Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 9, 2024)

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

Let me begin by offering a confession: this is a difficult passage on which to preach. Frankly I’m glad it only comes around in the lectionary cycle once every three years. There is of course a fact about the Gospels that you’ve heard me offer up in the past, that the message of Jesus doesn’t always make us comfortable. In fact, the message of Jesus often challenges us and makes us uncomfortable. I think part of what makes this passage uncomfortable is that we’re witnessing that discomfort play out right in front of Jesus.

Let’s first back up to the beginning of the chapter. In the first several verses we read of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand in the synagogue … on the sabbath. Then the scene shifts to a great crowd having gathered, so large in fact that Jesus requested a boat in case he needed to escape onto the water to put some space between them. In those moments the unclean spirits recognized him and proclaimed him as the Son of God … and Jesus told them to keep silent on that point. In the final scene before today’s reading, he has gone up a mountain and summoned the twelve he wants to travel with him.

Now, in this passage, we witness one group accusing Jesus of acting with the power of Satan and his family responding to another group saying he’s out of his mind by trying to restrain him. Three chapters into Mark’s Gospel and people have witnessed healings, seen Jesus reach out to those on the margins, and challenge the assumptions and conventions of his day … and yet here, even now, they still don’t seem to understand who he is or what he’s about.

What I’d like to single out for focus this morning are Jesus’ words about blaspheming, specifically against the Holy Spirit. I think most people understand blasphemy as the act of doing or saying things against God or that are sacrilegious. Here though we see he’s very specific about blaspheming against one part of the Trinity. How does someone commit blasphemy specifically against the Holy Spirit? I would offer two options for consideration: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is done whenever we view the work of the Holy Spirit as something evil; and blasphemy is done whenever we deny the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in someone and thus deny that person’s humanity.

I’m going to take perhaps a different view from others here in how I define that view of the work of the Holy Spirit as being somehow evil. Rather than evil in the traditional sense I invite you to consider it instead as wrong, in the context of rules or expectations. In chapters two and three of Mark Jesus has received criticism because of the healing and actions he’s done on the sabbath, contrary to the legal view – and prohibition – of that time about doing anything on the sabbath. In my view, though, the fixation of the scribes and Pharisees on the law blinded them to the work of the very God they claimed to serve – and in their blindness they, rather than trying to understand and work with God, opted instead to rigidly oppose God.

We see this approach – this reaction – play out in today’s world. Faith communities in a number of places around the country have been penalized for making their churches and facilities available to the homeless. Service organizations have been taken to court for providing feeding programs for those without food or shelter. A by-the-letter-of-the-law approach by public officials has, as with the scribes and Pharisees, seemingly blinded them to the genuineness of the work being done to support those living on the margins. Rather than collaborating on finding solutions to the question “How can we?” they seem to be fixed simply on stating emphatically “You can’t.”

This isn’t about politics and professing faith. This is about living faith. To me, this is about creating opportunities that bring hope rather than dwelling in realities that reinforce hopelessness. Others may not claim the existence of a Holy Spirit, and certainly the official positions they hold don’t necessarily allow for a public profession of a public faith. In today’s world in which 22% claim to be spiritual but not religious[1] and 28% claim no religious affiliation at all[2] (what we now refer to as the ”Nones”), the Holy Spirit might not even be a phrase they use. But I do, and when any view as contrary to what they expect or want for themselves the work being done with the inspiration of the Spirit for any of God’s children, perhaps they should take a moment to consider to whom Jesus is speaking in this passage.

And here’s where I see an intersection with the second view of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit: the dehumanizing of the Spirit. I firmly believe the truth that the Spirit dwells within every single person, whether they realize it or even acknowledge it or not. Whenever something is done that belittles or cheapens the value of any person, it belittles and cheapens the value of the Spirit. Whenever we hear someone say, “I don’t want to have that sort of facility and those people they serve in my neighborhood,” they’re committing an act of dehumanization. Whenever we hear someone say, “We shouldn’t be helping them,” they’re committing an act of dehumanization. Whenever we see or hear anyone taking the conscious action of minimizing or pushing to the margins anyone that makes them uncomfortable, they’re committing an act of dehumanization.

Not wanting them in the neighborhood is not wanting the Holy Spirit. Not helping them is not helping the Holy Spirit. Pushing them to the margins is pushing the Holy Spirit to the margins. Consider this as well: when people do these things, are they not also disavowing and pushing away the Spirit that is within themselves?

A few days ago Jürgen Moltmann died. Moltmann was without question one of the most important theologians and writers of the past century, and much of his lecturing and writing was spent on the intersection of faith and the world. As I was thinking about what to say this morning (and for a difficult passage I ended up saying a lot), this quote came to mind – a quote I think that pertains to any who in disavowing others disavow the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and certainly any who want to isolate themselves facing their siblings in the family of God. Allow me to close with that quote:

We can say to all the people who are worrying about themselves and their own lives, and who are unsure of themselves: Don’t withdraw into yourselves. Make your own contribution. Get involved. Only people who find the kingdom of God find themselves. And people who really and truly find themselves find the kingdom of God. For the kingdom of God is within too, very deeply ‘within us’. Play your part in God’s kingdom and even now, in the present, let something of the rebirth of all things become visible which Christ will complete on his day. Come alive, for your life is coming![3]

Amen.


[1] “Who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans?” Pew Research Center, December 7, 2023. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/52k6a49z.

[2] “Religious ‘Nones’ are now the single largest group in the U.S.” National Public Radio, January 24, 2024. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/yc7fnh9t.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann. Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 29.