Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.
Good morning. This is our first Sunday back inside — as if I needed to tell you — and, as on Pentecost (the feast of the Holy Spirit) just two weeks ago, when we first regathered outside, so it is fitting that the Holy Spirit would again be central in the Gospel on this day when you, who have bound together by the Holy Spirit in a largely invisible and virtual communion for the past year and a half, are finally able to regather for prayer and communion in this holy space.
Yes, the Spirit is again at the fore, but as is often the case with the Gospel, there are some sticking points.
First of all, we are reminded that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the light of the world, the wisdom and power of God, was thought to be out of his mind and even demon-possessed by some who first witnessed his public ministry. So much so that his family – his mother and brothers – come to restrain him, perhaps out of embarrassment and likely for fear for his life; as we all know, this story leads to the cross.
To make it worse, Jesus dismisses their concert and says “Who are my mother and brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
But by far the most disconcerting feature in this text is that Jesus says that there is a sin that can never have forgiveness. He says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Eternal sin? No forgiveness?!
I thought the Gospel was all about forgiveness!
God forgiving us and we forgiving one another. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus gave us: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
When Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” By which I think we can take Jesus to mean not that we forgive everyone exactly 490 times (imagine keeping track of that!), but that we are to forgive without ceasing.
And, of course, we have Jesus on the cross saying, about those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them.”
How can it be, then, that there is one sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – that cannot be forgiven? All the more when it’s not even especially clear what this blasphemy against the Spirit is!
What’s going on here?
If you’re feeling perplexed, you’re in good company: Augustine said that this is one of the more difficult passages in the whole Bible. And also, be grateful that you’re not me: this is only my second sermon here at St. Paul’s and I’ve got this to deal with!
But I think it’s good to be faced with texts like these, because if we want Jesus, the wise and merciful Savior, then we must be willing to embrace Jesus, the strange, opaque, and confrontational prophet. Anything less is not the real Jesus.
So, let’s look at the story up to this point in Mark’s Gospel and try to understand because, as so often is the case, a little bit of context goes a long way.
In the beginning, Jesus is baptized and then tempted in the wilderness. He then begins preaching, calls some disciples, and starts casting out demons and healing sickness and disease. All this starts to make him famous.
It’s around this time that he starts openly disregarding some religious rules. He does this by touching a man with a skin disease, whose ritual impurity would have made Jesus impure by association. And, significant for our understanding of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Jesus first encounters opposition in the form of an accusation of blasphemy when he says to a man he had just healed from paralysis, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
This leads some of the scribes (that is, professional interpreters of the law), to object and say, “This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
But Jesus is undaunted, continuing to offend religious authorities and traditionalists by eating with tax collectors, who were despised for their presumed dishonesty, and with sinners — that is, those who did not obey the Jewish law — and by his loose interpretation of sabbath regulations. He allows his disciples to break a commandment found in the book of Exodus against plucking grain on the sabbath, and then declares that he has authority over this most sacred of observances. He says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Then he heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath in the local synagogue, thereby supposedly doing “work” on the sabbath and further angering his growing opposition.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ opponents begin conspiring to destroy him.
All this can help us make sense of why Jesus said:
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
At the beginning of Mark, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in baptism, and then the Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness. Likewise, it is this Spirit that has been driving Jesus’ subsequent activity of loving, healing, including, creating community, and calling people to be holy – to give their whole selves to God.
But Jesus’ opponents failed to recognize the holiness of Jesus because they were too focused on the letter of the law, and so missed entirely the spirit of the law which Jesus embodied and fulfilled. As Paul later wrote, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
But not only did they object to Jesus and his radical grace, but they accused him of being in league with the devil on the very basis of this grace. And this, for Jesus, is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: stubbornly standing outside of and in the way of the healing and reconciling Spirit of God at work.
Jesus says that the only unforgivable thing is to reject God’s forgiveness: of others and ourselves, perhaps out of a prideful lack of recognition that we all stand in need of this forgiveness; that none of us can climb to God on a ladder of our own merits.
And this is not because forgiveness is no longer offered, but because the proud and hardened heart cannot receive it. This is a warning to all of us to not be proud and to not judge our neighbors; Jesus seems to say that this – far more than breaking the rules – is the road to perdition, that is, to hell.
The good news is that the very same Spirit which animated Jesus in his living, loving, and working is in our midst. She is in this space; in you; in us. We are dwelling places – temples – of the Holy Spirit.
So may our regathering as Christ’s body in this space newly inspire and equip us to never oppose, deny, or resist the forgiving and healing work of the Spirit among us, and instead: to yield, to participate; to go with the divine flow of life that is with us, in us, for us, and for all. Amen.