Blasphemy, Belief, and the Power of the Holy Spirit
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
The Right hand of God Driving out Demons
From The Office of the Holy Spirit, vêpre, The Hours of Etienne Chevalier
A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 7, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As I looked out on the congregation while our lessons were being read this morning, I saw surprisingly few squirms–few indications that what you were hearing was making you uncomfortable. I’m glad for that, I suppose, though it does make me just a little concerned that you may not have been listening.
Our passages this morning are difficult: the curse pronounced in Genesis Chapter 3; Paul’s stirring, strange words in 2 Corinthians; and finally Jesus’ troubling words in Mark Chapter 3.
“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.”
Surely there are few passages of Scripture that have caused greater fear and anxiety than these verses of Mark. Because of Jesus’ statement, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has come to be called “the unforgivable sin.” The terrible finality of that description—the awful assertion that there is indeed a sin that can put us ultimately and irrevocably beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness—is almost too dreadful to contemplate. Perhaps some of you have for years worried and wondered: “Have I committed the unforgivable sin?” Perhaps some of you have heard Jesus’ words today for the first time, and are even now asking yourselves with horror, “Have I blasphemed against the Holy Spirit?”
From the outset, let’s make something quite clear. Jesus is not here speaking of a mere slip-of-the-tongue, like the accidental and almost reflexive blasphemies we utter on a regular basis. Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost has nothing to do with the words we might mutter or shout after dropping a dish in the kitchen, or striking our thumb with a hammer, or even losing our patience with another driver on the highway.
Those blasphemies—the swears and cuss words for which our parents would scold us and maybe wash out our mouths with soap—are sins because they break the 3rd Commandment. They take the name of God the Father or the Lord Jesus Christ—names which should only be spoken with reverence—and dishonor and degrade them, reducing them into exclamations and expletives, curses with which to vent our anger or our surprise. Make no mistake, these are indeed sins. Each instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain is a serious failure to recognize and regard the surpassing holiness of our God—a serious failure to keep his commands.
But Jesus makes clear that, in God’s surpassing mercy, these blasphemies can and will be forgiven. We will not forever face the consequences of our own thoughtlessness and our own vulgarity, thanks be to God.
What, then, is different about the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost? What makes the unforgivable sin unforgivable?
If we would understand Jesus’ strange and difficult words today, we must consider the context of his comment. I mean this in two senses. I mean we must consider the context of Jesus’ statement about blasphemy against the Holy Ghost within the whole of Mark’s Gospel. And beyond that, we must consider the context of this passage from Mark’s Gospel within the whole of the New Testament.
Our passage this morning comes from the early part of Jesus’ ministry as described in the Gospel of Mark. Only two chapters ago, Jesus burst onto the Galilean scene announcing that “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Good News.” From that moment, he has not ceased to enact his own announcement—to demonstrate through his teaching and through his deeds the imminent, in-breaking Kingdom of God. He has been doing things—astonishing things like casting out demons and healing people on the Sabbath—and saying things—outrageous things like “Son, your sins are forgiven you,” and “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners”—that have made him something of a celebrity. People flock to him. The crowd swarming around him is so great that he and his disciples cannot even find time and space to eat.
And with celebrity comes controversy. Clearly a great many people are drawn to Jesus’ message—even drawn to Jesus’ presence. But many other people are also upset and offended by what he does and what he says. By this point in Mark’s Gospel, some of the scribes and Pharisees—those fastidious keepers of the Old Testament Law of Moses and the religious professionals of the day—have begun to challenge Jesus, to question Jesus, even to push back against Jesus. To be sure, he has already met resistance.
But today, for the first time, resistance changes into outright rejection. Today, for the first time, those who have been shocked and surprised and maybe even a little outraged by what Jesus does and says now presume to pronounce their own crushing judgment on his life and ministry. “‘He is possessed by Beelzebub,’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out the demons,’” say the scribes who have come down from Jerusalem. “Unclean!” shout those authorities on ritual cleanliness in the face of the Fount of all purity. “Evil!” announce the students of the Scriptures as they scrutinize the works of the Author of all goodness. “Demonic! Dark! Damnable!” declare those supposed servants of the God of Israel as they stand before their Lord in the flesh.
This rejection is the essential context for understanding Jesus’ words about blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. It is not that the scribes and Pharisees can’t see who Jesus is—it is that they won’t see. It is not that they have failed to understand what he is doing—it is that they refuse to understand. It is not simply that they have resisted, or doubted, or misspoken in what they say about Jesus. As I said a moment ago, this is not about a slip-of-the-tongue. This is about sustained, determined, clenched-fist, shut-eyed, spitting, hating, profound, protracted rejection of the Lord Jesus, and of the work that he does through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The religious authorities of Jesus’ day have looked light square in the face and called it darkness. They have beheld hope with their own eyes and they have called it despair. They have met their rescuer, their deliverer, their promised savior, and they have accused him of being in league with their enemy, their oppressor, their captor.
And this realization points us to the larger context—the place of Mark’s Gospel as a whole within the writings of the New Testament—which we must grasp if we will understand Jesus’ warning today. In company with all the other New Testament writers, Mark had a clear and uncompromising view of this cosmos: a view that many people today find very difficult—perhaps even repugnant. The authors of the New Testament understood this earth to be occupied territory. They saw this planet as ground held by the enemy. They knew this world to be ruled by a strong man—a usurper—a tyrant.
The people who wrote our Scriptures believed that the world in which we live is a world dominated by the Devil—by spiritual forces opposed to God—by powers of wickedness intent on corrupting and destroying the creatures of God—by self-destructive desires and self-consuming appetites—by Sin—by Death.
This is the view we find in all three Synoptic Gospels—St Matthew, St Mark, and St Luke—where Jesus routinely does battle with the only creatures who immediately recognize him for who he truly is, casting out demons and exorcizing those who were possessed.
This is the view we find in St John’s soaring Gospel. Though it is true that John does not describe any exorcisms, it is also true that John’s Gospel can speak so powerfully of “the light shining in the darkness” only because he did not shrink from facing that darkness head on. It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus, on the eve of his crucifixion, speaks of that approaching trial as “the judgment of this world,” and assures his followers: “Now the ruler of this world is driven out.”
This is the view of St Paul the Apostle who, in his many letters to young Christian communities, sets forth his understanding of the Church as a new nation “rescued from the kingdom of darkness” and transferred “from the power of the prince of the air” into the household and family of God.
This is the view we find at last in the in the final book of the Bible, the great Revelation made to St John of Patmos. In the Book of Revelation, the veil is drawn back on the world as we know it, and the Church is granted a wonderful, terrible vision of the everlasting battle taking place around us and within us, though we realize it not.
Make no mistake, beloved: the Word of God reveals to us a view of this world as a vast battlefield. You and I are at the center of this cosmic conflict. We are the treasure, the goods, the plunder in dispute. We are the property of God unjustly held by the Devil. And unless a stronger one comes, there is no hope of us getting back to our rightful owner.
This is why blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is so serious. This is why the unforgivable sin has been called unforgivable. For to reject the power of God at work in this world—to look upon the Spirit of the Living God and to call him the Devil—is to reject and despise the only possible basis for forgiveness in this world. It is to call medicine poison—to call joy sorrow—to call life death.
And it is to do all of this out of fear. It’s the fear of coming into the presence of a holy God, just as Adam and Eve were afraid and hid themselves in the Garden. It’s the fear of losing our power and status, just as the scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus were afraid. It’s fear of turning away from this visible world we believe we can control and manipulate to face the unseen, eternal reality we cannot grasp and cannot command. Finally, it’s fear of acknowledging the grim truth that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves—fear of what God is doing in the world and is doing in us.
But over and against all of our fears and resistance stands the everlasting promise of Mark’s Gospel–and of the whole of Scripture. Over and against our trepidation and anxiety about the Holy Spirit comes the announcement that that Spirit moves freely and mightily in this world. Over and against our uncertainty and our indecision—our wondering and our worrying—our fretting and our foolishness—comes the assurance that a Stronger One has indeed come to help us.
The rightful ruler of this world has come and dwelt among us in flesh like ours. He has battered down the strong man’s door with the mighty weakness of his cross. He has bound the strong man of this world with the cords of his humility and his works and words of mercy. He has plundered the strong man’s ill-gotten treasure as he burst forth from the tomb. And he has made us free.
Beloved, may we never live in fear of unforgivable sins, or in fear of what God is doing in the world. For the Holy Spirit of the Living God dwells in us, convicting us, cleansing us, purging us, remaking us. The process by which we are made holy will not always be comfortable. But it will always be to our good and to God’s glory. Though we will often resist it and chafe against it, may we be given the humility and the grace never to reject it.
For God’s power is on the march. God’s presence is here among us. God’s purpose by his Holy Spirit is to throw open the doors of the prison, to break apart the chains of our bondage, to lead us out into everlasting light. Amen.