Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Unforgivable Sin? (Mark 3:20-35)

Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” - for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Have you ever been embarrassed by someone in your family?  Embarrassed by something they’ve done, embarrassed by something they’ve said, embarrassed on general principle simply because you’re related to them and there’s nothing you can do about it?  Since today is Father’s Day, let me ask it a bit more pointedly.  Anyone ever been embarrassed by your dad?

I love to people watch, and airports are one of the great places to watch the human drama unfold.  You ever watch a family traveling together and realize that nothing is more embarrassing to the typical American teenager than their dad?  I don’t know what it is - wearing sandals and socks together, the fanny pack around their waist, the visor, the flip-up sunglasses, the shoulder bag that is actually the old diaper bag, or the guidebook in the left hand stuffed with maps and receipts - honestly, I just can’t figure out what these kids are embarrassed by!

OK, more truth-telling: if you are a dad, have you ever intentionally done something because you knew your teenager would be embarrassed or utterly mortified to be seen with you?  My theory is that fully half of the embarrassing airport dads you see have deliberately chosen their attire based on maximum embarrass-ability for their children.  Embarrassing your children is, after all, chief among a father’s God-given rights!  What’s family good for, anyway, if not embarrassing us?

No one can embarrass us quite like family can embarrass us, and in our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is proving to be quite an embarrassment to his family.  “But who is my family?” (v. 33) Jesus wonders aloud, and by the time it’s all said and done, Jesus will have forever given a new definition to “family,” at least how it’s accounted in his kingdom.  May we pray.

Jesus is ticking off religious people and embarrassing his own family.  Most concerning of all to religious people?  The common people love Jesus and his free-spirited style.  Consider: only three chapters into Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has not only preached that God’s radical kingdom of unconditional love is coming but has enacted what that kingdom will look like by driving out demons and healing all kinds of people who have been ill.  All of this has led him to become so popular with the crowds that it’s hard for him to enter the towns and even find time to grab a bite to eat (v. 20).  Let’s face it: Jesus is a rock star.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the people who doesn’t like Jesus.  The religious crew advances their own conclusions about him: Jesus is possessed.  They don’t like him or what he’s doing or what he stands for; the power within him must be evil.  “He has Beelzebul,” they say in verse 22.

Beelzebul is a deity worshipped by the Philistines whose name literally means “Lord of the Flies.”  In later Christian sources, it became another name for Satan or the Devil.  Jesus is in league with Satan, they say.  The religious people were so busy passing judgment - a favorite past-time of many religious people, by the way - that they are blind to the Holy Spirit in their midst.  They see and hear what Jesus does - and they are horrified because the work of the Holy Spirit fits neither their preferences nor expectations, and the only conclusion they can come to is that Jesus is possessed by the devil. 

“What’s become of our world?” they say.  “People being healed and made whole?  Sins being forgiven?  Reconciliation taking place?  Hope being proclaimed for all God’s people - including tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners?  Rules being put aside so lives can be transformed?  I don’t like it one bit - must be Satan!”  The Holy Spirit at work they decry as the spawn of Satan.

Jesus refutes this accusation with a parable that, in trademark style, uses his attackers own words against them.  “How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asks.  “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (vv. 23-24).  Being simultaneously filled with Satan and trying to cast out Satan would seem a counter-productive strategy, he argues.

Jesus’ ministry is about liberating people from the powers of sin and death promulgated by Satan, who rules in people’s lives simply by letting them run according to their own harmful desires, binding them, like Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with chains of their own making.  The genius of evil’s hold on our lives is that the only thing holding us in its clutches are our own desires.

Perhaps you have heard about Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond emotionally with their captors.  Victims of Stockholm Syndrome often defend their captors, feel empathy for their captors, or otherwise see things from the perspective of the very people who are intent on doing them harm.  So it is for the hold of sin and death upon human lives.  We participate in holding ourselves captive and think we are getting just the thing we want.  We are getting the things we think we desire, and so we live in prisons of our own construction, willing contributors to our own captivity.  Without Jesus, our vision is distorted and we see the world from evil’s perspective, which is right where Satan wants to hold us.

In the parable, Jesus likens Satan to a strong man (v. 27), who has held people hostage, possessed by all manner of things that have prevented them from experiencing the abundant life God desires for them.  Yes, Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger.

“I have bound the strong man,” he says.  “I have bound the strong man, I have plundered his household, and the spoils and riches I have taken are the lives of the people who were under his control.”  Jesus takes that most precious possession - human lives - and says, “These no longer belong to you.  These belong to me now.”

God’s liberation movement takes place one-by-one, heart-by-heart, life-by-life, as the kingdom of Satan and this world crumbles and a new kingdom - the kingdom of God - is taking its place.  Jesus binds the one who had bound us, and sets us free, which is why we so often sing, “Satan had me bound, Jesus lifted me.”  And when Jesus lifts us, we catch a glimpse of the world that is no longer distorted by our self-made smog of sin and death, and we behold all that is around us through God’s eyes of love, and everything looks so different from the way we’ve always seen it, and for the first time in our lives, we are seeing the world clearly and truly as it really is.  That’s what happens when we stop looking through the eyes of the world and start looking through the eyes of the Spirit.

And yet, there were those in our text who did not see things this way.  They apparently included both the religious leaders and members of Jesus’ own family.  Both groups saw the work of the Holy Spirit and they attributed it to Satan, because they were still looking through the distorted eyes of the world rather than eyes of the Spirit.

Looking at the world in this way caused them, and us, too, to look at the things of God and think they are evil, and Jesus, in verse 29, had a stern and harsh description for such faulty perspective: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or your translation may say grieving the Holy Spirit, but either way, Jesus names it as an unforgivable and eternal sin.

If that doesn’t put us on notice, I don’t know what will.  I don’t know about you, but that makes me very cautious before I too quickly or readily label something or someone as evil, because if that’s the judgment I make and it turns out that I was looking through worldly eyes rather than spiritual eyes, and my vision is so distorted that I have named as evil what is actually the work of God, or if I have named someone as evil through whom God is at work, then I’ve committed a grave offense - an unforgivable sin, according to Jesus.
If we are so blinded by a worldview of sin and death that we think God and the things of God and the people through whom God is working are evil, then we have withdrawn ourselves from God’s family.  In the immortal words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, “never take sides against the family.”  When we grieve the Holy Spirit, we take sides against Jesus’ family.

You see, family for Jesus is not a matter of biology and kinship.  When the crowd tells Jesus that members of his family are summoning him from outside (vv. 31-32), he responds with a rather shocking statement: “Who are my mother and my brothers? ... Look, here [these people seated around me, with whom I am united not by blood but in mission] are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister” (vv. 33-35).  Jesus’ family is defined primarily in terms of who does God’s will, not people who share similar DNA.

So much for “traditional family values,” a phrase as foreign to the ministry of Jesus as it is to the personal lives of politicians and pundits who thunder it across the airwaves.  And it’s just too much for some.  No wonder some people are bent on killing Jesus in this book!

The radical, barrier-busting, broad-reaching, grace-filled reach of God’s kingdom goes too far for the comfort and preference of some.  “Must be a demon,” they say.  “Work of the Holy Spirit?  Looks more like the work of Satan, to me.”

“Wait a minute,” says Jesus.  “That’s my family you’re messin’ with.”  Michael Corleone was right; never take sides against Jesus’ family.  When Jesus is talking about his family, he’s not talking about his biological family, he’s looking around the table at those who are earnestly following him and trying to pattern their life on him, which I certainly hope includes all of us, Jesus is looking us each in the eye and saying “You are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.  And you are part of my family.”  In fact, right now, turn to the person on your right and on your left and tell them, “You are part of Jesus’ family.”

Jesus isn’t down on family here.  He’s not rejecting the family who were once his entire world.  Rather, Jesus is expanding the definition of family to be a web of relationships that opens up places at the table for a whole host of others.  Jesus is drawing his family tree with an increasing number of branches, branches that reach out to gracefully cover more and more people - you and me, included - in their shade.  This is, Jesus teaches, a view of life in the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the home is simply too small a space to contain God’s family.  His own family have come out of their home and gone to where Jesus is, and are pleading with Jesus to come back home with them.  What they must now understand is that Jesus is adding members to the family left and right.  It’s not just about one mom and one dad and 2.7 children and a dog and a white picket fence.  Family is bigger than that, now.  His sense of family is no longer bound to the home, but to the will of God.

Further, he sets the example for us that our home, our family, is too small to contain God’s family.  As Jesus has lovingly and gracefully reached out to us and named us as brother and sister, as he has welcomed us into his new family, as he set for us a place at the family table, so too are we to reach out and embrace each other, and invite those who are still outside.  Our sense of family is no longer bound to our individual homes, but to embracing each other with the love of God, which is the will of God.

Jesus has already told us that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  A family - Jesus’ great big embracing family - won’t make it divided against itself.  We have to embrace each other with the love of God.  It’s the only way we’re going to make it, the only way God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In our text, they accused Jesus of being possessed, and perhaps he was - possessed not by Satan but by the Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit would be crazy enough to give Jesus the notion that love could bring together such a diverse and disparate group of people, make us his followers, and name us his family.  You’d have to be crazy to try a stunt like that!  Not only that, but Jesus keeps showing that love in word and deed through his whole life, and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep showing and sharing that love, even if it meant being killed.  Talk about crazy – Jesus is it!

What’s more, we’re just crazy enough to believe him.  Possessed by the Holy Spirit and crazy enough to believe that we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  Jesus is creating a new family, and we’re in it.  “Who is my brother and sister?  Those who do the will of my Father.”  The Father’s will is that we love – at all times, in all places, to all people.  How well we do that will show whose family we belong to.

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