sermon preached at Goodwin House, Bailey’s Crossroads, Falls Church, VA
by Josh Hosler, Chaplain Intern
Proper 5B/ June 10, 2012
The scene is set at the Sea of Galilee. It is early yet. Jesus has just begun to teach and heal, and he has set the town abuzz. The people whisper to each other: “Did he just forgive someone’s sins? Everyone knows only God can do that! Wait until I tell Miriam … I heard he just shared a meal with tax collectors, those sponges who are traitors to our race and our God! Is this guy for real? I’ve got to find out for myself! … Did you see his friends? Did they really just pluck grain on the Sabbath? How can they get away with that? … Well, I heard Jesus cured a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! How can he even do that? … And I heard he cast out a demon in Capernaum! How can he both break God’s laws and be blessed with this undeniable ability to cure people? Where does his power come from?”
In the first few chapters of Mark, we do find Jesus breaking the law repeatedly—at least, he breaks the law as it has been developed into seeming perfection by the Pharisees, based on their understanding of the centuries-old Mosaic law. Jesus grew up following these laws, and now he seems to be flagrantly throwing them away! This inspires some scribes—people I like to think of as religious case lawyers—to journey from Jerusalem down to the Sea of Galilee to see for themselves what’s going on. They have the same question: If Jesus has no respect for God’s laws, then where does his power come from? And they suggest what they think is the only possibility: his powers must come from a supernatural source other than God—the Sa-TAN, the accuser, the devil.
But Jesus flips their logic back on them: “How can the devil cast out the devil? If he’s casting out his own people, that’s a pretty good sign that his reign is coming apart at the seams. As it turns out, no, I’m not helping Satan … you’ve seen by my actions that I’m in the process of tying him up! ” These are very good points, and they hint strongly at an alternate explanation: the scribes and the Pharisees themselves could be wrong.
But they’re not having it. In order to cling to their theological understanding—not to mention their power and authority—the Jewish leaders will begin to consider some drastic measures. It is at this point that Jesus responds to their indignation with one of the most puzzling, troublesome phrases in the Gospels: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This phrase has caused generations of conscientious believers to wonder with great anxiety, “Are Jesus’ words meant for me? Have I ever blasphemed against the Holy Spirit? I don’t even know what that means, so how can I avoid it? Have I put myself outside of God’s grace? Is there no hope for me?”
Well, let’s start with the concept of blasphemy. What is it? When people take God lightly, or make crude jokes about religion, or show contempt for God, we might suspect they are acting blasphemously. We often think of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” as a form of blasphemy. Many countries still have laws on the books to punish people for perceived blasphemy, and some even use the death penalty. In the United States we have no such laws, because we place so much value on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. People still get upset when they witness somebody blaspheming, and they have every right to. But I often wonder whether careless talk about God offends our neighbors far more than it offends God. After all, God knows everything about us and can surely understand why we say the things we do. God may not approve, but God forgives. And Jesus assures us here that all people will be forgiven for whatever blasphemies they utter. But there’s one kind of blasphemy Jesus that says is different, and this is what trips us up. What is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” and what makes it unforgivable and eternal?
There was no doctrine of the Trinity at this point, but the phrase “holy spirit” was not new. In the Hebrew scriptures it shows up in a psalm of repentance: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11). And the prophet Isaiah writes in a very telling passage about the people of Israel:
But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit: therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them. Then they remembered the days of old, of Moses his servant. Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit? (Isaiah 63:10-11)
When the scribes heard “holy spirit,” they would have remembered these two passages. The holy spirit is the presence of God, the very possibility of God being present in our lives. Those who grieve God’s holy spirit are those who have forgotten who they are and to whom they belong, and they are in danger of not being able to experience the presence of God at all.
In today’s reading from Genesis, it is Adam and Eve who have forgotten who they are and to whom they belong. After disobeying God’s instructions regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they hide from God’s presence. And when they are called out for their behavior, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. No longer can they live as they did before, for now they know and understand things in a new and different way. They have set themselves up to be like God. If you think about it, that’s kind of ridiculous, because we are told that they were made in God’s image in the first place. Why would they want to be more like God than they already are?
And yet the story of Adam and Eve is the story of the human condition. We don’t want to be told what to do. We hate being told we can’t know everything. We want power and control, and often we want it at any cost. The scribes are so certain that they have God all figured out that don’t even know they’re in the wrong, or that there could be any cost to their insistence on being right. When Jesus comes along, teaching with authority and curing with power, they claim that he was sent by God’s enemy, simply because he falls outside their understanding of God. Instead of stepping back in humility to see if there might be a larger scheme at work—a scheme they are not central to—they dig in their heels. They have forgotten who they are and whose they are. And this, says Jesus, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
The scribes and Pharisees don’t know it, but Jesus is here to rescue them. He is forgiving sinners left and right—everywhere he goes, people are remembering that they belong to God, and that their lives are in God’s hands. This comes more easily for the people on the margins of society: women, lepers, the sick, the crippled, the elderly. These people have very little to lose. But for the leaders, those in power and the prime of life who do not recognize their need for forgiveness, Jesus offers only words of condemnation.
Or is it condemnation? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a slap upside the head to be shown the error of my ways. At such times, a polite expression of mild reservation could never reach me. Anytime I think I’m perfect, or even begin to think that some form of perfection might be a possibility, I am saying to God, “I don’t need your help. I can handle this myself.” When I deny that God can do anything outside my current frame of understanding, I have forgotten who I am and whose I am. I think that may well be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
So what if God did forgive such blasphemy? What if God said, “Fear not, all you powerful and privileged people who think you don’t need me, or who think you understand everything about me. I forgive you. Salvation is yours.” How might they react? Would they say, “Thank you, God, for your forgiveness!”? I don’t think so. I’m not even sure they’d recognize that God had spoken.
And now we begin to see why such blasphemy cannot be forgiven. You can’t benefit from what you don’t know you have. If you were to give me a present, all wrapped up with a bow, but I refused to accept it, I’d never know what lay inside. Blasphemy against the holy spirit cannot be forgiven, not because God doesn’t forgive, but because those who need it don’t even see it, and even if they did see it, they would assume the gift was meant for someone else. Forgiveness is a two-way street. It’s not about following God’s rules …it’s about being in a relationship with God.
Isaiah wrote that it was when the people remembered their story that they remembered who they were and whose they were. Every now and then, I know that I need to remember the story, because it is my own story. It is our story. God brings us through the waters. God feeds us in the wilderness. God brings us into the promised land. God breathes life into our dry bones! God has done all these things that we cannot do ourselves, and God continues to do them in my life and in yours.
Today, let us remember who we are and whose we are. If God is slapping us upside the head, let’s not deny our need for forgiveness. Let us stand with the one who sees beyond mere rules and into relationships. Let us choose to be a part of Jesus’ family—the eternal family of people who love to do the will of God. Amen.