Posted on 2021-06-06 11:25:00 in Sermons
Mark 3:20-35 ESV
20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, "He is out of his mind."
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "by the prince of demons he casts out the demons." 23 And he called them to him and said 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 is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
28 "Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"--- 30 for they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit."
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." 33 And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Our text is the gospel that we read just a few moments ago. It is a difficult text, and I'm going to apply it to a subject that may be painful to some of you listening: the announcement that Pastor Ely made this morning, that he will be accepting the call to be Associate Dean at our St. Louis seminary. I know many of you are sad about hearing of his impending departure. Some of you, too, may be wondering what the path forward is for Christ Our Savior, a church that has twelve years of Ely's fingerprints on it now.
You might be wondering how a text that talks about "unforgiveable sins" might apply to how a little church can move forward when a beloved pastor gets called. But it turns out that this text is very important, in a number of ways, to Christ Our Savior's situation. Let's dive into the text.
The events described in our text today -- Jesus healing a man possessed by a demon, the pharisees' reaction, and Jesus' response to that, followed by the appearance of Jesus' family at the door -- appear in three of our Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the same order with roughly the same details. Just as families have stories that help make sense of their lives together, memories that they repeat over and over, kind of like lessons, our reading today is something like that for the early church. Each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are faithful to the story, but just as different family members learn different kinds of things from the same story, Mark has his own, unique way of looking at this one and learning from it. If we are careful, we can figure out what lessons he is drawing by looking at the details that he includes and leaves out.
Two details are unique to Mark in this text that give us a lot of insight into how he sees main event. The first detail is the last paragraph right before where our reading starts. Mark leaves out events that both Matthew and Luke include, about Jesus sending out the 12, so that right before our text today, we have the list of the apostles that Jesus chose. The first of these is Peter, who is the authority behind Mark's gospel. It is the only place where Mark puts Peter first. And last in the list, and so the last few words before our text today are the words, "And Judas, who betrayed him." If there was ever a believer of whom we can safely claim had committed the unforgiveable sin, that of sinning against the Holy Spirit, it would be Judas. I don't think it is insignificant that he gets mentioned here, for the first time, right before our reading. The other detail that Mark includes that is significant and missing from Matthew and Luke are the conversations of Jesus family that occurs at the beginning of our reading. The situation Jesus was in was beginning to look overwhelming, with all of the crowds and craziness around him all the time -- to the point that He and his disciples didn't even have time to eat. And the response of Jesus' family is, in translation, "he is out of his mind." The literal translation is, "he lost it."
There is one final detail that Mark includes, or rather, an explanation, which helps tremendously in understanding how he views this event. These are the words, "for they were saying, 'He has an unclean spirit.'" I don't think, honestly, that I would ever have made the connection to Jesus' warning about the unforgiveable sin to this accusation of the Pharisees if Mark had not pointed this out. Matthew and Luke do not provide this explanation. Yet, it is really a key to understand everything here. So, let's review the pieces we have here so we can fit them together a little better. We have, at the center, Jesus healing a demon possessed man, then the Pharisees making the accusation that it is by the power of the devil that Jesus drives out devils. Then, outside of this, we have, like a wrapper, the appearance of Jesus' family, in a very unusual role, wanting to take him out of His situation for His own good. Then finally, over it all, we have Peter, the first of the apostles, and Judas, the last, and the betrayer, watching all of this. I think with these pieces in place, we can learn something.
The third person of the Trinity, as Pastor Ely talked about last week, and I talked about on Pentecost, is the Holy Spirit: to believers, the comforter, the one called alongside us, and to unbelievers, the one who convicts, with regard to sin, and righteousness, and judgment. He also could be called, the Trinity being what it is, the "Spirit of Jesus" or "The Spirit of God." In theological terms, since God is love, we could also say that the Holy Spirit is a spirit of pure love. Both words "holy" and "spirit" are hard for us today. The word "spirit" is hard because we live in times where many people want to believe that human beings are just organic computers, and our thoughts or consciousness, what many of us unthinkingly consider our very being, are nothing more than the artifacts of a lot of calculations going on in neural networks. To someone who believes this, the word "spirit" is just a silly figure of speech, and this kind of thinking has affected even us, who believe differently. What is a spirit? It seems that some of the smartest among us deny it even exists, and the rest of us aren't sure exactly how to define it or what to think. Our spirits are real, though, even though they are encumbered by a body. My spirit can soar to heights unknown, drawn perhaps by beauty perceived through my body like music or a dream; but very often, that same spirit scrapes along, slave to the same sinful body that contains it, and spends its time in the mud and ashes. Not all spirits are encumbered by a body. The Spirit of Jesus certainly is not. It moves in love, where it will, though many do not understand its movements. One glory of Christianity is that God the Son, who is a Spirit, would choose to take on one of these bodies, and be encumbered, in order to raise us up. So "spirit" isn't really that hard to understand, but emotionally, it can be difficult, in our age of science and psychology.
The other word, we may have even more trouble with: "holy". When I explain the word "holy" to my confirmands, which is where we get the word "saint" as well, I always talk about furniture like our altar here. It is a table. It is made out of wood. The same kind of wood, nice hardwood, might make a great game table for my house. But even though it is made of the same material, and made much the same way, once we make it an altar, we never think, "hey, let's get a few beverages and some chips, a deck of cards, and play some poker up here on the altar." No, we would never do that. It is "holy---" not because of what it is made of, or even how it was made, but because we have set it apart. It is no longer something for common use. All of us show some extra respect and reverence toward it. We put railings, or ropes, around it. The idea of a holy altar recalls -- it's not the same, only similar in idea -- the holy places in the temple. If you were not a Levite, certified by birth certificate, and you tried to enter the holy of holies, you would not have made it. They would have killed you first. They would not tolerate you physically desecrating their holy place. The idea of "blasphemy" is the idea of desecrating a holy place in our minds, or with our words. The ropes around holy things are not just physical, but mental and spiritual as well.
Now, our trouble today with "holy" is not that our larger society denies it exists, as many people do with "spirit." Our society today has all kinds of things that are roped off, words you'd better not say, thoughts you'd better not think. We just don't use the word "holy" for them. Some of these things we would all agree are bad to say or think, but people get fired, ostracized, driven out, and dehumanized for saying things that most people 5 years ago would have considered common sense. So, "holiness" as a concept is still very real. It's just that the things that WE think are holy, we've lost interest in defending. In the Catholic neighborhood where I was a young schoolboy, if a child carelessly swore by God's name, some random adult would walk up and slap him. That happened in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it's not happening anymore. Oh, there are words we can't say, but every possible profanity has been made out of things that Christians used to think were holy. The central words of Jesus in our event today speak to this. I won't say it is wise, but Jesus says, if you do happen to profane, blaspheme, sin, against Him--against the Son of Man, all can be forgiven. But there are ropes, even for Jesus. Blaspheme against the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of the Father, and you will not be forgiven, ever. We like to think of Jesus as all sweetness and light, but here, the Pharisees touched a nerve. He calls them out, like someone in my old Catholic neighborhood, to verbally slap them and to warn them in these crushing terms.
Another way I know things have changed is that Lutheran pastors, when the subject of the unforgivable sin used to come up, used to always assure worried listeners that if they were worried about having committed this sin, then they had not committed it. Many words have been written, printed, and taught concerning this sin, and every Lutheran teaching I've read agrees that you can't trip over this sin by accidentally telling the wrong joke, or saying something inappropriate. In fact, all we can do is warn about this sin, because only God knows who may have committed it. I say these things now, but I almost wondered whether to spend the time, because it's been years since I heard anyone actually worried about having committed this sin. In my grandparents' generation, they worried about it frequently. So, what's changed? Do we know more about the Bible than they did? I don't think so. I think, rather, that we have refocused the commandments so they're all about people and not about God.
Don't murder? Of course not; in fact, don't even make anyone feel unsafe! But that's about people; that's about us. On the other hand, "don't misuse God's name---" that doesn't get you a slap anymore; in fact, many of us barely even frown when someone does it. We live in a world with phones that throw at us words, words, words, vying for our attention and getting it anyway they can---if blasphemy works, it's another tool in the toolbox. There's no such thing as bad publicity. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Make a joke; no one can get mad at a joke. And whatever you do, don't get too serious about anything. What are you anyway, some kind of fanatic? We are surrounded by these attitudes, and we have succumbed to them and in some ways even adopted them. The spirit of my grandparents rises up, indignant, and warns us, that some words and attitudes sink in and cannot be taken back. Some things wash off, but other things stain. We hardly seem to care anymore.
You know, even Jesus' own family thought He was crazy. Peter, at the top of the list of the apostles, denied Jesus, and called down curses on himself to disavow knowledge, on the same night that Judas, the last on this list, betrayed Him. Yet they were forgiven. I think this teaching of Jesus was actually a comfort to Peter, rather than the scary thing we think it is. You see, Peter didn't have thousands of years of Christian culture emphasizing the love of God and the grace of God -- Peter saw, as a first-Century Jew, the judgment of God, and the wrath of God. And what he heard in Jesus' teaching wasn't the scary part about the unforgivable sin. The people who blaspheme the Holy Spirit don't weep bitterly; they don't care. They are right -- they are always right -- and they'll even throw God under the bus to suit their own needs. Peter had done terrible things to Jesus on Good Friday dawn. But he didn't refuse the conviction -- when the cock crowed, he remembered. And all the sins against the Son of Man, as Jesus tells us here, will be forgiven.
Jesus was ready to do this for Peter. He was ready to forgive his family. Unlike the Pharisees, they may have been weak, but they never actively rejected His Spirit. So we aren't in such bad company when we realize how little we care sometimes. Ironically, it is our encumbered spirits, dirty as my spirit is, and far as it seems from holy, I am a saint. I am a holy one. There are ropes around me. Why? Not because I've had such pure thoughts, surely. No, it's because the guy who said, "if you profane me, if you commit blasphemy against me, if you call me the devil, if you treat me as nothing, you can be forgiven." For He came to forgive. He came to live the perfect, holy life I never could, and then, when that was done, He took up my sins, my filth, my guilt, and he carried it to a cross. They nailed Him to that cross, and my sins along with it. He became filthy, forsaken by the Father, so I would never feel that. In return, it seems, I make jokes. Hey God, can't you take a joke? They Holy Spirit is grieved by me at times; but God forbid that I would ever blaspheme against the one who convicts me in my guilt and comforts me in my suffering. So yes, I am holy. I am set apart. It's up to me to act that way. You are saints, too... never forget it. You may not even always be comfortable with the thought, but there are ropes around you. "Here is a holy one, be careful!" The spirits that surround us see this, and the Holy Spirit is by our side.
It is this sense of the holy, as hard as it is to recall in our unholy times, that must be our guide in everything we do as a church, especially the matter of who plays this role, the role of pastor, and how we treat each other during this crucial time.
I've known for months of the possibility of Ely leaving for St. Louis. It felt, from the beginning, to be a different matter for me than the recent call to the Boston area. As I reflected on what I could do for you, whom I love so very much, there was a part of me that wanted to just serve you full time. It would be a big hit to my retirement, I thought, but I could quit my day job and do it, at much reduced pay, until I retire, I thought. I kind of daydreamed about telling you about this ... to let you know how much I was willing to put on the line for you ... to share that possibility with you. I daydreamed this way, some of the time, during the months while the Seminary went through their exhausting process with Ely.
But, you know, that was me in my comfort spot. The Holy Spirit is in charge of calls of pastors to churches, and there are ropes around that process. My daydreams didn't really include that. I kind of forgot -- the reason I'm here, and the only reason I came -- was because this man sitting here asked me to come, back in December of 2015. No one from the church ever called me, asked me, or approved of me. And now that this man is leaving, should I just assume that of course you want me to stay? This past April, I got an unpleasant reminder from God that I can't make easy assumptions about what the congregation might want, or how much, when push comes to shove, all of you even respect me in the office of pastor. No, I'm here because of Ely -- we all need to remember that, and as we let the Holy Spirit work in this situation, none of us can make easy assumptions about where the Spirit might lead.
I'll have more to say about my role moving forward to the church council moving forward, but it all should be part of a larger formal process. Your church leaders need to get involved. You all need to be involved, to one extent or another, because it is a holy process, one where the Holy Spirit is intimately involved. Pastor Carlos Boerger, from St. Paul's Lutheran Church downtown, is our "circuit visitor," and he will help you understand the process that a church goes through when it needs a pastor. I want everything here to be done where the Holy Spirit can lead wherever He will.
Regardless of what happens, Ricki and I are both praying for all of you, that you as a group make the relationships among the saints your highest priority. I hope that, long after Ely and I are just pictures in a file somewhere here, that someone remembers that a couple of guys used to hammer on relationships. No, scratch that: I pray that even when you don't remember us at all, that you still treat each other as flawed, sometimes difficult, but holy, saints of God, and that your love for each other is obvious to everyone, especially the Holy Spirit, the spirit of love, that comforts you all. Put up some more ropes around each other, and do it. You will do well, regardless of what happens! I pray it in Jesus' name. Amen