You heard about the man they found on a desert island? He was a strong practicing Christian, and when he showed them around the island and the life he made for himself in isolation, he made sure to show them the church he built where he could worship. One of the rescue party asked what the building across his compound was. “Oh, that,” he said. “That is where I used to worship.”
To say the Christian church is extremely divided today is like saying it is cold in Antarctica in the middle of their winter. We have Pentecostals and Episcopalians, Congregationalist and Catholics, Brethren and Baptists, not to mention Orthodox, Assemblies of God, what goes by the name The Christian Church. There are 13 different brands of Catholics, of which the Roman type is the largest.
One study found there are at least 200 different denominations in the country, not counting all the individual non-denominational churches.
Well there is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).
That doesn’t include all the other off shoots of the Reformed tradition: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly, the Reformed Presbyterian Church – Hanover Presbytery, the Covenant Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Reformed Church, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, and the Free Presbyterian Church of North America.
Whew! Talk about your split P-soup!
Almost all of these result from splits over the last 250 years of our history. One group differed from another, and felt they had to go off and form their own denomination. In almost every case there was someone or a group of people who looked at the others around them and said, I can’t be a Christian if I have to do it with you.
In today’s Gospel lesson we see the same dynamic at play in first century Palestine. The scribes have come down from Jerusalem to check out what Jesus is doing to their religion.
Who are the scribes? They are the people, based in Jerusalem, who are responsible for the maintenance and practice of the law. At this time very few Jews spoke Hebrew. They, and this includes Jesus, spoke Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew the way Dutch is similar to English. The scribes knew Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, and it was their job to preserve the language. They also were like the gatekeepers for the law. They interpreted the law for the vast majority of people who could not read it for themselves.
Apparently they have gotten word of this new preacher running around doing miracles, and teaching people about the law, and they are concerned because he is getting pretty popular, and he has not checked in with them on his interpretation of the Law of God. It is their job to maintain quality control, and they have come to hear Jesus to see what he is up to, and whether they need to stop it.
And their conclusion is that he needs to stop what he is doing. And they make that clear in no uncertain terms. “He has a demon,” they say, hoping that will scare the crowds off.
But Jesus counters their charges. “If I am a demon, then why am I trying to draw people to God? A house divided against itself cannot stand. That is not a great theological truth; it is common sense. Lincoln used this very verse when he said in 1858 that this country could not exist half-slave and half-free, because we would end up in a perpetual state of conflict. In fact that is that state of affairs that led to the bloodiest war in American History.
This is a good lesson for the church today. We are more divided than ever before in the history of Christianity. We have a hundred different ways to define ourselves as Christians these days. That is not bad in and of itself, but the problem is we define ourselves in a way that excludes others. And we tend to look at the others and say, “there is something terribly wrong with the way you are doing religion.”
Jesus attacks that attitude head on, and here is where the story starts to get sticky.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear this, the first thing I think is, “Have I committed the unforgivable sin? If I did, I didn’t mean to! Am I going to spend eternity walking around barefoot on hardwood floors full of Legos because I accidentally committed the unforgivable sin?”
Let me put your heart at rest.
Here’s the scene. Jesus has just gotten into a tangle with the scribes.
And Jesus, standing there and looking at them, starts talking about unforgivable sins. His remarks were pointedly aimed at the scribes, not the people who had gathered around him.
All eyes were on him, and he had his eyes on the Scribes and he told them they had committed an unforgivable sin.
What was their sin? They accused him of having a demon, of being a demon. They pointed the finger at him and said, “You are evil.” Once you do that, there is no room for further conversation. It is one thing to say, “I really disagree with you on this issue.” It is quite another to say, “Well if you believe that, you are truly evil.” Once you go there, there is almost no going back. Few people are willing to shake hands with the devil and let bygones be bygones. When it comes to Satan, there is no reaching across the lines to find a compromise, or at least a way to co-exist together. Most people, if they think something is truly evil, will have nothing to do with it.
And the scribes just said Jesus was a devil. And here’s the rub—they said it because he had healed people. First he had healed the man with the withered hand, which we read about last week. After that little escapade his fame spread and all sorts of people were coming to him. And he healed many of them.
The scribes saw this and they did what many people do who see something they cannot understand—they demean it. Rather than face the uncomfortable question, “You guys are supposed be God’s people—why aren’t you able to heal people like he does?” they cut off the conversation at the knees. “He is a devil!”
We see this throughout history, where people disagree and before long someone is calling someone else a heretic, or an infidel, or a witch and then it’s not long after that the someone gets ex-communicated, burnt at the stake, hanged, or shot.
So when the scribes called Jesus a devil, they had committed an unforgivable sin—calling the work of God evil. There are more than few instances in the Bible where Jesus does something miraculous, something wonderful, like healing people, and gets accused and condemned for it.
If we condemn the good works of God, what chance do we have of having those works come our way? If we condemn hope, what hope can we possibly have for our own lives? If we call what is obviously good “evil,” what good are we?
If you are sitting here today wondering if you might have committed the unforgivable sin inadvertently, you obviously have not committed the unforgivable sin. You have room for God, and for the work of God in your heart. You have not looked at an obvious good and called it evil.
As I pointed out at the beginning of the sermon, we see that dynamic a lot these days. It’s not enough to have a disagreement; but often one side will try to demonize the other. We see it in politics, we see it in social issues, and we see it in the Church of Jesus Christ. “I don’t see how you could call yourself a Christian if you believe that.”
Now why on earth would the scribes attack Jesus for doing good? I mean, if you see someone out there healing people, miraculously, you would think their first reaction would be, “Can I hang with you? ‘Cause you got some kinda power that is out of this world!” But no. They want to condemn him, demonize him.
In a way, Jesus does the same thing himself…but in a different way. He is not demonizing the scribes, but he does say that their behavior shuts them out of the Kingdom of God. For some people that is disturbing, because we don’t want to think that anyone is shut out of the Kingdom. I think that is why we don’t like the idea of an unforgivable sin. Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves forgiveness.
But that does not mean we baptize everybody’s behavior and let it be acceptable. I think what Jesus is telling us here is that are places where we have to draw a line. And for Jesus it is the scribe’s behavior.
I want to be clear. Jesus does not condemn them because they attacked him. When Luke tells this same story, he adds to it, “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven;” What burns Jesus is that they are keeping people from enjoying the love of God.
What he says next reinforces that. Apparently his family was worried about him, and they sent some people to Jesus to tell them they were waiting for him outside. Now in that culture when your family wants something, you do it. But instead Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he looked at the people around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Where the scribes were trying to keep the way narrow, and if you don’t toe their line, you are on the outside, Jesus opens up the door for everyone. “Anyone who does what God wants them to do is part of my family.” The scribes saw themselves as gatekeepers. It was their job to keep the wrong people out. Jesus saw himself as a gate opener. “Anyone who wants to come in is welcome—they are a part of my family.”
We have too many gatekeepers. We erect theological gates, gates on social issues, gates on practice, and gates on what kind of music we sing to. We have too many people who want to define what it means to be an insider so narrowly that once you get in you only find people who are just like you are. People talk about true Presbyterians, true Christians, and if your theology does not match theirs, you are on the outside.
We are so divided. And to what purpose? To what purpose? It only weakens the church in the eyes of the world and keeps us from enjoying each other.
Jesus is not trying to keep people out—he wants to pull in as many as possible. He does not care what is in your past. He does not care whether you are a righteous person of God, a fisherman, or thieving tax collector. He does not care if you were a respected businessman, a struggling single mom or dad, and I’m pretty sure he even wants politicians to be a part of his family. He wants you to become a part of his family.
But here’s the deal. If you want to hang with Jesus, you have to be willing to hang with all the other people who are with Jesus. If you become a part of the family and then start wondering how all these other people got in the family, then you don’t yet understand what it means to be a part of his family.
In the first lesson this morning we heard Paul say, For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
What we see is the outer ways we are trying to relate to God. We worship one way in our early service and slightly different in the later service. One is more informal, and one is much more traditional. Neither way is right, and neither way is wrong. Other churches do it differently than us. They are not wrong in what they do.
There is an old Jewish saying, “Never make fun of the way a drowning man is swimming. He is doing what he has to do to survive.” Nor do we make fun of the way others worship. We are all trying to get through this life. We are all swimming in the waters of life, hoping to get through the best we can, trying to find a lifeline to God. Sure, we can open to swimming lessons, but how we swim through life is not what defines us.
Paul encourages us to look deeper. Some speak in tongues and wave their hands in the air when they worship, others stand, cross themselves and bow, while still others sit. Some use set liturgies as part of the service, while others sing for the majority of the service. Some sing hymns, others sing songs that sound more like pop songs. All that is the outside stuff. What matters, Paul says, is what is inside us, what people don’t see. That is what God sees when God see us at worship.
It’s OK to like where you worship It’s OK to prefer a particular style of worship. But at heart we have to admit that is a matter of taste, not a judgment about who is in and who is out.
When I first came to Medford, someone asked if I was a Duck or a Beaver. I am finally ready to answer that question. Some of congregation are Ducks and some are Beavers.
And I stand firmly with my congregation.
In the same way, some of my family, the family of God, worship one way, some another. And I stand with my family.