June 7, 2015

Proper 5, Year B

Genesis 3:8-15

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Mark 3:20-35


That One Thing

A friend of mine grew up in a Dutch Reformed church, and attended a Roman Catholic high school. During weekly Mass, he couldn't receive communion, but he went up the altar, crossed his arms, and received a blessing from the priest, just as you can do at Grace if you don't wish to receive the bread or wine. One week at Mass, my friend came up to the altar as usual. The priest somehow skipped him, and a student administering the cup of wine kept trying to give him the cup, but my friend crossed his arms whispered insistently, "Bless me, bless me!" She gave him a shocked look and moved on.

Later that day, the school principal called my friend to his office and asked him to explain his behavior at Mass. My friend was confused until the principal finally explained the charges: "Why did you come to communion and say, 'Blasphemy, blasphemy!'"

This story is based on a misunderstanding, but it gets to the heart of how disconcerting it is to be accused of blasphemy. We're not always sure what exactly blasphemy is . . . but whatever it is, it's bad. And today's gospel passage leaves no doubt as to the seriousness of blasphemy.

When I read today's Scripture readings, I found it hard to look at anything beyond these frightening words from Jesus in Mark's gospel: "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." These words kind of eclipse anything the other readings have to say. These words also make it hard to hear the good news in the words that immediately precede them. Jesus starts off saying, "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter." But then Jesus adds that exception: "but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."

Even in other contexts, it's tempting to overlook Jesus's stunning and comprehensive proclamation of forgiveness, and to focus instead on what seems unforgivable. We wonder, what crimes are so terrible that there's no hope for rehabilitation? We wonder, what offenses are so grave that we can only shame and cast out those who commit them? And we wonder, what forms of evil or apathy are beyond the reach of God's love or the scope of salvation?

In today's gospel, Jesus names only one: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But . . . what exactly is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? It seems really important that we know exactly what it is so that we don't do it . . . or say it . . . or think it . . . however it's committed. I've found myself wondering from time to time whether I've already blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, in which case there's nothing I can do now, nor is there anything Christ can do for me. Perhaps I've already done the eternal, unforgivable thing.

Just to get this matter out of the way, I want to describe what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit seems to mean in the context of today's gospel. As we see from the gospel scene, Jesus's own family and the scribes are bringing forward some of the classic ways of misunderstanding the identity and mission of Jesus. His family says, "He has gone out of his mind." The scribes, for their part, have two possible explanations for the powers of Jesus: either Jesus is possessed by a demon, or Jesus is a direct agent of Satan himself. When Jesus says, "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness," the gospel says that he's responding to the specific claim of those who have said, "He has an unclean spirit." So there seems to be a general consensus among commentators that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit means attributing Jesus' power and authority to Satan rather than to the Holy Spirit who alighted on Jesus at his baptism. One commentator describes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as "the failure to discern the Spirit's presence in Jesus' ministry." So, it seems that as long as we don't see Jesus as a tool of a demon or an agent of Satan, we're good. I hope we can all breathe a little easier.

Yet, even after doing  a little digging into the definition of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," I'm not entirely at ease.

Here's what still has me troubled: The attitude that there must be at least something that we shouldn't do, that puts us beyond the pale. The obsession with identifying one horrible thing that we should completely avoid. The fixation on finding at least something that is unforgivable, and then using it to reject others . . . or to condemn ourselves.

The attitude that there must be at least one eternally unforgivable thing appears in our Scriptures and in our conversations. Christians worry about whether our inability to forgive others, our theological uncertainties, our method of baptism, our marital status, or something else excludes us from forgiveness, grace, and eternal life.

How many monkey wrenches, caveats, and escape clauses for God can we throw into the good news? They often start with the word "but." In today's gospel, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter." So, it seems a bit self-contradictory of Jesus to follow this up with a "but." Didn't he just say, "whatever blasphemies they utter"? Likewise, God in the garden of Eden said, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat." There it is again: that seemingly self-contradictory "but". God just said, "You may freely eat of every tree . . . but . . ." of just one tree they shouldn't eat.

I'll be honest: I'm not quite sure what to make of these "buts", with which God or Jesus seems to take back a promise of enormous freedom or forgiveness. Do these exceptions reflect our resistance to God's complete offer of goodness and grace? Or are they simply and truly the means that God embeds in the orders of creation and salvation to measure our trust and faithfulness?

Either way, perhaps our task is not to let these "but" clauses dilute or drown out the immense goodness and good news that God has offered us in our created world and in Christ: "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter." Let no further words or fears undermine the goodness of this news or keep it from our ears.