sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5B, June 7, 2015
|Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit|
In the past 2000 years, we have seen the followers of Jesus do some pretty amazing things. We also have seen Christians behaving badly. But look at the ripple effect that Christianity has brought to our world. Among other things, once the Roman Empire got hold of it, Christianity set about ordering the world, for better or worse. And many of us here are old enough to remember a time when Christianity and the very best of life in the United States seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Today, many Americans long for a simpler time, a time when Christianity was the assumed religion.
It’s very different now. No longer can we assume that the person coming into St. Paul’s from off the street has had any exposure to the most basic teachings of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty exciting, because it means that the people who are here really want to be here! But we are also in uncharted waters, and that will require both patience and imagination.
I imagine that every period in history seemed bizarre and unsettling to the people living in it. And I do think we live in a time more unsettling than many others. But if so, then Jesus’ time was another of these. Around the year 30, Greek, Roman, and Jewish influences were about to collide in Galilee to create a new kind of chaos in the midst of a very uneasy order.
In this passage we have Jesus’ family coming to take him home, to remove the embarrassment and shame of this crazy person from the marketplace, this favorite son now rumored to be possessed by a demon. But Jesus’ wit and stories win the day here, as usual. Jesus tells us that a house cannot be plundered until the strong man living there is tied up. So if Jesus’ power to heal comes from a demonic source, then the demons are now doing good things, and Satan’s army has switched sides!
From this story Jesus goes on to assure people of the forgiveness of their sins, but the big fat asterisk that follows is just as shocking as the breadth of his assurance. First, “people will be forgiven” is not a great translation. The Greek word here is actually “all.” So Jesus states that ALL sins and blasphemies will be forgiven—and then comes the asterisk. All sins and blasphemies will be forgiven, except for “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
If the universality of Jesus’ forgiveness shocked us, we might think, “At last! Here is an unforgivable sin. It’s good to know that Jesus has at least some standards. After all, he can’t just forgive everyone of everything! There can’t be a get-out-of-consequences-free card! Now then … what is it exactly that can’t be forgiven, so I can demonstrate that it’s something only other people do?” Hmmm. What exactly is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”?
Well, as usual, Jesus puts the burden of interpretation on us, to move us beyond individualistic rules and into relationships with each other and with the living God. If we really want to know what “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” means, we have to entertain the notion that we might just be the guilty ones. We need to let that worry us, and we need to wonder how any sin that hasn’t been defined for us or of which we’re not aware can possibly be unforgivable.
Now, when dealing with this passage, it’s all too easy to get caught up in our preconceived notions of what words like “demon,” “Beelzebub,” and “Satan” mean. Much of our unease with these terms comes through the filter of a century of bad horror movies. So I want to invite you to let go of the image of a man in a red jumpsuit, with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. We tend to make Satan either too tame or too terrifying. On the one hand, we might recruit the little red man to be our scapegoat, as in, “the devil made me do it.” On the other, we might come to think of Satan as a sort of anti-God—all-powerful and locked in an eternal struggle we don’t know who will win.
I don’t believe either of these things to be true. Rather, my experiences and knowledge lead me to understand Satan as whatever force in the world causes real destruction of human lives and relationships, but which is ultimately powerless in the face of love. Someone said to me once, “We know that evil is a real force, because it takes energy to resist it.” Amen to that. Even people who don’t believe in God are forced to acknowledge the reality of evil.
But the Christian counterclaim is that whatever war evil was waging, it has already lost. It takes audacity to look at all the evil in the real world—executions, molestations, natural disasters, greed, hoarding, terror, neglect, disease—and to claim that there’s an even realer world, sitting right on top of the one we usually see, in which all of these horrible, painful things actually come to nothing on the scales!
The force working against evil in the world is what we call the Holy Spirit. She doesn’t get much press. Her holiday, Pentecost, has yet to be discovered by marketers. Sometimes she leaps out from behind a bend in the road and shows us unimaginable beauty. At other times she puts people in our path and urges us to show them compassion and human connection. At times she brings us healing, comfort, or reassurance, against all evidence to the contrary. And sometimes she holds a mirror up to our actions and reveals them to be inexcusable, even when we thought we were carrying out some necessary evil for the sake of the greater good.
Grace is her artistic medium. Surprise is her secret weapon. She exposes what is evil and shouts it from the housetops. And, like it or not, chaos is her fertilizer.
Yes, chaos—not order—is the ground from which the Holy Spirit usually springs. Ever since that Day of Pentecost when many languages were heard and understood, as if the Tower of Babel had come crashing down and etymology were working in reverse, the Holy Spirit has thrilled to be at work in the wreckage of our lives. She shatters our carefully constructed categories.
Did you happen to catch the news story last week out of Phoenix? Hundreds of angry demonstrators carrying lots and lots of guns surrounded a mosque just before weekly worship—Christians behaving badly yet again!* So what did the Muslim worshippers do in response? They invited the protestors in to worship with them. Some of protestors took the Muslims up on their offer, too. One man told the press afterward: “They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe.” Another demonstrator, who had been wearing a deeply offensive T-shirt, was seen after worship shaking the hand of a Muslim and saying, “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt. I won’t wear it again.” These two men, at least, were open to the Holy Spirit, and boy, is she sneaky!
I believe it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit to look at the situation in Phoenix and say, “What we call the Holy Spirit cannot be at work in Islam. Therefore, no reconciliation actually happened there.” To say this is to limit the scope of God’s action, simply because we fear the consequences of not possessing the entire truth.
But it’s not fair to call out other people’s blasphemy and leave it at that. At this point I have to stop and ask, “Have I ever stood in the way of other people’s grace, comfort, and healing—ridiculed them instead of honoring them, simply because they worked against my limited understanding of the way the world works? Have I ever been guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” And I can barely finish the sentence before knowing that I have, of course I have, many times in my life. So what are the consequences?
Jesus tells us that such blasphemy is eternal and cannot be forgiven. But I don’t attribute that to God’s unwillingness to forgive. I think it’s about getting ourselves stuck. If we would rather ridicule the Holy Spirit than honor her work, how can we possibly accept forgiveness when she extends it to us? Yet such blasphemies do not define our entire lives. I may be guilty of an eternal sin, but I am also the recipient of so much love and forgiveness I don’t know what to do with it all. When I choose to rest in that love and forgiveness, instead of in the guilt of my past, I find that the Holy Spirit really is at work in me. And so I pray that my favorite sins, the ones I shield from God’s forgiveness, may be placed alongside God’s mercy. In short, I trust that there may yet be grace, because in my best moments I know that’s how God works!
If you have ever experienced the chaotic force that brings good out of evil, the Holy Spirit has brought grace to you. If you have ever been healed of an illness, the Holy Spirit has healed you. If you have ever been called up short, forced to acknowledge that you were wrong, and thus found your worldview expanded, like that tiny minority of protestors in Phoenix … that’s the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit is not safe, but she is good. She is not bound by the church, yet wherever she goes, she invites the church to be.
Wherever Satan sets up shop, the Holy Spirit breaks in and ties him up. She invades our homes, too, calling us beyond mere tribal loyalty into compassion for those to whom we bear no obvious obligation. She sees our urge for a monarchy, for a recognizable nation like other nations, for a king who will fight our wars for us, and she invites us beyond it into the mess of democracy. Then she sees the disintegration of our democracy through greed and anemic self-interest, and she calls us even beyond that into worlds we don’t yet understand. She throws conventional wisdom out the window and adopts a new blueprint, plans for building the Kingdom of God out of the ruins of over-functioning religion and human tragedy.
The Holy Spirit is holy trouble, trouble that may well leave our lives in a shambles. But then we will see that our carefully ordered lives were always a sham, that we have never been in control, and that we can breathe a little easier knowing that God’s vision is much larger.
I hope you hear today that the Holy Spirit really is at work in you, too, that God loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and that chaos and disorder do not contradict that basic fact. Satan’s house is plundered. The prison doors are open, and we are set free to follow the Holy Spirit wherever she may lead us. Amen.
* For the record, somebody did take me to task about this line. Were these Christians really behaving badly? They were operating within the bounds of the first and the second amendments of the Constitution. To which I reply, yes, I bet they were. But I would point out that there’s a huge difference between what is legal and what is moral. And it seems to me that showing up armed to the teeth and threatening worshippers of any religious community is just plain evil. That’s why the Holy Spirit went to work there.