Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon for September 23, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin
Matthew 12:22-37

Three ministers and their wives got into a car crash and died one day. They found themselves standing at the pearly gates together before St. Peter. St. Peter opened his big book, pointed to the first minister, and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

“Because you lusted after money. You never actually stole any money, but in your heart, you were constantly thinking about money. You had money on your mind so much that you even married a woman named Penny. So you’re going to Hell.” And in a puff of smoke, the first minister disappeared. St. Peter flipped a few pages in his book and pointed to the second minister. “You are also going to Hell,” he said sternly.

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

“Because of your love of alcohol. You never actually drank any alcohol, but you constantly yearned for it in your heart. You thought about it so much that you even married a woman named Brandy. So you’re going to Hell. “And in a puff of smoke, the second minister disappeared.

The third minister turned to his wife and said, “Well, Fanny, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Here’s something for us to think about today. Is God really like that? Does the God you worship enjoy the thought of damning you because of your faults? Does God ever get tired of our mistakes? Will God ever stop loving us? Can we ever move ourselves beyond the boundaries of God’s forgiveness?

Imagine this scenario. You come to worship and have a transforming experience. You make a decision to change some aspect of your life – to turn something around or do something better. You day to yourself, “This week, I’m going to be good.” It’s easy to be good in church, right? Walk out the doors into the so-called “real world” and what happens? If you are like me, then you blow it. Some dimwit upsets you and you lose your patience. Someone betrays you and you plot revenge. Someone hurts you and you want to hurt that person back. It’s not that we didn’t take our life-transforming commitments seriously. We meant them with all our heart. We want a new and changed life. But something gets in the way and trips us up. And so we go back to church, recommit ourselves to godly living, and then we go home and mess it up again.

How do you think God feels about this scenario? Does God lose patience? Will God punish us for not fulfilling our commitments? I grew up with a faith that said, “Yes, of course God will punish us!” My faith told me that all of us are guilty before God. All of us deserve to be punished. God does not allow certain kinds of behavior even if everyone does it. If everyone breaks the law of God, God holds everyone accountable. God would not be God if He (God was always “He”) allowed the punishment to be suspended. This means that sin must be punished. I was a very worried teenager and young adult. I just knew that God was terribly angry about the sin I was born with as well as the sins I committed. As a just judge, God would punish me, and all sinners, now and in eternity. We ourselves cannot hide the filth of sin; but we could be washed clean by grace. The Savior, Jesus Christ, stood between me and the awesome judgment of God. God sent Jesus to take my place. Jesus received the awful punishment for sin that you and I deserve. It is in Jesus that we see God’s justice and God’s mercy being displayed at the same time and in the same person. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

I was also taught that there was sin and there was unforgivable sin. If I ever did anything to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I would earn a non-refundable one-way ticket to Hell. But what was blasphemy? I was taught to equate blasphemy with doubt. I was told that the original sin was doubt. The only way to reverse it was to have faith in Jesus. There was no doubting that Jesus died the death I deserved. It was sinful to doubt that Jesus performed miracles. I questioned how Jesus could be the one and only way to get to heaven, but I kept those thoughts to myself. I was taught that if the temptation of doubt troubled me it was because Satan was messing with me. But I always felt tortured. The more I tried not to think bad thoughts about Jesus, the more they flooded my mind. I had doubts. I was sure that I had committed the unforgivable sin.

I realize that not everyone has this problem. For instance, The Blasphemy Challenge continues to play on YouTube. People are encouraged to submit online videos saying their names and the words “I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit.” Some of the videos get right to the point. Some are quite vulgar. I saw a video of a man named Jim who filmed himself standing in the doorways of various local churches. At each church he proudly said, “My name is Jim. I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit and I’m not afraid.” He figures if there really were a God, he would be instantly punished for saying such callous words in a church. Since Jim is still alive, there must be no God.

What do you think? On the surface, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading sound clear: whoever blasphemes the Spirit will not be forgiven. Will Jim’s public blasphemy send him to eternal punishment? Can we ever do something that puts us beyond the reach of God’s love? Let’s take a moment to revisit our Gospel story.

A man is brought to Jesus. The man is blind and he cannot speak. People assume that demons have taken up residence in him. Jesus has compassion and heals the man. Jesus enters that which others see as unclean or defiled, and he brings new life. As soon as he’s done, the criticisms begin. Those who are in power—those religious leaders who feel that Jesus threatens their positions -- accuse him of healing in the name of the devil. It’s an insult. They think that they are the only one’s allowed to represent God. They insist that they alone have the full and complete accounts of reality. They leave little room for debate or difference of opinion. They expect unflinching loyalty from their followers. They try to discredit Jesus by saying he’s in league with the powers of evil.

But Jesus has come to clean house. Jesus leads the revolt against the powers that keep people trapped. Jesus turns things around on the religious leaders. Jesus says, “Ignorance can be forgivable. Failure can be turned around. However, using religion to turn human liberation into something odious is not pardonable. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to see when God does something real before your very eyes.”

Jesus engages in a battle of one-upmanship. His opponents are the ones who are against God. They are captives to their need for power. They smother God’s effort to make broken people whole. And when you intentionally do that, you bypass the grace of God.

Think again about the faith commitments you have made – and perhaps failed at. Maybe we fall short in our quests for transformation because we are looking for Jesus to take something bad in us and make it good. Jesus did not come to make a bad people good. Jesus came to bring dead people to life. We can be good but not alive. There are a lot of people who are morally pure, but they have no life, no joy, no celebration. If our faith is not marked by raw, passionate love, then we are no better than the close-minded religionists that Jesus corrected.

Author Shane Claiborne tells a story about living in intentional poverty with some friends in Chicago. He headed out one night to get a loaf of bread in an area notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. He walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a tattered and cold woman on crutches, selling herself to make some money. On the way home, he saw the woman again, crying and shivering. He knew he could not pass her by. Shane stopped and told her that he cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks in an alley. He brought her to the house he lived with his friends. As soon as they entered the house, the woman wept hysterically. When she gained composure, she looked at everyone in the house and said, “You are all Christians, aren’t you?” Up to this point, no one had said anything about God or Jesus. There were no crosses in the house – not even a Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lot my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets. She asked these people to pray with her. They did. They prayed that this dark world would not take away their shine.

Weeks went by, and they did not see the woman. One day, there was a knock on the door. On the steps was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane stared at the woman, not recognizing her. She finally spoke. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.” He finally realized that she was the same woman he pulled off the streets. She talked about how she had fallen in love with God again and she wanted to give him something to thank him for his hospitality. She said, “When I was on the streets, I lost everything, except this.” She pulled out a box, confessing that she smoked a lot and always collected Marlboro Miles points from the cigarette packs. “This is all I have, but I want you to have it.” She handed Shane the box filled with hundreds of Marlboro Miles. Shane says, “It’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.” He uses them as bookmarks in his Bible. Every time he sees them, he is reminded of all the broken lives that have lost their shine.

When people tell me that they have rejected God, I say, “Tell me about the God you have rejected.” They usually describe a God of condemnation, of laws and lightening bolts, a frowning, gray-haired God who enjoys boring committee meetings. You know what? I have rejected that God, too.

The bottom line is that piling guilt upon ourselves does nothing to correct the source of our real problem. Know this and believe this. God wants you to shine again. You are guilty of nothing. God loves you. God loves you more than any of us can even begin to fathom. You are a bright and clean spirit in God’s eyes and the only one who sees this differently is you. God already accepts you for who you are, and God is not going to punish you while you struggle to live the life of faith. Jesus Christ shows us that God makes broken people whole, and that there is nothing you will ever do that can put you outside the boundaries of God’s love.

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