June 8, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Mark 3.20-end, Trinity 1, Eucharist
Forgiveness in a Culture of Fakery
‘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’.
No forgiveness is possible for anyone blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.
That’s the hard truth from Christ we’ll face today by thinking about culture.
You may know that the Cathedral has recently undergone a Safeguarding audit. The first draft of the auditors’ report reassures us that we’re on the right track, but stresses that the aim is to establish and guard a safeguarding culture.
Culture was once famously defined as, ‘what we do around here’ – the norms and expectations which direct our behaviour in often unconscious ways, the framework in which we decide what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
A friend was telling me how he challenged group of young picnickers, who were just leaving all their litter behind, to take their stuff away with them. They did so grudgingly, leaving one plastic bottle behind as an act of defiance, he said.
These young people saw nothing wrong with leaving litter behind, rather it was being challenged that was unacceptable.
The same thing about false culture applies as much to adults.
It’s going to be hard to change the culture about parking in the Inner Close, where adults, by no means all with any connection to the cathedral, routinely bend the rules to their own convenience; but we’re all going to have to change our habits and expectations if we’re going to restore the Inner Close as a place of beauty and tranquillity, and do our bit for creation, which we know full well our cars are damaging.
‘What we do around here’, our culture, is something we only think about when it is challenged. And that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in the hard saying we’ve heard.
The scribes who’ve come down from Jerusalem know that Jesus has been casting out demons, or as we might see it, liberating people from mental and spiritual oppression. A good thing, anyone would think, especially if they took the view of the crowd.
The scribes were more suspicious, though: healing is not necessarily bad if done in the right way; but what if this good is actually masking evil, a mass deception in fact? What if this seeming good was, in truth, a conspiracy?
Now remember: this this was all a tremendously long time ago and these ‘primitive’ people, unlike we enlightened and modern thinkers, tended to believe in conspiracy theories, even without a shred of evidence to support them.
Given the culture of these scribes, where all authority came from their reading of the Mosaic Law and the traditions of interpretation that had grown around it, it was obvious that an unauthorised healing programme must be fake, and behind it must lie the prince of all fakery, Satan.
It doesn’t take much for Jesus to unmask the inconsistency here: why would Satan be in the business of releasing people from the grip of Satan? You’d be reduced to saying that Satan is deceiving many people by healing some. You’d be in a hall of mirrors where deception was used to achieve a greater deception, namely, tricking people into believing that the impostor Jesus was from God.
Incidentally, St Mark has tied off that way of thinking earlier in his gospel where, immediately after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by Satan and Jesus emerges unscathed, waited on by angels.
Anyway, in response to the scribes’ hypothesis that good is coming from evil, Jesus offers the straightforward explanation that good is overcoming evil; that he, Jesus, is bringing God’s kingdom, just as he announced at the start of his ministry, and that these releases of ordinary people from oppression are signs that the rule of God is near. It all adds up.
But for the scribes, this cannot possibly be true, because Jesus, though he seems to have authority or power – it’s the same word in Greek – is not a scribe, an authorised person, an accredited agent of God’s holy Law.
And this is the context for Jesus’ utterance:
‘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’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
To be within reach of forgiveness you can’t have both feet in the camp of unholiness, with your mind set on calling black white and white black – determined to exclude truth which would upset our presuppositions and prejudice. There’s just no room for forgiveness in a life of such consistent un-truth.
And it’s a stern warning, because it’s human nature to start believing our own lies and self-justifications. For instance, in some safeguarding cases, those convicted in a court of law of abuse and therefore proven guilty of terrible crimes, have over the years convinced themselves that they are the victims and their victims the ones to blame.
And it’s a stern warning to our contemporary culture where we think of truth claims and power bids as really one-in-the-same thing, so that any claim to truth, especially if made by a so-called expert, is met with suspicion, a conspiracy against ordinary people who’ve read one or two things on Twitter.
We could easily get it a tangle here about truth and power, so let me abandon cultural analysis and offer instead a personal process to embrace forgiveness.
The opposite of blaspheming against the Holy Spirt is discerning and obeying the Holy Spirt – to let the truth borne by the Spirit form us and dwell within us. As it says in another gospel, the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth.
If we want to avoid the risk of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, then the way forward is allowing God’s Spirit more into our lives.
False thinking prevents us from doing this – the illusions that we can decide our own destiny, can judge our own best interests, can construct our own spiritualities, or at the other extreme belong to a group where all our beliefs, values and choices are decided for us. None of this is discerning and obeying Holy Spirit.
Many things might be said about life in the Spirit; but let me offer two questions to test whether we’re on the right tract. The first is, when did you last change your mind – especially about a prejudice or preconception? That is what the confession invites in our liturgy when we pray: ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit’.
The second question is: when did you last feel truly aligned with the good, in all its glory? That is the only true freedom we can ever have, to have joy in doing good and being good, sharing in God’s holiness by his gift.
So I think that Jesus’ hard saying about forgiveness is a warning about living in a fake culture where we cannot recognise and welcome truth when we meet it. Conspiracy theorists are partly right: truth does not always flow through the accredited, authorised channels; nonetheless, there is truth, all truth, in the Holy Spirit, to grow into – a fullness and an emptiness which many here will know in their own experience, and which we see in Christ, in whom we find the strength to flee far from the fakery that would make forgiveness entirely impossible.