The Unforgivable Sin

Proper 10                June 10th, 2018

Mark 3:20-35

Our gospel reading today shows us the difficult and uncomfortable side of Jesus, misunderstood and probably not very easy to understand. We hear of his difficulties with his family, his brothers and sisters and poor long-suffering mother, who are worried about his sanity and have come to take him home, only to be left locked outside by his people.

And in the middle of that story, he has a run-in with a very different group of people, a bunch of holy scholars who have come all the way from Jerusalem to see this popular new teacher and healer everyone is talking about. Their judgement is harsh: if he is driving out demons, then he must be under the authority of the prince of demons.

Jesus answers them without mincing words. We have just read last week how he feels about these religious leaders who surround him with their criticisms and negativity: he was angered and grieved by their hardness of heart. I think we can hear some of that anger in his answer back to them. First he makes fun of their argument: if you say it’s the devil who is driving out the devil, then the devil is acting against himself, which is just stupid.

Secondly, he tells them what is really happening in a bold parable: I am like a thief who has broken into a rich man’s house and tied him up and robbed him. That’s what I am doing to the devil, that’s what is really happening here. It’s not actually an answer that is calculated to make them feel better about him.

And then, thirdly, he comes back with the real zinger. He faces the self-appointed guardians of holiness, the ones who spend their days accusing other people of blasphemy and sin, and tells them: ‘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’

And here we come to the core of what I want to talk about today. The eternal sin, the unforgivable sin. What is that all about? Can there even be an unforgivable sin? After all, the gospel is about the infinite mercy of God, the fact that God reaches out in love to everyone, no matter what they have done. No one is beyond the mercy of God, that is the cornerstone of the gospel. Yet now Jesus seems to be saying: “Ah, but there is this one thing. If you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, that is one step too far. That is really provoking God too far, and he is finished with you.” Is that what we are supposed to believe this means? Because frankly, that just doesn’t sound right.

Interesting that it the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is the problem. For many Christians, it is believing in and confessing Jesus that is important. Many, many people will tell you that is the one thing you have to do to be saved. Not confessing Jesus – let alone blaspheming against him – means you cannot be saved. So Jews and Muslims and atheists are out of luck. It would seem that blaspheming against Jesus was the unforgivable sin.

But that is not what he says. In fact, when Matthew tells this story he even tells us that Jesus said: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” So apparently speaking against Jesus is not the unforgivable sin. It’s not okay, but God’s mercy can deal with it. But speaking against the Holy Spirit is another matter. Does that mean the Holy Spirit is supposed to be more important than Jesus?

So what’s this really about? Maybe Jesus was just being cranky. But I don’t think so. I think there is a warning here, one that stems from the very heart of what Jesus’s ministry was about.

At the core of Jesus’s ministry is his proclamation that the kingdom of God had come near. God’s kingly power is at work in this world. Not always in obvious ways. It is, he tells us, like the mustard seed – to many just a common weed, but for those with eyes to see, a sign of God’s power at work. The kingdom of God, God’s power at work in the world, does not appear with great armies of angels – it appears in the lives of ordinary people, like you and me, through acts of love, and caring, and courage.

The instrument of God’s kingly power is the Holy Spirit. Remember how Jesus begins his ministry: in the synagogue at Nazareth, quoting the prophet’s words,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

It is the Spirit that moves through Jesus’s ministry, that moves like the wind, which blows where it will, often unseen and untraceable, through human lives, healing and reconciling and challenging. It is the Spirit that breathes in our hearts, moving us deep within to love the kingdom, and to do the right thing.

And so, when the scribes look at what Jesus is doing and say it is the work of the devil, they are turning their back on God’s healing work in the world. When they do that, they are putting themselves in a hopeless position. It is the unforgivable sin: not because God is particularly mad at them and won’t forgive them, but because they are turning away from precisely the thing that could heal them, the reconciling, healing power of the Spirit. If you want to speak ill of me, Jesus says, we can deal with that; but if you are rejecting the very power of God at work in your midst, then there really is no hope for you, because you are rejecting the very thing that can bring us healing and peace.

And that is the choice we have. If we try to keep ourselves open and attentive to the way that God’s spirit is moving, often in unexpected places, then we are allowing ourselves to be moved by compassion, to be encouraged by hope, to be challenged by a growing hunger and thirst for justice. If we don’t, if we close ourselves off to the possibility that God is at work around us and live only in the prison of our own self-interest, then we will grow slowly more hard-hearted, more cynical and indifferent, more hopeless. And how can we then be healed, if we choose that path.

So let us keep our eyes open to the moving of the Spirit, and look to the saints in whom the spirit is at work. They may be Christians, like Desmond Tutu, who led the way to reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of racial hatred in South Africa, or Jean Vanier, who taught us to see the wisdom and love of those with mental handicaps, showing us what it really means to be holy. Or they may be people of another faith, like Malala Yousafzai, leading the fight to educate girls in her native Pakistan, in the face of prejudice and oppression. Or they may be people of no conscious religion at all, and yet God’s spirit moves in them. They will usually not be famous: they will be our neighbours, ordinary people dealing with challenges with courage and love and forgiveness. Look around you – you will see them seated around you in this church.

I have to think, for example, of those high-school students in Florida, who have survived a school shooting, and have channeled their grief and fury into a loud and clear witness against the normalization of gun violence. This isn’t about the politics – you could agree or disagree with some of their ideas – but I don’t see how one can not be deeply moved, shamed in fact, by their courage and their pain and their righteous anger. And yet immediately there were the online critics, those who belittled and insulted and ran them down in the most vulgar and hateful manner. And I have to think of Jesus’s words: what hope can there be for people who close themselves off from the spirit moving in such a holy place of pain and righteousness.

There is a Cherokee teaching I was reminded of in a sermon I heard the other day. It is a teaching passed on from a grandfather to a grandson: “there are within each of us two wolves. One wolf is the power of courage and selflessness and vision, integrity and kindness. The other wolf. The other wolf is the wolf of selfishness and greed and hatred. And these two wolves are in a constant and fierce and eternal battle to the death inside of us.”

“So grandfather,” says the boy, “which wolf will win?”

He looked his grandson in the eye and replied: “The one you feed.”

The one you feed. So pay attention. The choices we make matter: the way we live, the way we speak of others, the way we open or close ourselves to God’s spirit. Every choice we make feeds one of our wolves; every choice is another step towards making us the people we will become.