Sermon; Proper 5B; Mark 3:20-35
Jesus said, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This seems exceedingly harsh, especially coming from someone who talks about loving your neighbor and welcoming the outcast. So let's talk about sin.
Origen basically says that the apostles, and us by virtue of our baptism, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been filled with the presence of the living God by that Spirit. So while Jesus gives us an example of how to live in a right relationship with God, the Holy Spirit is the very real presence of God in us. One can therefore sin against the example (Jesus), but to sin against the Holy Spirit is to turn our backs on the very thing that gives us life. By doing that, Origen says, we have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, committed apostasy, and will never receive forgiveness.
Novatian, a priest in the 3rd Century with a very interesting history, concurred saying that it is the Holy Spirit who gives life, binding us to God. To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to toss aside our holy bindings, remove ourselves from God's holy embrace, and reject God's teaching in favor of a self-centered way of life. It is this rejection of all that is holy which leads to the lack of forgiveness.
These two Church fathers put into words what many have wondered: Is there no forgiveness for blaspheming against the Holy Spirit? Many hellfire and damnation sermons have railed against this particular sin and have dutifully, if not gleefully, opened the gates of hell to usher in those who have committed that sin.
I can almost hear them now: “We worship a loving, patient God. But even God has a breaking point and those who have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit have crossed that line. It is they who will suffer the eternal consequences. It is you who are damned to hell for grieving the Holy Spirit.”
I don't know about you, but there was a time when I worried about whether or not I had committed that unforgivable sin. I worried whether or not I was on my way to hell. I worried if I had somehow unintentionally offended the Holy Spirit and would suffer those eternal consequences.
Then someone said to me, “If you are worried about whether or not you have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit and committed that unforgivable sin, you most likely haven't.” That is to say that worrying about it tells me you're too concerned about it to actually commit that sin. This isn't one of those unknown sins we commit, or a sin of omission. This is something we do intentionally to remove God from our lives.
If that makes you feel better, then consider the words of St. Augustine: “It is not that this was a blasphemy which under no circumstances could be forgiven, for even this shall be forgiven if right repentance follows it.”
Augustine basically says that there is no unforgivable sin, provided there is an effort at right repentance.
Forgiveness is a gift that is given to someone who has harmed or injured you in some significant way. Forgiveness is a way of saying that the other person no longer has power over you, and that you are allowing both parties to move on with their lives. And because it is a gift, nobody should ever be forced to forgive another person, because as we all know, that really isn't forgiveness.
Sometimes forgiveness comes as an un-asked-for gift. Sometimes it is in response to repentance, as Augustine alludes to. But even if it's in response to an act of repentance, forgiveness is always a gift. If forgiveness is a gift, which I think it is – what better gift to give to someone who has harmed you than to honestly forgive them? – then I think that puts an interesting spin on these words of Jesus from today's gospel passage.
Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness. It doesn't say that they can never be forgiven; it says that they can never HAVE forgiveness. I talked about this with Dcn. Sue's Zoom-group study on Mark recently, so I apologize to them for the redundancy.
They can never HAVE forgiveness. Remember, I said true forgiveness is a gift. It is a precious, valuable, rare gift given to someone who has harmed or injured you in a significant way. It is a gift that says we will not be bound or identified by past actions. The person to whom that gift is being given has two choices – they can either accept that gift, or they can refuse that gift.
Channeling my inner Forrest Gump here, “Forgiveness is like a chocolate cake.”
If you harm or injure me in such a way that forgiveness on my part is needed, that forgiveness is the chocolate cake. I forgive you, accept this cake as a symbol of my forgiveness. Accept this gift as a symbol of moving forward. If you accept the gift, you have the cake. If you don't, you don't. By not accepting the gift, you cannot move forward in our relationship. By not accepting the gift, you will be forever bound by the past.
By not accepting the gift of forgiveness, you can never HAVE forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often a two-way street on the front end where repentance is offered as a path to forgiveness and healing. Forgiveness is also a two-way street on the back end where the path to healing is begun by accepting the gift – by having it.
Augustine was right: even this will be forgiven if right repentance is made. To have forgiveness of the Holy Spirit, or anyone for that matter, we who have offended must be willing to accept the gift.
Let us never refuse the gift of forgiveness, and let us never keep ourselves eternally separated from the presence of God.