The Caveat in Forgiveness
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 6/07/2015
Based on Mark 3:20-35
This past week I had the privilege of attending Dawn Skerritt’s graduation from Iliff. Seminarian graduations affect me much like weddings do most married couples attending a wedding. Although a wedding ceremony is a public declaration of commitment between two people, it also serves to remind those who are married of their continued commitment to one another. While attending the graduation allowed me to wonder down memory lane of my own graduation, it more importantly reminded me of the immense responsibility that comes with professional ministry. It reminded me once again of the privilege that as a minister I hold within the church community and within the larger community that I live.
For many years I use to identify myself as more of a Moses type person, leading my people around the wilderness of faith living. Yet, as a pastor of a congregation, one is more than a Moses, even though we dare not voice it. The pastor in many ways carries on the position that we read Jesus holding. Like Jesus, pastors find themselves surrounded with people in need, sometimes being so over whelmed with the needs of others, the pastor can’t find time for himself/herself, or as this morning’s text puts it, “unable to eat in peace.” Pastors are always being criticized for the way they do things, from the sermon to not doing enough; for bringing visions to the congregation that the congregation does like to the way they dress. The list goes on and on.
If that isn’t enough, the pastor often is second guessing him/herself. Am I a good leader? Am I teaching sound doctrine? Did I show enough empathy to the person I just encountered? Or worse, like in the movie, “Left Behind” will my congregation and I be those “Christians” not taken up in the rapture, because I was teaching a wrong doctrine? An interesting side note to the Billy Graham picture “The Prodigal”, the church used in that setting representing the liberal, ungodly, soft gospel message, was First Baptist Church of Seattle, where I was a member at one time. So maybe I do have rightful reasons to question what comes out of my mouth as to sound doctrine or heretical and blasphemous teachings.
This morning’s story once again shows how the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, were accusing him of blaspheme and of being of the devil. So great were these accusations that Jesus’ own family came to take him away because they felt that he was putting himself in danger and I suspect jeopardizing their own standing within the community as well. Jesus is obviously saying and doing things that are upsetting a lot of people. One of the most blasphemous teachings that Jesus was teaching at that point in his ministry was that “all sins and blasphemies were forgiven.” “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;…” This was scandalous news, for everyone knew that sins could only be forgiven by God and God was only found at the Temple in Jerusalem, and that there was a formula that had to be followed in order to receive this forgiveness. There had to be a sacrifice offered at the altar of God and words spoken by the priest before you were forgiven. Who is this man who says, “People will be forgiven their sins and even the blasphemies they speak?”
This should be of great comfort for ministers, to know that what they speak of wrongly shall be in the end, forgiven. But then comes the caveat to forgiveness. Jesus continues to say, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness…” Well, now I’m back in deep water, aren’t I? One of the most often asked questions of me as a minister comes from this one utterance from Jesus about what is the “unforgivable sin.” When most people are thinking about the “unforgivable sin”, they are not looking for a forgiveness that will bring inner peace, but rather are thinking in terms of exclusion from heaven. This is a logical thought process if you think of Jesus’ teachings as a guide book to get into “heaven”, and if you understand “heaven” solely as a place after death.
But if you think of Jesus’ teachings not as a guide book to getting into “heaven”, but rather as a way of living life in the “now”, then what implications does this caveat to forgiveness have? The state of un-forgiven does mean exclusion. When you are in a state of un-forgiven with your spouse, ie: being in the dog house, you are out of relationship in some degree. It is only by being forgiven that you are back in relationship and out of the dog house. As an example, when I am in the state of being “un-forgiven” with a member of this faith community, there is nothing I can do to alter that state. The forgiveness has to come from the one who is withholding forgiveness before I can be back into full relationship with that person.
So, what does it mean to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit?” There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on that. I have had people tell me that when they swear in God’s name, that they have blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Others say, “you have blasphemed the Holy Spirit when you deny the divinity of Jesus.” I think to help shed some light or confusion, depending on how you hear what I am about to say, I think we first need to understand how we “image” God.
Language is the best way we have to express our thoughts, but there are images and concepts that have no clear definition, so we use words as ways of creating images of those concepts. As we try to describe the essence of God, we have developed what we call a “Trinitarian” language describing God. We say God is “three persons in one”. We have divided God up to be 1) Creator, 2) savior through the person of Jesus, and 3) the constant companion to the faithful, as the person of Holy Spirit.
Out of this language to help us image God, we have inadvertently created images of separate beings. What would happen if we thought less of God in a traditional Trinitarian language and thought of all three of these as being different characteristics of God? What if God is not three separate beings, but that God’s nature is creating, is salvation (forgiving), and is a constant presence among and within us?
Marcus Borg suggests: the Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ (Ruach) means wind and breath. Both are invisible yet manifestly real. We cannot see the wind, though its presence and effects are felt; it moves without being seen. When it blows, it is all around us. Breath is like wind inside the body. For the ancient Hebrews (as for us), it was associated with life. Metaphorically, God as Spirit is both wind and breath, a nonmaterial reality outside of us and within us. Our breath is God breathing in us, and God is as near to us as our own breath. Speaking of God as Spirit, as both wind and breath, evokes both transcendence and nearness. The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg, pg 72
I understand Jesus to mean, when he says: non-forgiveness exists when one blasphemes the Holy Spirit, as denying the existence of God in our world. This means denying God’s vision for God’s creation. What is this denying of God’s vision? Jesus spent his ministry battling the evil of scarcity that exists in the form of domination systems that humanity almost always operates under, and spoke of the possibilities of distributive justice on earth, where there is abundance for all creatures. The blaspheme of the Holy Spirit comes with the perception that God is not in humanity or exists in nature, but that both are commodities to be exploited; as opposed to experiencing God in both nature and humanity and to be valued equally. Blaspheme of the Holy Spirit is acted out in our attitudes toward how we use our mother earth; it is acted out in how we dishonor diversity of cultures; it is acted out through the aggression of war. Blaspheme of the Holy Spirit is being out of relationship with God, of denying the possibilities that God has for his creation. That possibility is called distributive justice and mercy, of living into the possibilities of wholeness (salvation) of heaven on earth in this life.
Our image of God is import as it forms our theology and philosophies of how we approach life. If we image God as something distant and separate from creation and humanity, then we see ourselves as needing to live by rules to ensure “entrance” into that far off kingdom of God’s. If we see God as something that breaths within us and within creation, then we will not see rules for entrance, but rather precepts that help in living the here and now. In the image of God as being the breathe we breath, there existence the reality that all sins, and foolish thoughts and actions are forgiven. Blaspheme of the Holy Spirit isn’t in using God’s name in vain or denying Jesus as Lord, but in the denial of God’s breath within and among us. Amen.