You heard what I got instead. Opponents accusing Jesus of being possessed by Satan. Jesus’ family out to restrain him. Jesus himself refusing to see his mother and brothers and sisters.
So much for something nice and upbeat about family values!
But the most startling line of all is this one: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” That ought to get our attention!
We have talked about the unforgiveable sin in our Bible study a few times. It is hard to wrap our minds around the idea.
Start with the idea of a truly unforgiveable sin. It seems to contradict what we know about God’s love and forgiveness.
As we heard in our gospel reading just last week, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
In the Bible Challenge for this week, we read Romans eight, which includes this: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).
Our Psalm for this morning says, “The Lord will make good his purpose for me; O Lord, your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.”
There are a million other passages in Scripture about God’s love and God’s forgiveness. And yet our gospel passage for this morning talks about sin that is unforgiveable, that somehow ruptures God’s love.
It is also not entirely clear what the sin is. What does it mean to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? Is it really worse to blaspheme the Holy Spirit than to blaspheme against God the Father or against Jesus?
So, how do we make some sense of the unforgiveable sin?
Start by thinking about what would be unforgiveable in your relationships.
As best I can tell, there are two broad possibilities.
The first possibility is something that hurts you deep down inside, that wounds you to your core. The person you love could say, “I do not love you. I never loved you. Our whole relationship has been built on a lie.”
That might be unforgiveable. It certainly would be hard to trust the other person again, to really open up, to make yourself vulnerable. And without trust and intimacy, it is not possible to love as we normally understand love.
But that does not help much with the unforgiveable sin against God. We cannot hurt God in the same way we can hurt other people. God does not share our insecurities. God does not have trust issues.
Best of all, God’s love for us is different from our love for each other. God’s love is truly unconditional. God does not love us because we do right or because we deserve it or because we love God back. God loves us because God is love. God’s nature does not change, no matter what we do or say.
Here is the point. The unforgiveable sin against God is NOT something we do that hurts God.
But there is a second kind of unforgiveable sin. Instead of hurting us, the people we love may hurt themselves. The most obvious example is substance abuse.
Sometimes we have to say to someone we love, I will not continue to support you as long as you continue to hurt yourself in this way. In extreme cases, we say, as an act of love, I cannot continue in relationship with you until you make better choices.
I have to believe that the unforgiveable sin against God is that kind of sin: not something we do to God, but something we do to ourselves. It is not unforgiveable because it hurts God so badly, but because it hurts us so badly. God will not stand by while we continue stubbornly stuck in our addiction to sin. God will not enable us in our self-destruction.
That is why Jesus singles out blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the unforgiveable sin.
Jesus’ opponents have just accused Jesus of having an unclean spirit. Their blasphemy is against the Spirit at work in Christ, which is also the Spirit at work in us.
Blasphemy against the Spirit is not just saying false or negative things about the Holy Spirit. The real blasphemy, the real unforgiveable sin, is denying the Spirit at work in our brothers and sisters as well as in us.
In the prayer with which our service began, we asked God to grant us inspiration—to in-spirit us. By God’s Spirit in us, we can think those things that are right and perform the same. But if we blaspheme the Spirit, if we oppose God’s Spirit at work in us, if we refuse the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, then we truly have spurned eternal life and we have acted in the most self-destructive way possible.
In that case, I picture God, our loving and merciful Father, looking at us with love, pleading with us to open ourselves to his life-giving Spirit, but also, if we remain steadfast in our refusal, letting us experience the consequences of our choice.
There are two lessons to be drawn from all this.
First, there is always hope. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit may be unforgiveable. But the person doing the blaspheming is not. That is a really good thing because all of us have done things we regret. All of the people we love have too. We have actively opposed the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We have come dangerously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
But we can work at kicking our addiction to sin by opening ourselves to the life-giving power of God’s Spirit. And God is really good at forgiving sin. To call blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgiveable is a powerful way of showing how high the stakes are. But it is not a reason for despair, either for ourselves or for the people we love.
But the second lesson is important too. God really does call us to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Every time we choose sin, every time we choose hatred rather than love, self-indulgence rather than generosity, mean-spirited pettiness over an open and generous heart, every time we do any of that, we are blaspheming the Spirit at work in us in the way that really matters—not with our lips, but in our lives.
We are called to do better. We are called to grow into the perfect children of God that we were created to be. The Holy Spirit works in us to make that happen. We need to work too.
My prayer for all of us is that we can do our part, trusting that God will take care of the rest. In the name of Christ, through whom our sins are forgiven and by whose Spirit we are enabled to live godly lives. Amen.