Sermon preached by Dr Philip Murray, ordinand
In the Book of Common Prayer’s Order for the Visitation of the Sick we find these words:
‘Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him …’
Here we have the continuation in the Church of England of the sacramental practice of confession and absolution. Cranmer and the other reformers recognised that at certain moments in a person’s life, most especially at points of grave illness, the Church should be called on to lessen the weight of the sins that that person was carrying. Priests were to continue, as they had before the Reformation, to hear confessions of sin, and to proclaim God’s total forgiveness in clear and unambiguous terms.
Ever since sin came into the world, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree in Eden, men and women have suffered under that weight of sin. ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’, Adam tells God in our reading from Genesis. Sin is a turning away from God, a striving to do things on our own and without reference to him. And its most destructive consequence is that in sinning, we tend to be drawn more deeply into yet more sin. That’s because, as our Old Testament reading shows us, sin makes us feel ashamed: the nakedness of Adam in the garden. And the natural consequence of that shame is to turn yet more steadfastly away from God—to hide ourselves. Right at the moment we should be confronting our sins, repenting of them and turning to God for his forgiveness, we hide like Adam in the multi-layered foliage of our lives. The fourth-and-fifth-century Church Father St John Chrysostom described this dynamic as follows: ‘After the sin comes the shame … Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance.’
During the last four years I’ve made regular use of the sacrament of Confession as a way of preventing that hiding from sin. And in doing so I’ve come to experience more profoundly the ever-forgiving love of God. Confession is there to help us all confront our sin and receive God’s forgiveness, and as a way of entering more deeply into the Christian dynamic of sin and redemption it’s second-to-none.
At the same time, a regular practice of Confession, or of any other spiritual aid we might employ to avoid hiding from our sins, isn’t always straightforward. The hiding of Adam can take various forms in each of our lives, even when it seems we are confronting our sins openly. From my own experience, I know that I can be overly scrupulous when it comes to Confession, agonising over my past and spending too long compiling a thorough list of sins, meticulously to be ticked off as I make my Confession. This scrupulosity is nothing more than a distortion of God. It’s a failure fully to trust God, to hand myself over to him and freely to accept his forgiveness. Instead I try to bring about my own absolution, as if God’s forgiveness depends on my activity. And all this means, really, is that I’m like Adam, hiding myself from God as he truly is.
This sort of hiding, of distorting our image of God, is seen in this morning’s Gospel as well. The scribes who’ve come down from Jerusalem refuse to accept that what they’ve heard about and seen of Jesus can be of God. The healings he has performed, the sins he has forgiven, the demons he has cast out: each of these acts is said to be of evil origin, not heavenly. They do not fit into their neat categories and legal delimitations of the divine. ‘He has Beelzebul’ they say of Jesus, ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.
Jesus, surely conscious of the large crowd that presses in on him, offers a strident reply to the scribes. Their attacks on him, he says, make no sense. Why would Satan turn against himself? ‘[I]f Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.’ Jesus acts, rather, on his own authority. ‘TrulyI tell you’, he says, ‘people willbe forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter’. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ: that God became man and dwelt among us, to free us from the sin of Adam and Eve and that shame that turns us further away from God. The scribes, the crowds, all of us are asked to trust in Christ, to have faith in the forgiveness he gives us. Jesus in his miracles, his teaching, his death, resurrection and ascension, shows us the true image of God that frees us from our own sinful distortions.
But what of that bit about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? ‘[W]hoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’. At first glance, these words may seem to be carving out an exception to God’s forgiveness—to be suggesting that that forgiveness isn’t really total and uncompromising. There’s much to feed scrupulosity here! So it’s important we read what Jesus says in its proper context. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Gospel suggests, is closely linked to the scribes’ saying that Jesus had an unclean spirit — that what he promised and did was not truly of God. Jesus was talking of permanent and total impenitence to the point of death—of a person’s refusal to repent of his or her sins and turn to Christ for forgiveness. Remember, it’s the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives to the apostles after his resurrection that grants them his power to forgive and retain sins — the same power for which the Church prays at the ordination of new priests, and which forms the basis of the sacrament of Confession. And it’s in this rejection of Jesus’ forgiveness that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. To quote St Augustine:
[I]mpenitence itself is the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost which hath no remission. For either in his thought or by his tongue, he speaks a word against the Holy Ghost, the forgiver of sins, who treasures up for himself an impenitent heart.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable, an eternal sin, not because God chooses not to forgive, but because the sinner does not turn to Christ to receive God’s forgiveness. What Jesus says about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is an affirmation of, and not a distraction from, the Gospel. It affirms that in Christ is total forgiveness. As we are clothed with Christ in our baptism, we are saved from the nakedness of Adam and the shame of sin. And when we fall into sin, Jesus is forever there, to re-clothe us again: in the Eucharist, in Confession, through his healing and in prayer; in the total life of his Church. It’s this promise that St Paul speaks of so fervently in the second letter to the Corinthians: ‘So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.’
Many of us here this morning will feel neither forgiven nor forgivable; neither loved nor lovable. But in this morning’s Gospel we’re told to trust not in what we feel, but in what Christ promises and has achieved. The cure for the shame we feel over our mistakes, the balm that soothes the troubled consciences to which the Prayer Book refers, the bulwark against my own scrupulosity and self-doubt and fear is simply the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. This is something we cannot manufacture for ourselves. It stands there objectively, freely offered to us all. And for that may we forever give praise and glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.