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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Christ Church Cathedral , Oxford, England Isaiah 49:13-23
Trinity 18, Matins, 2007 Luke 12:1-12
SINNING AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
Whoevever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven!”
In today’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus rains down scalding warnings on the religious establishment, on any and all of us who fancy that we take our faith seriously, most especially, on those who spare a care for the institution and are concerned about the directions we are taking as a church. It’s an old, old story, and the bible stories contain many examples. We want to work at close quarters with God. We want to live and act as heralds of God’s Kingdom. But the nearer we get to the nerve of our commitments, the more important it seems and--Jesus warns--the more dangerous it becomes.
The reason is not difficult to find. We work hard at discernment. We come to a distinctive interpretation of the Gospel imperative. The more we identify ourselves with it, the more we live into our institutional role, the more it becomes part of who we are and what we mean, the more desperate our need to prevail when controversy comes. Put otherwise, religious zeal has two roots, and the one can pervert the other. The first is passion for God, which we all share and to which we are all called. The second is our animal instinct for survival, physically and socially, as human beings, politically. The animal in us urges us on, kindles the conviction that the end justifies the means. When this happens, Jesus warns, blasphemy is already knocking, even threatening to knock down our heart’s door!
What provokes Jesus’ tirade is the Beelzebul controversy. Jesus strides out of the wilderness into vigorous ministry, preaching Good News, healing the sick, exorcizing demons. The religious establishment is offended when Jesus takes authority to forgive sins, heals on the sabbath, eats with tax collectors and sinners, and in general flaunts traditional understandings of what Torah-observance requires. It doesn’t take many episodes before Gospel Pharisees are inwardly accusing Jesus of blasphemy, not so many more before their charge finds voice: “this man casts out demons in the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons!” In other words, they publically accuse Jesus of being an agent of the devil! Expert as Jesus is in rabbinic debate, his first move exposes the illogic of their accusation: “a house divided cannot stand!” Striking closer to home, Jesus presses the question: “are your exorcists in league with the devil, too?” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus immediately thrusts to the core: “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven!” And just what constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Mark’s Gospel makes it explicit: attributing to the devil works done by the finger of God!
The Gospels as we have received them are polemical documents. They put the reader “in the know,” give us to understand, not only that Jesus is on God’s side, but that Jesus is God. But the Gospels also show us how--in the event--it wasn’t easy for onlookers to tell who was right. So also and all the more so with current religious controversies. Merely human discernment is inescapably fallible. We are called to give it all we’ve got and to live up to the light that is in us. This may mean vigorous engagement and energetic conflicts with others who disagree. But we cross a line the moment we demonize our enemies, the moment we pronounce that they have no share in Christ but are agents of the devil. We are not infallible. God knows, we are bound to get many things wrong. If we hope that God will work through us anyway, how dare we be so confident that nothing our enemies do is wrought by the finger of God? “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven!”
In our day, non-violent protestors have taught us something of how to heed this warning. Jesus promises, pursuing the Gospel will make us enemies. Jesus explains, faithfulness to the Gospel requires us to love our enemies. Gandhi’s extravagant interpretation is that we should so enter into our enemies’ point of view, so understand who they are and where they are coming from, that we would attribute to them no unworthy motive. Put otherwise, it is important for all parties to current church controversies over sex and gender to give more than lip-service to “the listening process.” If we don’t, we will slide easily from the judgment that our enemies’ approach runs contrary to the Gospel to the conclusion that they are agents of the devil. Jesus threatens, “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven!”
Demonizing our enemies is not the only way to sin against the Holy Spirit, however! Gospel passion narratives lay bare a second temptation: to sacrifice real individual people--the relatively innocent, at any rate the unjustly treated and oppressed--to the interests of institutional expediency. Jesus’ religious establishment enemies were convinced that Israel’s survival as nation all depended on temple cult and synagogue traditions of Torah-observance. Roman tolerance of these shreds of ethnic identity was bought at the price of Jewish accomodation. Sadducees cooperated with the authorities in squelching zealot uprisings and liquidating messianic pretenders. Pharisees and lawyers insisted on strict observance of Sabbath and holiness-code regulations as a hedge against cultural assimilation. Separate foods and hand washings and work restrictions made Jews stand out as different, kept them from too much fraternizing with their colonizers.
However sincere, the Gospels denounce such religious zeal as misplaced. Keeping the more than 600 commandments would make people distinctive, but it was practically impossible for common laborers. Such regulations represented a triumph of institutional aims over pastoral care. Not even the religious professionals really kept them, and their pretense of doing so was spiritually corrosive. Gospel passion narratives play out the tragedy of institutional self-betrayal. The religious establishment tithes spices but neglects justice; forsakes mercy to demand sacrifice--”it is expedient that one man should die for the people”--and so tangles itself in a blasphemous plot to kill God!
Holy Scripture was written for our learning, but the Church keeps turning a blind eye while it repeats the blasphemous pattern. Remember Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” responding to white clergy who urged him not to disrupt the status quo by insisting on equal rights for African Americans, who counselled patient waiting lest further demonstrations make the last state worse than the first? Racism is itself a spiritually pernicious mistake. But it is not the one the white clergy were making. The white clergy claimed to agree with King that the way African Americans were being treated was not only unAmerican but unChristian. Their blasphemy was their willingness to sacrifice the dignity and well-being of African Americans for the sake of institutional peace and quiet in church and state.
Two weeks ago, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) replayed the scenario, to its--at any rate, to my--shame. Evidently, their conversations with the Archbishop began by celebrating the uniqueness of the ‘79 prayer book’s baptismal covenant in which, besides renouncing Satan and turning to Christ, besides pledging faithfulness in common prayer and Christian service, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” The Presiding Bishop reports that while the majority interpret this to mean that gays and lesbians are deserving of “the fullest regard of the church,” the House of Bishops showed itself “willing to pause” in “its consideration of full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life and ministries of the Episcopal Church.” Bishops reaffirmed 2006 General Convention resolution to exercize restraint by withholding consents to episcopal elections of persons whose lifestyle would pose a serious problem for other members of the Anglican communion. Bishops went further by promising not to authorize rites for the blessing of same sex partnerships until the communion is of a different mind or a future General Convention decides otherwise. (The American House of Bishops has no authority to bind future General Conventions.)
For some bishops, these resolutions were a matter of conscience. It’s no secret that I disagree with them, but that is not my point right now. My focus is instead on the spiritual danger of “going along to get along,” of willingly sacrificing what one believes to be the dignity and well-being of real and present persons on the altar of institutional objectives. The lust for institutional harmony and stability is strong. It repeatedly seduces us, whether the issue is race, gender, sexual orientation, fair trade and wages, immigration and asylum, or something else. But Jesus Christ did not show Himself “willing to pause”: Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, the woman with scoliosis, the lame and the blind on the Sabbath day! Jesus warns, “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven!”
Happily, the bible’s God does not observe pop-psychological parenting rules not to threaten without following through. Repeatedly, the bible’s God prophesies doom and ruin to wake people up and win repentance. In the midst of present church controversies, one thing is certain: Jesus’ pronouncement should shock us out of our complacency, chasten our behavior, and keep us on our knees!
Christ Church, Oxford
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