“Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3. 20-30)
In the James Joyce novel The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, the reader follows young Stephen Dedalus as he begins to question and rebel against his Catholic faith. Stephen is torn between two ideals, namely that of religious piety (with all of its promise of purity and holiness) and that of independent free thought (with its promise of freedom from guilt and convention). Even his name points towards this conflict: Stephen, the first Christian martyr; and Dedalus, the great inventor of Greek mythology. In the early chapters, mortified by his sins, Stephen attends mass daily, excelling in pietistic devotions, and hears sermons about the pains of hell for unrepentant sinners. Today’s Gospel text forms one of a number of biblical rationales for such hellish visions: as Stephen prays for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he does so (Joyce tells us) with “trepidation, because of the divine gloom and silence wherein dwelt the unseen Paraclete, Whose symbols were a dove and a mighty wind, to sin against Whom was a sin beyond forgiveness.” Stephen remains impossibly trapped in his fear of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, which the preachers make clear is a deliberate refusal to accept God because of a lack of true repentance. Such fear at first overwhelms him with worry, and then repulses him from the faith. The final straw is ironically the suggestion that, in light of his piety, Stephen might become a priest. Dismayed by the fear promulgated by priests, Stephen instead rejects the Church and follows a path of earthly pleasure. He rejects all religion, finally proclaiming near the end of the novel, “I tried to love God... it seems now I failed.”
The unfortunate aspect of Stephen’s story is that the reading it offers of today’s Gospel represents a recognisable theological trend in Christianity. The notion of something unforgivable seems perplexing if the Good News supposedly reverses the terrible expulsion of humanity from intimacy with God we hear in Genesis, with Jesus as the New Adam and the Church as the New Eve. Our Gospel text this morning introduces a perplexing caveat and anxiety: what exactly constitutes the terrible blasphemy that can never be forgiven? The unforgivable sin has been variously interpreted through history and isn’t always helpful: Augustine sees it as resistance to God’s grace (Sermo 71); Peter Lombard collates it with sins such as despair, obstinancy, and envy; and contemporary Catholic thought sees it as a deliberate refusal to accept God’s grace through repentance (Catechism 1864). Even within these interpretations one can never seem to be absolutely sure that one has not committed the unforgivable sin. Such a psychological dilemma can be seen in the English Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. On the one hand, Calvinist pastors were greatly concerned with assuring the faithful they were indeed guiltless of the unforgivable sin and therefore saved, while at the same time taking great delight in accusing their enemies of committing the sin and therefore being damned. Their theological presence can certainly still be felt today in the American evangelical churches, but it also perhaps still resides in our European imaginations too, as James Joyce’s novel shows. If we are not to see the Good News swallowed up by fear and anxiety, as Stephen Dedalus does, how else then might we see Jesus’ warning?
The crucial move in approaching this text about the unforgivable sin is to see how traditional interpretations move well beyond the context and meaning of the story. The immediate context is one of conflict: Jesus has performed exorcisms, and is now accused of colluding with satanic forces as a result. Jesus rebuts the claim since a divided house cannot stand, and then offers a counter-accusation: those who accuse him of being a blasphemer and satanic collaborator are in fact themselves guilty of blasphemy because they do not recognise who he is and the God in whose name he achieves his work. By attributing the healing activity of Jesus to Satan, the scribes insult God. They see goodness as evil and therefore show themselves unaware and cut off from God. Rather than desiring to create anguish in those who do recognise Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus offers a warning to those who close themselves off from seeing God’s action in the world, for whatever reason. The location of where these myopic scribes come from remains telling: Jerusalem, the Holy City, and also the place where Jesus will be crucified.
If Jesus addresses the scribes, and if we therefore seem to be excluded from the possibility of committing the unforgivable sin, what might this passage have to say to us? If we look just beyond the margins of our set reading, we see a powerful and costly invitation to a deep and rich life. The wider context of Mark’s opening chapters are the revelation of Jesus as God’s Beloved from his baptism and through his healing, preaching, and calling of his first followers. The verses immediately following the reading given today show Jesus asking “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and immediately answering, “whoever does the will of God.” (Mark 3. 31-35) Jesus warns the scribes that failing to recognise him is an unforgivable blasphemy. He then recognises as his family those who do see him as God’s action in the world. Jesus’ recognition therefore invites us to see ourselves afresh. Rather than trapped by an oppressive religious fear – as Stephen Dedalus finds himself – we are liberated by our recognition of Christ to see ourselves as the family of God. Being a member of that family is a costly discipleship, asking us to re-orient our time, resources, and self to God’s will, to die to our old selves, and to take up our cross. But being a member of that family also fills us with God’s love, peace, and resurrection.
For some of you, this may well be the final Eucharist you attend at Trinity before you graduate. You may find yourself tempted by the stark conflict represented in Stephen Dedalus between faith and freedom. In truth, there is no such conflict unless we create it. The Holy Spirit is given to you through the sacraments of the Church as a free gift and is never to be feared. See Christ in bread, wine, and water, and so find freedom. Recognise Christ in one another and yourself, and do not embrace worry. Your discipleship beyond this college may contain difficulty and trial, but it need not be framed by anxiety, as it is for Stephen Dedalus. In your recognition of Christ, you are seen by God as God’s family in the world. Unlike Stephen Dedalus, in trying to love God, you will succeed through the Holy Spirit and so find the God of Love Himself. Amen.