Sunday 10 June 2018

Sin against the HolySpirit

Jesus is being mobbed like a rock star in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35)
He has been travelling around Galilee proclaiming the Good News and healing those who came to him, followed by crowds thronging to see this celebrity. Now he has returned home to the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Even there the crowds still press in on him, so that he and his disciples don’t have time even to eat, we are told.

But not all in the crowds support Jesus. In the reading we hear of two groups of people who want him to cease his ministry – first his family, and second a party of scribes from Jerusalem. Mark interweaves the stories of how Jesus responds to these two groups – a favourite device of his, sometimes described as a ‘Markian sandwich’.

The bread in the sandwich concerns his family. Back in Nazareth they were hearing news of what he was up to. He had given up the security of his family, and the carpenters business, for the life of a wandering preacher. They had heard how he was being mobbed, and no doubt feared that the authorities would seek to put him out of the way. He must have ‘gone out of his mind’, they thought – we must go to fetch him home and end this madness. So they set off to Capernaum, around 50km, say a 2 day’s journey on foot. We will hear what happens when they get there later.

The filling of the sandwich concerns the scribes from Jerusalem, members of the religious and civic establishment, which is threatened by Jesus’s popularity

The scribes are determined to undermine Jesus.
They cannot deny he has been healing the sick, since so many people have seen it. In those days it was believed that illness was caused by evil spirits – by demons. So they start to spread rumours about the source of Jesus’s healing power: ‘He has Beelzebul’ – the chief demon – ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.

Jesus understands very well what the scribes are about. He confronts them directly to their faces, dismissing their argument as a logical impossibility. ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’, he asks. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’.

Look at it this way, he says, ‘No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man’. Jesus turns the tables on the scribes by pointing out, ‘I am stronger than Satan because I have cast out Satan’.

Jesus has refuted the scribes’ claim that he is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’, not the Holy Spirit from God. Now he turns their words back on them. For the scribes to say that a spirit that comes from God is not good but evil is a blasphemy, an insult to God. It is the scribes whose spirits are unclean, not Jesus.  ‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘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’.

Over the centuries many Christians have been confused by this unforgiveable blasphemy, ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’. I understand it in this way. Our God-given conscience enables us to distinguish good from evil. People who cannot tell good from evil are conscience-blind. They are unable to recognise what is evil in themselves, so they cannot repent it. And without repentance they cannot be forgiven.

Sometimes Christians worry, fearing that they may be guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit and so can never be forgiven. But they worry unnecessarily, I believe - their very worry proves they are able to repent, so they aren’t guilty and can be forgiven.

So what happens when Jesus’s family reach Capernaum?
When his mother Mary and his brothers and sisters arrive, Jesus is inside the house teaching his disciples. His family sends a message for him to come out to them. He must have had a fair idea why they had come – perhaps they had previously sent messages from Nazareth asking him to come home.

Jesus asks rhetorically, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking about at his disciples, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’.

I wonder how his family felt when they heard what he had said. Did they feel hurt, spurned in favour of his disreputable band of disciples? The truth is that however much they loved him, and he loved them, his family had no right to try to make him forsake his mission.

We are not told what the family did then, but presumably they returned home to Nazareth, feeling chastened. Perhaps Mary remembered Jesus’s words recorded by Luke (2:49) when she and Joseph lost him as a child of 12 in Jerusalem, and found him after 3 days in the Temple: ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?’. But we do know that his mother Mary and his brother James did not cut themselves off from Jesus, but were faithful to him to the end, and perhaps the others too.

Mark’s sandwich story is about discernment, I think. I take two things from it.
First, Jesus has given us a tool to help us discern whether someone we encounter is motivated by a spirit of evil, as the scribes from Jerusalem were, so that we may confront and overcome the evil, as Jesus did, without violence. Any person whose conscience is so lacking that they cannot distinguish between good and evil must be motivated by a spirit of evil. They will not be able to repent the evil they do, and so they cannot be forgiven - their sin can only be eternal. Unless God intervenes, that is, because all things are possible with God - as St Paul, the persecutor of the Church, discovered on the road to Damascus.

Second, each one of us has the freedom in Christ to follow what we discern to be God’s call to us, our vocation, even if others including family and friends oppose it and say we are mad to do so. If I am certain of my call, I should be prepared to reject the intervention even of those whom I love and who love me. Equally, I should be very cautious of pressing others, even family members or a friends, not to follow what they believe is their vocation, as it may invite their rejection of me. This is not only good psychology, but acknowledges their right to hear and act on God’s call to them.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty and eternal God,
your Son Jesus triumphed over the prince of demons
and freed us from bondage to sin.
Help us to stand firm against every assault of Satan,
and enable us always to do Your will;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

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