07 June 2015

Unforgivable Sin and the Gift of Grace: A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost B

Today’s readings are packed full of things that we as a church would rather not talk about: disobedience, shame, exile, despair, demonic possession and the unforgivable sin. Oof. It’s no wonder that the first commentary I read about these suggested that preachers talk about Jesus expanding the boundaries of family. That’s a nice gentle thing to talk about on a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Jesus sitting with his followers and claiming them as his brothers and sisters. I’ve already written at least one sermon about that idea, and I’m sure I could write another. But I’m not going to do that today.

I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on the Fall of Man in our Old Testament reading. If Carol would like to invite me back to preach in June of 2018, when this reading comes up in the lectionary again, that might give me enough time to put together a coherent sermon on snakes and apples, maybe.

Our Gospel reading is just a snippet of Mark which we’ll be hearing more of as the summer goes on. Mark is the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels. It begins with John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him.” At the time of today’s reading, Jesus has been baptized, has spent 40 days in the wilderness being tested, begun his public ministry, called his disciples, driven out unclean spirits and healed many people, even on the Sabbath. In short, he had made a lot of noise, gathered quite a few followers, annoyed a lot of people, made himself notorious.

A crowd of people, both disciples and critics, had followed Jesus into a house. There were so many of them that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t sit down to eat. Now, Mark is not big on colorful details, but I imagine that the room was chaotic. In contrast to the peaceful paintings of Jesus teaching while disciples sit a respectful distance from him, quietly eager to absorb knowledge, this crowd jostled to get closer, to hear better. Men who had studied scriptures their whole lives didn’t just listen, they would have questioned and debated with Jesus. Healings would have been met with outbursts of surprise, delight and disbelief. Multiple small groups would be having side conversations about what they had heard and seen.

One of those groups was the scribes. No mere local rabbis, these scribes were the equivalent of a group of Vatican theologians. They had come, or been called, specifically to see Jesus, to figure out what was going on with this itinerant rabbi that was causing so much trouble. They had watched and listened and discussed among themselves, maybe they even had a small crowd gathered around them listening in. They had seen miracles, heard testimony from the crowd of even more miracles, and they knew that whatever this Jesus person was, he was not a charlatan. He has real power. It’s possible that they considered and rejected the idea of Jesus as God, but more likely the idea of God walking among them was so outrageous, so outside of the boundaries that defined their relationship with God that they couldn’t see it, even with the evidence in front of them. So they declare that Jesus is Beezlebub, the devil himself. And they say it loud enough that Jesus can hear them.

The upstart rabbi had been called out by the respected, established religious leaders. Shock must have rippled through the crowd as the Scribes declaration was heard and repeated, and then there was quiet, because everyone, disciples and Scribes alike, would have wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Jesus is not known for giving straight answers to religious authorities, especially the ones who are questioning his identity, so it’s no surprise that he starts by asking them a question: “How can Satan drive out Satan?” And before they can start to answer the question he tells a two sentence parable.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.”

This short parable is also Jesus’ mission statement in the Gospel of Mark. This world is controlled by an evil power, and our job is to tie it up. But, as our Old Testament reading shows us, we lack the character to choose good over evil, and we don’t have the power to make good come out of evil. The Gospel of Mark is short, but it could be even shorter. It could be just this parable. Jesus has come to bind up the strong man and loot Satan’s kingdom. It plays out small when Jesus casts out demons, and then on a much larger scale when Jesus, having annoyed too many Scribes, is arrested and crucified, only to bind up the strong man that is death, freeing God’s good creation.

The Scribes of course, can’t see that. The gift of Grace that Jesus offers them is too different from the rigid structures of their faith. The radical change necessary to heal the sick and cast out demons, even on the sabbath, to eat with sinners, that love it is too hard for them, they’d rather follow the rules. So where they should see the Holy Spirit, they see the devil instead. And it turns out that deciding that “Love is too hard.” is the only unforgivable sin, that’s the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

So maybe I am going to talk about the expansion of family after all. The crowd pressed in on Jesus, wanting to hear his words, to be healed, to have one touch, one point of contact with the grace they saw in him. But Jesus tells them that they are his brothers and sisters, his family, and all they have to do, all we have to do  is see the gift of Grace that is placed before us, and do God’s will, and follow Jesus in healing and love. We will fail as Adam and Eve failed, as men and women have always failed, but if we get back up again, follow again, we will find that the touch of grace we were looking for has been paid out more abundantly than we could possibly imagine.

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)
God Calls Us to Expand Our Family (Sermons That Work)
Preach This Week (Working Preacher)


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