“Unforgivable?” (Sermon)

Mark 3:20-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


20 [And] the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (NRSV)

In Mark 1, immediately after calling his first disciples, Jesus dives into, what feels like, a ministry of deconstruction. He encourages abstinence from fasting. He picks grain and heals on the sabbath. He touches lepers. By chapter 3, the Pharisees and the Herodians have crawled into bed together to discuss ways to destroy Jesus.

         Mark sets up the story up so that we feel the stress when Jesus can’t even find a quiet moment to eat lunch. As things escalate, word gets to Jesus’ family that he’s “out of his mind.” That’s the same word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ action of casting out demons. “He has Beelzebul,” cry the scribes, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” The religious leaders see Jesus as possessed and in need of exorcism.

         Now let’s remember, the four gospels are not objective histories. They’re highly subjective, interpretive remembrances of a remarkable person. So, in remembering Jesus, Mark paints a picture of a man whose words and deeds cause friend and foe, angel and demon alike to wrestle like Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok River.

From his opening verse, Mark has been preparing us for this foundation-shaking clash between God’s revelation and the people’s dismay. Mark wants us to enter the story and feel overwhelmed with questions about Jesus, and what his sonship and lordship mean.

         In the gospels, some are trying to process the extraordinary notion that Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ. Others throw all their energy into trying to prove the fantasy of such a claim. The naysayers are always those who hold political, economic, or religious power—or they’re people who fear and revere those who do. So, when this unorthodox rabbi challenges the power arrangements, his anxious critics are quick to accuse him of evil.

         The odd and spiritually convicting thing about Jesus, is that his transforming love often burns brightest for these very folks. That’s why he engages them, asking, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” His point is that while the division which brings down homes and kingdoms is the work of greed, resentment, and fear, reconciliation and wholeness are gifts of God’s Spirit. When human beings reach that depth of selfishness and despair at which the source of wholeness and reconciliation seems to be the very source of brokenness and division, then we have forsaken God’s Spirit.

         The new life to which Jesus calls us begins with an inward death to all that is idolatrous within us. And it does take a kind of death to recognize that all human beings bear the image of God simply by virtue of their humanity. And this death enlivens us for experiencing and proclaiming the gospel in such a way that we, as “believers,” don’t simply “believe” something wonderful. With the Spirit’s help, we make it believable—by incarnating it. Instead of trying to insist that others believe what we believe, what if we imitated Jesus in demonstrating God’s grace, love, and justice in and for the world? And before we can effectively speak of resurrection, mustn’t we live as signs of resurrection?

One of the first steps toward participating in gospel incarnation is confession. We admit that we and our tradition have—in the name of Jesus!—done deep and lasting damage to other people and to the earth. That confession is crucial because when a community denies its sin, opting instead to proclaim only what it thinks makes itself exceptional, it forsakes the virtue of honesty. And when self-exalting communities fail to name and confess their corporate need for forgiveness, they almost inevitably fall into division. Then they simply fall.

         Let’s remember that forgiveness is not forgetting. A wrong that can be forgotten is just a prank, like giving a kind of milky orange sweatshirt with a big white “T” on it to someone who would prefer, oh, I don’t know, a bright red sweatshirt with a big black and white “G” on it, instead.

         To forgive as God forgives us is to look a neighbor in the eye and say, ‘What you did and cannot undo hurt me deeply. It will forever shape our relationship. Nonetheless, in order for that shape to be love, I release all desire for revenge. I surrender our future to God. And I trust that the scar between us will bear witness to our shared experience of a reconciling grace that lies beyond our ability to create.’

         Forgiveness is really hard work. But it’s the lifeblood of incarnational ministry.

         The notion of an unforgivable sin is a dodgy thing. It gets misused. Untold numbers of people have been more-or-less blackmailed into professions of faith because they’ve been convinced that God is a god of retribution. People with religious authority have told them that to avoid hell, regurgitate these formulae, give this much money, dress and behave this way. It seems to me that such an approach may add names to church rolls, but does it really create people and communities of faith?

         Grace is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, but all-too-often we put more trust in the fences we build and the fears we nurture than we do in the grace of the one who creates us in love and for love. When that happens, we distort the gospel and turn it into a source of brokenness and division. 

They, whoever they may be, don’t belong in our church. They’re not our kind of people. Isn’t such prejudice a symptom of the ever-crumbling hell of a house divided? And isn’t that what happens on Friday?

On Friday, we choose swords instead of confession.

On Friday we choose money over the presence of God.

On Friday we deny having ever known the Christ or having been moved by his love.

On Friday we cry out, “We have no king but Caesar!”

On Friday we choose disaffection from all that heals and makes whole, and, in blasphemous despair, we scream that the very Gift of God is a demon to be crucified.

It seems to me that on Friday, the Beloved Community, including all of Jesus’ beloved disciples, participated in the “unforgivable sin.”

         That’s the point of Thursday night. Around the table, Jesus said to the disciples, Listen, things are about to get rough, and you’re going to need something to get you through, something to sustain you when truth seems unbelievable, when life seems unlivable, something to remind you that no matter how far you may feel from grace, you cannot go far enough to escape it.

         So here—here is bread and wine. This will not only remind you of me. This IS me.

         Now, let this remain a mystery. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fight about it. Just receive it. Receive me. Share me.

And in this way, you will know that even when you feel “unforgivable,” you are already forgiven.

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