This is a sermon I preached at New College, Oxford on Sunday 7th June 2015. It’s based on Mark 3.20-end
It’s clear from our short second lesson that people liked gossiping about Jesus – in that nasty, name-calling way that is common across our culture, whether you are in a primary school playground, a corner shop or even, dare I say it, in the SCR of a great College. Some said he was out of his mind – bonkers. Others said that he was possessed – He has Beelzebul – this being, like Satan and Lucifer, one of the fallen angels.
A decade or more ago I spent some sabbatical time in South Africa. Part of this involved getting to know people who lived in the poorest part of the Cape Flats in Cape Town. The Adventists has set up a little tin chapel in the sandy wastes of Vrygrond and I was their guest preacher at the mid-week prayer and praise evening. The little chapel really was a shack among the shacks, and the singing was the least restrained I have ever come across. A man was playing a guitar to give it some sort of order but he was almost entirely drowned out by the completely fortississimo singing. As an aside I was told by the pastor that the guitar player was a useful man to have around as he had the ability to see ‘Tokolosh’ – little demons sent by witchdoctors to cause trouble in the church. I don’t know whether you have anyone on the staff here who can see demons. But if you did – what would they see in and around New College? What are the demons that lurk here? And if there are none – what it is that causes the problems, the tensions the difficulties, the rows, the unkindesses that I assume are a feature of your life as they are of most other communities and colleges?
But it wasn’t Mr Mass the Tokolosh-seeing guitar player, that I primarily wanted to tell you about, however, but a woman who sought to ask me a question after my address. She spoke in emotional in distracted Afrikaans, and did, to be honest, go on a bit. Clearly the other people there found this rather embarrassing. And as their patience began to run out so one or two caught my eye and started to make an internationally recognised sign which mean , ‘not to worry, the speaker is mad’. To his credit, the pastor totally ignored this and let her continue until she finished. Clearly the woman was disturbed. But it transpired that that was because her son had just been transferred from a local prison to a much more distant one.
It seems to be a common tendency among human beings to try to silence those they find difficult or awkward or uncomfortable. There are so many things we don’t want to know – many of them things that are actually true. But not wanting to know something doesn’t make it unimportant, and more than that, calling people names doesn’t mean that the name or the label is in any way appropriate. I know I have given a stark example, but the habit of finding an excuse to ignore someone by labelling them is endemic, and most of us will have been at various times on the giving and receiving end of this reprehensible and ultimately self-defeating behaviour.
Jesus lived a long time before the era of professional sport, and the corruption thereof. I am not thinking of FIFA type corruption here, but of match-fixing, and I mention it only because this is the only occasion in which people are ever, as far as I can think, wilfully self-defeating. We are unwittingly self-defeating all the time. But that’s another matter – although it is the sort of reality that makes you wonder whether there really is something in this idea of demons. People used to speak about the demon drink, and I wonder whether we shouldn’t think today of the demon Class A drugs, the demon inequality and the demon debt in this sort of way. Or if you are more liberal you could talk of the demon censorship, the demon criminalisation, the demon prohibition. All of which are ways in which people try to make the world a better place that, while well-meaning, are based on a poor understanding of human nature.
To use the word ‘demon’ like this would not be to invoke the metaphysics of days gone by but to engage knowingly in metaphorical word-play precisely in order to begin to suggest different connections, different ways of thinking about these things, to force us to review our understanding about what’s wrong with them and what might or might not be done about them.
Jesus’ response to those who claim that he is Satan’s operative is first to challenge their thinking by highlighting its absurdity, but then he has something else to add, and it’s a real show-stopper of a thought. This is it: you can be forgiven just about anything but you can’t be forgiven if you blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
What can he have meant? Does he mean that we have to watch our ‘ps and qs’ especially closely when we are talking about the third person of the Trinity? I don’t think it can be that. Jesus was such a one for emphasising that this not the letter of the law but the spirit that matters, he must surely have intended that insight to be integral to the blunt meaning of this sharp saying.
What I think he meant was something like this. If you want to receive forgiveness, pardon, mercy and therefore peace, from God you have to be part of the flow of God’s spirit yourself. If you look at it this way you realise that this doctrine of the unforgivable sin is all of a piece with what he says elsewhere: that it is only those who forgive who can be forgiven, and at the same time, only those who have been forgiven who can forgive. To put this more generally, human beings are not just the recipients of grace; they are to me minsters and means of grace. Or as the children’s song has it – ‘love is something if you give it away’.
All this stuff, this forgiving, is part of the generous reaching out, journeying out, flowing out of the breath, wind and fire of God’s spirit, which comes from the heart of God and remains, as we know, of the essence of God. And it is this extraverted, generous, prodigal life of God that is behind the two great theological realities – creation and salvation.
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is contradicting this story of generous love in word, attitude or deed. It is a very odd thing to contradict such a wonderful and inclusive story. But it is also very common. It makes you wonder whether there really are demons at work undermining God’s love and persuading people that life’s really not like that at all.
But if there are really destructive demons about, the point of Jesus words about blaspheming the Holy Spirit is to make us re-evaluate which are the worst. So the demon drink is properly down-graded, also the demons of anxiety and depression and stress, for while they make life miserable they do not take people to a place where redemption is impossible. Rather they can often show them their need of God, as can illness and poverty. Reflecting on what Jesus said we come to see that the really deadly demons are things like cynicism, relentless criticism, and effortless superiority (arrogance or conceit) that cut us off from others. And then there’s parallel set of miserable demons like chronic self-disappointment, the feeling that everyone else is better than me or that I don’t deserve to be loved by anyone, not even God, and that I can never forgive-myself.
Such are the demons that keep many of us away from the forgiving, healing and empowering love of God today. And this is the real blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – gross arrogance towards others and extreme abjectness with regard to ourselves.
And it was to cast out such demons that Jesus came and lived among us. And it is to the work of casting them out that ministers of the gospel, official and unofficial, lay and ordained, should give great priority. Doing so will inevitably result in unpleasantness. People quickly seek to put labels on those who address these matters, for there are many other demons that back up and support the most toxic ones.
But the labels are of no moment. What matters is whether or not we believe in our hearts that there is better way, and that we live our lives in such a way as makes it evident that we believe in the endless flow of the loving, forgiving and renewing grace of God. For when we believe this we find that it’s not impossible for the demons to be cast out. But if we don’t believe it, we are stuck. Dead stuck.