The Rector’s sermon for June 10, 2018     


1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1; Mark 3:20-35


I used to think that things posted on social media have gotten very much out of hand.  But as far back as 2007, a fad was going around that was over-the-top.  It was prompted by some prominent atheists.  According to an article published by ABC News, a movement called the “Rational Response Squad” issued the “Blasphemy Challenge.” It was based on a literal reading of Mark 3:29: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  People began making videos of themselves saying that they denied the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit and God did not exist. These videos were then posted to YouTube or other sites and promoted by the Rational Response Squad.  Religious leaders were up in arms that this fad was advertised and posted in teen magazines as well. 


Perhaps most frustrating about this whole thing is that it is a total misinterpretation of Jesus’ words. He wasn’t speaking to 21st-century teenagers when he spoke those words.  As with many teachings in Scripture, this verse is part of a longer account and shouldn’t be taken out of context.  Perhaps that’s why no theologian or scholar has dared to name a specific unforgiveable sin.  In this passage, some people are trying to figure out exactly what to make of Jesus.  “He has gone out of his mind,” one group says. “He has Beelzebul,” another says, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  What makes these unkind assumptions worse is that they are given by those who really ought to know better.


The first opinion, that Jesus is crazy, was spoken by the crowd but quickly believed, it seems, by his own family.  They grew up with him.  They should have known him the best, but apparently not.  The second pronouncement, that he has a demon, comes from the scribes. They knew the scriptures. They should have known him too.  Earlier in this chapter, we do hear someone accurately describing who Jesus is.  And do you know who it was?   It was the realdemons who declared, “You are the Son of God!” as they were being cast out of those they had possessed, because—Scripture says—“the kingdom of God had come near.”  As is typical with the nearness of the kingdom of God, those who should have understood, didn’t, and those we’d consider least likely to understand had it all figured out.


There are a reasons why “those who should know” were so clueless.  In Moses’ time when God talked about Pharaoh’s “hardened heart,” today we would call it “hard-headed”.  We have our own ideas of how things should be, for whatever reason, and we’re not willing to budge even when the evidence is staring us right in the face.  In fact, we begin to try to explain away what we can plainly see.  Many have tried to explain what the unforgiveable sin of denying the Holy Spirit really is, and here’s another possibility:  could the unforgiveable sin be when we start attributing the power of God to the work of demons?


To deny the power of God within Jesus, to call the work of the Holy Spirit the work of the devil — these are signs of unshakable ignorance.  If faith in Jesus as the Son of God is the prerequisite for salvation, then denying the work of the Spirit within him is a fundamental rejection of the salvation being offered.  The scribes and others, who were attributing the work of Jesus to demons — in effect equating the Holy Spirit with Satan — were the ones committing an unforgivable sin.  Their hardness of heart was keeping them from seeing the Truth standing right in front of them.  Those teens posting YouTube videos saying they denied the Holy Spirit were, most likely, just misguided.  And going a step further, hopefully those kids, with God’s help, might later have encountered someone who shared the gospel with them. If that happened, and if they then accepted Jesus’ claim on their lives, their sins would be forgiven.


Luckily, the Blasphemy Challenge is no longer a fad, but there is much that doesn’t change.  Teenagers, like most of us, really, are always looking to belong.  Perhaps instead of focusing on what may or may not constitute an “eternal” sin, we could look closer to the end of this chapter of Mark.  Here, Jesus describes how the kingdom of God radically reorients our relationships.  We already saw earlier how Jesus’ family had approached and, the text says, attempted to restrain him, because of the fear that he had “gone out of his mind.”   We don’t know if that family was his mother, brothers or sisters.  But in today’s passage, the crowd identifies them as his mother, brothers and sisters and Jesus responds with what sounds like a very cold comment: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


This may sound harsh, but we know that if Jesus’ family was indeed hurt, there was forgiveness and reconciliation between those family members.  How do we know that?  Because we know that Mary was with the disciples in the the upper room at Pentecost and his brothers James and Jude became leaders in the church.  Those facts bear witness to the power of the forgiveness Jesus won for all of us on the cross.  If his family doubted him in the beginning, they were able to overcome it and they entered into a new relationship with him after the resurrection.  This fact is a reflection of the new relationship we can have with the Lord as well; we can go from being people separated from him by sin to being people he is able to call ‘brother, sister, even mother’!


Francis of Assisi wrote a document called “Letter to the Faithful” in which he takes up this theme of being Jesus’ family, including the intriguing concept of being “spouses” of Jesus: “We are spouses when the faithful soul is united by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers, moreover, when we do the will of His Father Who is in heaven; mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through love and a pure and sincere conscience; and give Him birth through a holy activity, which must shine before others by example.”


This section from Mark, then, is about so much more than who is excluded from Jesus’ family.  It is about inclusion. The fishermen Jesus appointed as his apostles are there.  So are the formerly demon-possessed people, whose demon-tormentors proclaimed him as Son of God.  And his biological family will get there, too, eventually.  And those teens on YouTube could be there as well.  Maybe even the atheists who put them up to the Blasphemy Challenge.  Jesus Himself said there is room for all in the family of God.  The key is:  to do the will of God.  John spells out what this looks like in his gospel:  “This is indeed the will of my Father,” Jesus says, “that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  Seeing the Son, believing in him — this is what it means to do the will of God, and it leads to eternal life.


As Francis of Assisi points out, though, it is also about how we live our lives here and now.  Being part of Jesus’ family means showing love through actions that shine before others.  It is a life that focuses on what we hold in common, that we are sinners saved by grace, rather than focusing on what divides us. For those who are searching for more in their lives, looking for purpose and a place to belong, this is the good news of salvation, preached to allpeople.  


Those who have rejected the message of Christianity to such an extent that they are willing to go on the internet and proclaim it to the world are likely rejecting more their own concept of Christianity as opposed to rejecting the Holy Spirit.  Faithful Christians, living out their familial relationship with Jesus and one another in love, can and should shatter those misconceptions.  Only God knows their hearts, and he will judge accordingly.  It’s our responsibility to seek out such persons, lead them to faith and include them into the family of God.


Let us, then, be on our guard.  May our words and actions seek to include and not exclude, to do God’s will in acts of humble service.  May our lives be such that there is undeniable, compelling evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.  And may we be the presence of Jesus to all those who are seeking a place in the family.

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