The writing was on the wall and the storm clouds were gathering on the horizon when a lanky lawyer from Illinois stood up before his state’s Republican Party convention and prophesied:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He continued, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” (Speech by Abraham Lincoln before Republican State Convention, Springfield Illinois, June 16, 1858)
When Abraham Lincoln shared this prophetic vision he drew from the words of Jesus, “A house divided cannot stand.” This was an image that he hoped would convey a powerful and common sense approach to the plague of slavery which divided this nation at that time. It reflected the words of the prophet Amos who said, “Can two walk together unless they are in agreement?” (3:3) When two come to a fork in the road they have to choose and agree which side to take if they are to continue together in the journey.
Lincoln’s position was that the country could not continue to grow and prosper nor even survive if it was divided over this fundamental core issue of slavery. One side said it was God given; one side said it was a sin. They both could not be right. There had to be unity or the country would fall or divide.
This notion of E Pluribus Unum, “out of the many comes one” became one of the foundational principles of our country. The expression is printed on our money and on our National Seal. There are certain foundational philosophical truths that bind all Americans, like the freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness.” These are what unite our national house.
In the same way there are certain foundational truths which build the house of God, which hold the people of God together. We gather around Jesus Christ, and we believe we know who he is and what he came to do. We believe that he was sent by God to heal the broken heart, to guide those who lack direction, to preach to those who lack conviction, and to save all who come to him in the repentance of their sins. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, holy, righteous, blameless, perfect.
Not everyone has shared this belief. Early in Jesus’ ministry there were those who thought him crazy and those who thought him demonic. Our story this morning focuses more on this latter group; but both groups did not or could not see that in Jesus of Nazareth God was incarnate and manifest in a new and unique fashion. They did not understand the Kingdom Jesus came to bring; nor did they appreciate the house he was trying to build.
Before we attempt to build this undivided house, let us pray.
God of Unity and Peace; How quickly we severe the ties that bind, how easily we choose our own direction; but you have called us to be one people with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5) Help us Lord find agreement with each other and unity in the Spirit. Help us to build one house that gathers around your son Jesus Christ; for united we stand and divided we fall. Help us to “stand up for Jesus, to stand in His strength alone.” (Stand Up for Jesus)
Through Christ the author of our salvation we pray. (Hebrews 5:9) Amen.
Jesus’ ministry was beginning to accelerate at a break neck pace. The people of Galilee were picking up what he was laying down, and asking for more. There was always one more person to heal, one more soul to save, one more lost who needed guidance to God. It was getting to the point where he couldn’t even find a quiet moment for a quiet meal.
Not everyone was excited by these events. Jesus went home presumably to Nazareth, and it was there that his boyhood friends, Awent out to seize him, for they thought he was “beside himself”; which is the Bible’s polite way of saying they thought he was crazy. (3;21) They thought he had gotten a little carried away with this religious stuff; and that all he needed was little less time at the synagogue and maybe a little more time down at the local tavern; and then he might return to his senses. They believed in God, but God had His place; and His place couldn’t possibly be in the boy they had seen grow up in the carpentry shop. God was far away and distant; and could not be so close that you could shake His hand. So, they went out “to seize him” and begin the first experiment in religious de-programming.
There has never been a shortage of false messiahs who proclaimed a unique divine connection. Some of them have just been “beside themselves”, and we treat them in mental health institutions; but others have been deliberate and downright evil. They have led their followers off a cliff by telling them God awaited with open arms. But, they have ended disillusioned or deluded or dead.
The scribes thought Jesus fell into this second category. Jesus’ friends just thought he was crazy. Jesus’ enemies thought him evil. For the Bible said, “They came down from Jerusalem and said that he is possessed by Beelzebul, by the prince of demons, (by Satan himself).” (3:22) The Bible records that Jesus had cast out demons and those possessed had exhibited symptoms ranging from that of epilepsy to schizophrenia to those conditions for which we still have no names. To whatever you attribute the source of their problems; the solution was beyond debate. Before Jesus came they had shown these symptoms; after their encounter with Jesus, they were different people – healthy people, whole people, forgiven people.
There was no question in the minds of Jesus’ friends or enemies that Jesus was responsible for the difference. The debate centered over the question as to where Jesus got the power. The disciples and Jesus himself said the power came from God. The scribes said the power came from Satan.
It was to this accusation that he was acting as an agent of the Devil that Jesus responds with this common sense approach, “Can a house divided stand?” (3:25) Jesus response does not focus on revelation; rather he focuses on reason. In effect he says, “think about what you are saying. Satan wants people to suffer. I alleviate suffering. Satan sponsors hatred – I sow seeds of love. Satan brings death – I bring life. Would Satan cast our Satan?” Anyone with any reason at all could see that good stands against evil and is not its ally. Anyone with a lick of sense would know that good only overcomes evil by the power of God.
This was theology that anyone could understand. While the scribes were looking through their concordance to try to find some rebuttal; Jesus continues his sermon with one of the strongest passages in all of scripture. He says, “Truly , I say to you all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness and is guilty of an eternal sin and judgment of the ages.” (3:28-29)
Now this “no second chance” warning has been troubling to Christians over the years for two reasons: First, it seems to fly in the face of everything else we have come to know and believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ; that is, the gospel is the good news of the second chance for anyone and everyone who has ever fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that God gives up on no one. Second, this passage has been troubling to Christians because they are not sure what it means exactly to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit?”
I think the answer to the first question of why there is no second chance is found in the answer to the second question, “What does it mean exactly?” Over the years I probably have had a dozen people come into my office disturbed and distraught because they have come to believe that they are guilty of “blaspheming” the Holy Spirit. They have been disturbed and distraught because if they are guilty they believe the words of Jesus clearly tell them there is no hope, that they are forever guilty and forever condemned to hell.
When I’ve asked them what they did that led them to the conclusion that they are guilty; their answers have spanned the spectrum from using a curse word in connection to the Holy Spirit to flirting with some occultic practice they read about in a black magic book.
My usual response has been, “If you are worried about, or repentant of, or feel bad about offending God through blasphemy of the Holy Spirit; then you didn’t do it. People who care about what God thinks are not ones who are guilty of this sin.”
So, what is the sin exactly? Remember, when I began this series on the Gospel of Mark I said that Mark did most of his theology through the editor’s pen. Where the other Gospel writers were more obvious in communicating their individual view of the Gospel, Mark keeps it simple and tells you what he thinks by way of connecting the stories.
He has just told the story of the scribes accusation that Jesus’ works were not good and holy and of God; but were rather evil, demonic, and of the devil. Now Mark connects this passage of the “unforgivable sin”. I think he is telling us that “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” does not mean we use some curse word with God’s name; rather it means that we flip-flop righteousness where black becomes white, good becomes evil, and God becomes the devil.
That is, we attribute acts of evil to God and acts of holiness to Satan. What makes that unforgivable is that those who view the world through those upside down glasses would never dream of repenting and turning to righteousness because they have to believe that they are already righteous. That is why there is no forgiveness – none is asked for.
This was the dilemma Abraham Lincoln faced as he tried to hold the Union together. One side felt that slavery was God given, and the other felt it was a sin. There was no room for tolerance, pluralism wouldn’t work, unity in diversity would be an empty slogan to the field hands of Georgia. It was literally a black and white issue and there could no longer be any fence sitting. Everyone needed to get down off the fence on one side or the other. And God help you if you come down on the wrong side; because the result was a war with a winner and a loser. A house divided could not stand.
Lincoln’s warning to the nation echoes through the years to our time and place, to our nation and our church. Maybe you read Bruce Bawer : New York Times column April 5. Speaking to the conflict that takes place in the Church today he writes, “American Protestantism is in the midst of a major shift. It is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity.” Then he cites the Presbyterian Church in particular. “The battle in the Presbyterian Church shows that we are already two churches: a ‘church of law’ and a ‘church of love’.”
Many see the two sides of the fence in just this way, and as an individual you come to believe that you must come down either on the side of love or the side of law. Many believe these two are antithetical, mutually exclusive, contradictory. Those of you who were here last Sunday heard me make a case for Law as being an expression of Love. That is, when I as a parent “lay down the Law to my children”, when I as a parent try to teach my children right from wrong, good from evil; I do so as an expression of my love.
To be sure there are times when they see my direction as being intolerant and not respectful of what they want to do at the moment; but it is my responsibility as a parent to teach them these boundaries for their own good.
God has done the same. God gave His Word, His Law, His Truth, and the Life of His Son Jesus Christ so that broken hearts might be healed, lost souls might be saved, and those who are confused may be given direction.
Speaking for God’s Truth was the impetus for the creation of what we now call the Protestant churches. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk for our denomination writes, “ For the ‘Protest’ in Protestant does not mean to object to something. ‘Protest’ comes from the two Latin words pro meaning `for’ and testari meaning, ‘to speak for’,or ‘to testify for’. Thus the Protestant reformers wanted to state, or to testify to, what they believed the church of Jesus Christ should be! At its best, the Reformed church is always seeking to chance (to reform) from whatever is not right to whatever is correct. The purpose was and is to make right those things that were or are wrong.” (Kirkpatrick, Clifton: What Unites Presbyterians pg. 15)
Our task then is to figure out the difference between that which is holy and good and righteous; and that which is wrong or evil or demonic and work toward the good and against the evil. How do we figure that out? Well, we do three things.
First: We look to Jesus. We gather around Jesus Christ, and we believe we know who he is and what he came to do. We believe that he was sent by God to heal the broken heart, to guide those who lack direction, to preach to those who lack conviction, and to save all who come to him in the repentance of their sins. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, holy, righteous, blameless, perfect.
Second: We look to God’s Word because God’s Word offers the only description we have of the life of Jesus Christ and the events which led to his revelation.
Third: We look to each other. We talk to each other. We check our each other’s theology. For Jesus showed that faith should be able to stand up to reason.
This truth is self-evident, “A house divided cannot stand.” That is why the Apostle Paul fervently pleaded to the Church in Ephesus, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:1)
Lord Jesus, by your grace bring us into your big family. Help us to feel part of the family. Help us to see all people as brothers and sisters in your family. In the name of one who was crucified for hanging out with people like us, we pray. Amen.