That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: The Holy Spirit

Blasphemy, Belief, and the Power of the Holy Spirit

Right Hand of God

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.

What’s Church for?

A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, CT

Texts: I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Americans lie about how much they go to church.” So read a headline in this week’s Washington Post. The New York Times was a bit more circumspect: their headline simply stated “Americans Claim to Attend Church Much More Than They Do.” But both those stories—and many others in newspapers around the country—pointed to the same study, released last week, that noted something very interesting about the way Americans talk about their church attendance. In a survey conducted through live telephone conversations and self-administered online questionnaires, researchers found that Americans significantly exaggerated their level of religious participation when talking to another person than they did when answering a survey anonymously. This tendency was consistent across social, ethnic, and denominational boundaries, and was even true for the “nones”—that growing group of the American populace who claim no religious affiliation at all.

Now we all know what Mark Twain said about lies and statistics, and I’m not at all interested in spending the morning dissecting with you the most recent results of religious research. What I am interested in, however, is asking the question, “Why?” Why would people lie to complete strangers about the frequency of their church attendance? Why would folks exaggerate the regularity of their religious participation? Why, in our age of diminished denominations and increasingly irreligious popular culture, would people fib about their Sunday morning habits?

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning we attach to going to church. Even in a society rapidly shedding the trappings of Christendom, churchgoing remains a mark of a good, upstanding, decent, moral person. Now I say this neither to flatter all of you who are here in church on a Sunday morning nor to congratulate myself for choosing a career in the Church. Rather, what I mean to say is that even in a time when so many Americans are skeptical about the purpose and value of organized religion, the idea of going to church remains one of the markers of the kind of person most of us aspire to be. Church attendance is another box to check off on our long mental list of good behavior and respectability. And who among us doesn’t want to be considered decent and respectable? Who among us doesn’t want to win the admiration of our peers, the trust of our colleagues, and the love of our families? Who among us doesn’t want to be counted  a good man or woman? So if going to church is one of the ways to “get good,” well then why not go—or at least claim to go?

That desire to be counted good is so strong and so pervasive that it colors not only our perception of going to church, but even our reading of Scripture. Our lessons this morning are, in fact, very often interpreted along the same lines of the perceived benefits of churchgoing: as exhortations to goodness; as instruction manuals for earning the love of God. The drive to be counted good leaps at the words from First Peter as the Apostle urges his hearers to “Keep [their] conscience clear,” and to rejoice when they suffer for their “good conduct in Christ.” The desire to be counted good seizes upon our passage from John’s Gospel, and leads us to read Jesus’ words as if they were the procedure for a transaction: “If you love me”—and that “if” lands on our eager-to-justify ears with all the force of a loophole or a limited-time offer—“If you love me, keep my commandments.” “If you want to prove you’re mine,” Jesus seems to say, “then follow my rules.” It’s as if we hear our Scripture today affirming what some deep whisper in our world has already taught us: “Come to church, be a good person, and God will love you.” Our drive to be thought of as good—our desire to be counted decent, moral, and upstanding by other people—is so strong that this formula has enormous appeal. And why not? For who among us doesn’t want to be counted good?

But the problem with all this way of thinking, beloved, is that it doesn’t work. After all, consider that the respondents to the church attendance study weren’t actually going to church: the desire to be counted good was strong enough to make them lie to strangers, but not strong enough to make them go on a Sunday morning. But what if they had gone? Consider what we know of the Church’s own checkered history: the pervasive sins of pride and arrogance, of uncharity and the love of this world and its trappings, that show their firm grip in every corner of the Christian world, and have caused thousands to turn away in disgust from an institution so profoundly incapable of keeping the commandments we claim. Or consider, dear people, ourselves. Here we are all assembled: the people who actually do come to church on a Sunday morning. Do we dare count ourselves better than our friends and neighbors driving by those doors on the Post Road? Do we presume to commend ourselves for our righteous behavior and our abundant generosity? Do we honestly think that whatever goodness that may accrue to us in the eyes of other people because of our churchgoing is something true and authentic and deep in our being?

Perhaps some of you can answer “yes” to those questions. I confess that I cannot. Coming to church week in and week out does not confirm me in my goodness: it convicts me in my hypocrisy. To stand in this pulpit when it is my privilege to preach to you does not inspire me with morality and authority; it fills me with trepidation and anxiety that I shall be exposed, and revealed, and shown to be what I really am: a poor sinner, whose own human desire to be counted good is constantly and continually overwhelmed by appetites and passions, by rash words and unguarded thoughts, by gloomy doubts and faithless fears. To preside at that altar as we offer our thanks to Almighty God and receive the transforming gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood at his hands does not sate and satisfy my deep hunger for goodness: it reminds me, each and every time, how far my own weak love is from the deep love that is here remembered, enacted, and shared.

But what if, all along, we have been operating under a false notion of what churchgoing is all about? What if the point of coming to church is not, in fact, to be counted good in the eyes of other people? What if the purpose of gathering on a Sunday morning were not, indeed, one ceaseless effort to earn the love of God?

Beloved, hear again the words of the Apostle Peter this morning: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is no exhortation to goodness—no appeal to a squeaky clean conscience. This is the announcement that Christ Jesus our Lord—the One who was counted good not simply in the eyes of fellow humans but in the eternal reckoning of God the Father—suffered and died not for the sake of the decent, and the moral, and the upstanding, and the good people of this world, but for the unrighteous: for the folks who don’t come to church each week, and the folks who do come, but who come with fear and trembling, knowing the depth of their lowliness and the gnawing power of their need: for you, and for me.

That astonishing announcement flashes out of the waters of baptism, to which we will come shortly. This little baby does not know what will soon befall him. He has not come here seeking it, and there is nothing he can do to earn it. But what we see at work at this font today is not the human drive to achieve goodness, but God’s unending purpose to draw us to himself. What we see in this font today is not the pretension of perfection but the grace of transformation; not the love of God earned but the love of God poured out abundantly, freely, prodigally, graciously.

And this is the true meaning of the love proclaimed to us by Jesus in John’s Gospel this morning. Banish from your minds and hearts any effort to turn our Lord’s words into a checklist or a condition for earning God’s favor. For what is the new commandment that he has given to us his people? We hear it in the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

“As I have loved you.” This is the key. For how has he loved us? Behold, dear people, the Cross! Jesus’ new commandment and the words he speaks this morning echo down to us from the night before he suffered and died. The Cross is our measuring stick and our signpost for the love of God. The Cross is the supreme and eternal answer to the question, “How has he loved us?” The Cross is our banner and our marching orders.

And in the light of the Cross, we see that Jesus’ words to us today are not a condition for earning his love, but a description of the transforming power of his love poured out for us on Calvary. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says, knowing that whatever love we bear for him come from him and carries us back to him, the source and summit of all love. For not only does the Cross announce to us God’s great love for the ungodly—God’s willingness that the righteous should die to save the unrighteous—but this day we learn that in and through that love, you and I are being caught up into the very life of God: lifted by the gift of the Holy Spirit into the abiding love of the Father and the Son, for “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

This, at last, is what Church is for, beloved. We come, not as upstanding people confirmed in our decency, but as wandering sinners transformed by his love. We come, not that friends and neighbors may extol our goodness, but that we might sing our grateful praise of the righteous One who died for the unrighteous. We come, not because we are seeking God, or even because we have found him, but because we were sought out and found by Christ Jesus. We come, because he calls.