sin, death exercises dominion. So what comes to mind when we think of dominion? Is it a famous athlete at the top of her game crushing it against her opponents? Is it a warrior or super hero standing over their defeated enemies, triumphant. Or maybe it’s the alpha predator, like a great white shark in the deep ocean or a lion on the savanna.
Scripture obviously paints a different picture of dominion as we enter the first Sunday on Lent. Last week we met Jesus on the top of the mountain in a moment of transfiguration, he is the Beloved, the Son of God, his whole appearance dazzling white. But in this gospel reading, we jump back, way back, to right after Jesus’ baptism where Christ is driven into the wilderness. Genesis is also a less than happy story- about how humans gave into the temptation- allowing death and sin to enter into the world. The Psalm, traditionally attributed to King David does not have the image of the perfect king, victorious over a beheaded giant or defeated enemies, but rather is heartbroken over wrongdoing.
Lent is that season that is very much about the times and places of wilderness. There are times in our lives when we find ourselves in the desert. There is financial stress, grief and loss in the death of a loved one, uncertainty about a job, retirement, a diagnosis or illness can all be named wilderness. The wilderness is the Wild place- filled with uncertainly a place of wandering and hunger themes universal to the human experience. Even without personal suffering, it is easy to read the headlines and look out across the globe and feel like nothing is improving- the earth is getting warmer, the oceans are rising, we are facing what could be a pandemic in terms of the Novel-Coronavirus, just last week the sacristy was broken into and someone tried to start a fire in the garden courtyard. The election rhetoric is heating up such that society seems to be crumbling around us. Facebook and twitter don’t help either.
When we think of Lent, built into our language of worship are themes of self-sacrifice, and penitence. Yes, Lent is a penitential season, and we began our service with the Penitential Order. We are using Rite 1 and its beautiful, yet archaic language, has the power to make us feel small in the face of God. In the Eucharistic prayer we read and pray:
And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord; etc, etc.
Here is the acknowledgment of “our manifold sins” and our need for a Redeemer. In the presentation of “our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God, we experience the transcendence spoken of by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is in this transcendent experience that we are brought to the Good News, realizing, as John Wesley once wrote, the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, our hearts “strangely warmed.” It strengthens our trust in Christ alone for salvation, assuring us that he has taken away our sins and saved us from the law of sin and death.
But these 40 days are not so much about beating ourselves up as they are about following in Jesus’ foot steps through the wilderness. Matthew tells us that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There are times when the world and our hearts feel like a desert or wasteland. And there are other times when we follow Jesus and the calling of the Spirit and willingly go out into the wilds in order to be with those who are already there. Think of sitting with a grieving friend, or walking a path alongside those in the midst of struggle or hardship.
In the passage from Romans, Paul describes that without Christ, the world is bound up in the sin of Adam and the curse of death. No matter how obedient we might be to the law, death will still have the final say. But in Christ, death does NOT have the final say. We are given a new path and a new way of life as the kingdom of God breaks into our broken world and sets things right.
Yes, “God is with us even in hard times,” but there is more to it. Christ replaces Adam as the mold for all of humanity. Through Christ, humanity once again has access to living fully into the Image of God and living in the victory that Death is not the end. Thus, redemption means that we are free to exercise dominion in this life—even in the midst of the wilderness, even in the midst of suffering. Death, then, does not have dominion. Christ does.
What does Christian dominion look like? We turn to the gospel for our example. Christian dominion is not about physical prowess or power. This is the not about power over nature: Christ rejects the temptation to change the stones into bread. Likewise, he refuses to jump from the temple or bow down to Satan. Dominance is not transforming our surroundings to suit our wants or satisfy our immediate needs. Dominance is not popularity, fame, or glory atop the mountain heights.
Rather dominance comes from feasting on the word of God and from worshiping God alone- a rejection of money and power for its own sake.
Dominion does not require one to leave the wilderness. In fact, such dominion is possible even while entering it or being in it. The picture of dominion given to us in Jesus and in scripture is the power of life even in the wilderness.
In Christ we are given the possibility to dream a life that is not just about getting by or trying ot make it through the desert. As individuals and more importantly as the Church, the body of Christ, together we lift one another up. Together we dream and imagine Christ exercising dominion in our lives. We draw on the grace and love that God has poured into us and share that with the world. We are filled with God’s abundant grace and love and it is with the power of love that reach out to resist systems that try to exert dominion in other ways: racism, economic inequality, loneliness, despair. We name the temptations and brokenness around us including the temptation to think that nothing will ever change and we should look out for ourselves. That it is about me, and my individual wants.
As we begin this journey into Lent, we enter into a period of self-examination and penance. The language of Rite 1 points us in the direction of the wilderness and into it we go. We enter into the wilderness. And while in the dry and wild places of the desert, we look to Scripture and to the saints for those models and images of those who shine with the light and love of God even in the darkest of times. The goal of Lent is not to inflict punishment on ourselves but rather to allow the grace of God to transform us more and more into God’s image. This Lent, let us exercise dominion in life together. We will dare to resist the temptation to give in to the broken systems around us, and instead work to transform the world.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.