The following sermon was preached by Andrew Kuhl at Wine Before Breakfast on March 14, 2023
I want you to imagine for a moment, a list of things that you think God will not forgive. Maybe the list that you had in mind before hearing today’s reading.
There are many things that we might think are unforgiveable. Violence, Neglect, Destruction of the planet, or maybe leaving the milk bag empty in the milk jug and leaving it in the fridge. Or forgetting to put your dishes back in the dishwasher. You know the Big things that grieve us deeply.
I don’t know what you imagined, but I want you to hold onto that list for a bit and we will re-examine it, in the perspective from our reading today.
Today in our Gospel Reading, Jesus makes it abundantly clear,
“I speak from my heart, humankind will be released from all their wrongdoing and evil speaking, but whoever speaks evil of the Holy Spirit will not be released. This wrongdoing will follow them into the world to come and to the end of all days.” Mark 3:28-29 (First Nations Version)
“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.” Mark 3:28-29 NRSV
That is the extensive list of unforgiveable sins.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
How many of you had that on your list?
And maybe it isn’t one that comes across our minds very often, because we approach it with the sense of as long as I don’t bad mouth the Spirit, or if I keep a reasonable amount of skepticism about the revival in Asbury, and hedge my bets about the Super Bowl advertisements and who is sponsoring them, and as long as I don’t curse her in my mind. Then, I am not really blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
Or it perhaps feels a bit absurd. An accusation of a thought crime, one that can provoke a significant amount of anxiety if we don’t understand it properly, because Who doesn’t have doubts and who wouldn’t speak against the Spirit before they know God.
But I think it is more than that.
This saying is important enough to be here in our Gospel passage, and it appears in both Luke and Matthew. And in other early church writings (like the Didake and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas). Which suggests it is likely something that Jesus actually said. (If you get the Historical Jesus society to vote with their coloured beads on the veracity and it would probably be fairly high chances of an original Jesus saying).
So unfortunately this morning we need to think about what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit because it is listed as the thing that is unforgiveable.
And to be honest, I can unpack the words: Blasphemy is to profane or speak sacrilegiously, to treat as not set apart or to treat the Holy Spirit as a force of evil.
And the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. The one who Sanctifies us, She who empowers us with gifts to live out our faith, to draw us into relationship with the Creator and the Son.
And in the context of the passage it should make some sense, Satan doesn’t stand against Satan, and nor does the Trinity work in contrary ways to themselves.
But that only gets us so far. And then I am left with the mystery of the text. Because it isn’t super clear what it means for us: as followers of Jesus, as people pursuing the reign of God.
So when I get stuck in scripture, I turn to two places: 1) To related pieces of scripture (To see what connects and if it clarifies) and 2) to the documents of tradition, to hear alongside of what they are hearing in Scripture.
So my mind, Went to looking at the 10 Commandments, and I noticed something in the Exodus account that I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe you know the 10 commandments: No other Gods, No Idols, Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Keep the Sabbath, Honour your parents, Don’t Murder, Don’t commit Adultery, Don’t Steal, Don’t bear false testimony, Don’t Covet.
Maybe your list had one or two of these as unforgiveable?
But in our simplification, we miss some of the detail that is there in the Exodus passage where God gives this Covenant to the people they rescued from Egypt, and Loves and is longing to bind themself to this people through this agreement.
And It’s the third one on that list that jumped off the page when I was reading through it. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. The passage reads like this:
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses [their] name.” (Exodus 20:7)
God will not acquit them, God will not find them guiltless. The person who makes a wrong use, or takes the name of God in vain, will be found unforgiven.
That is one Parallel that we will hold onto for a moment…
But let’s seek some wisdom from another voice.
A North African, Theologian, Bishop, and pastor, has an exceptionally helpful sermon on a parallel passage to this gospel in Matthew. (Augustine writes out his sermon, and I will admit that I took some inspiration from him in case you thought this was a bit of mental gymnastics, he says that “[God’s] will indeed was to exercise us by the difficulty of the question.” (paragraph 10 Sermon XXI). )
Where Augustine lands on the idea of unforgiveable sin is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is being talked about is an impenitent heart. A heart that is turned away from its need for repentance, turned away from the need for grace. That is the state that is outside of forgiveness because it does not truly accept it.
So these three snippets:
- A heart that doesn’t see the need for repentance.
- Taking God’s Name in Vain.
- And Blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
These three things together bring the question and us into a better focus of what is unforgiveable.
Let’s come back to those lists of unforgiveable things for a moment because we all possibly had the cruellest forms of violence and misuse of power as unforgiveable: And yet our Gospel seems to say that even those are forgiveable. (Of course this is the scandalous nature of Grace!) But those things might actually have elements of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. (Though we should not be quick to judge those things as outside of the realm of repentance!).
But what is not forgivable is blaspheming the Holy Spirit and it is better for us to read it closer to home to read that for ourselves first:
Perhaps it is like the Philip Yancy story that Brenda sent around. It is when we persist in doing that which is wrong, “trusting in God’s grace” but never working to change our lives because God will just forgive us.
And eventually we stop looking for grace?
It is the story of how we move to an unrepentant heart.
To live claiming that Covenant, that God has bound themself to us, in the giving of the law, in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and God has acted to save us and will act again, And yet we continue living in a way that dishonours that law or that covenant. Continue to dishonour that relationship.
That’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. Living as God’s people without honouring the covenant given to us. Living as though that relationship is not important.
Because it is a life that cheapens the grace that we are offered. And actually, as long as we persist in treating that grace as not significant we just continue in that path.
And maybe that is what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
To live in such a way that we treat that grace,
Salvation too lightly,
Sanctification too ordinary, too profane.
That if we are honest about what it is saying, it is actually blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
And here is the good news. If it is abiding in that way of life, that attitude of our heart, that act of living blasphemy, that we continue to refuse the grace offered to us, and the opportunity to be sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we are living unforgiven. We are living without that reality of God’s grace being real and present in our lives.
And in turning, in returning, we find that God is still patient, and gracious, and merciful because God longs for us to be in relationship with them—for our own good, and for the good of the world around us. That grace that we receive in forgiveness, actually frees us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit to live in a way that seeks the reign of God, marked by justice, and goodness, and life in its fullness.
And it is good news, because God’s Grace is capable of transforming even our hardness of heart, if we are willing to return to our God and be open to being changed.
Source: Augustine of Hippo: Sermon XXI https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160321.htm