Sinning against the Holy Spirit

Pentecost 2

40th anniversary of Bishop Mary’s ordination to the Diaconate

Gen 3:8-15; Ps 130; 2 Cor 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.’ (Mark 3:24-25)

It is a real pleasure to welcome Bishop Mary today at the Cathedral, as we celebrate with her the 40th anniversary of her ordination to the diaconate, the point at which her journey in ordained ministry formally started, fresh out of college and ready to change the world through sacraments, prayer and action. I am sure Bishop Mary will have many tales to tell about the ways in which the predictability of ministry turned out to be anything but and that she, like most of us in ministry, will have both rejoiced at the privilege of meeting people in their greatest hour of need and at other times railed at God for taking her to dark places she did not expect and did not want to face. We are certainly grateful for her continued ministry among us after so many years.

The readings specified for us by the Lectionary for today might not seem particularly promising for such a celebration, and yet they speak powerfully to us of the tensions of ministry as well as the promise of redemption.

These past weeks, our hearts have been full of sorrow and anger after the announcement by the Chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of the discovery of the bodies of 215 children at the site of an unmarked burial ground at a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.

This has shocked the world while at the same time not being unexpected, given the tales of disappeared children who had never returned home. For us, it was even more shocking that these deaths should have happened under the auspices of Christian organisations – in this case Roman Catholic, but we sadly have our own Anglican shared history in these horrific events.

We can argue that they were different times, different mores, different understandings. But it is hard to reconcile our faith which includes Jesus’s call that all little children should be allowed to come to him, and these barbaric acts that left countless unremembered children killed even under the care of people who followed Jesus’ way, barbaric acts which were done in the name of God.

There is now a lot of soul searching and finger pointing at religious organisations. In the end, if the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process means anything, it is that we will not be able to escape our collective national complicity nor our share of the blame in this traumatic past, even if it shatters our illusions about who we really are as a people.

Our Gospel passage may help to illuminate both the themes we have in front of us today – a call to service as well as the discernment of God’s will.

The portion from St Mark’s gospel follows another encounter of Jesus with the crowds where he was pressed from all sides, having taught with authority, and having healed many from diseases and casting out their demons. He had also just chosen his twelve apostles.

Inevitably, people are asking questions – Who is this man? Where does he get his power? Will he just be another flash in the pan?

Because of the pressures of the ministry at hand, the word is that Jesus and his companions could not even eat, and on hearing this, his family wants to go and help him, and ‘restrain him’ so that he may get some peace and some food.

However, when they arrive, they are considered outsiders, and have to stay on the periphery. They cannot talk to Jesus directly, but instead have to send word through the crowd. Jesus’ response is rather astonishing, relativizing his blood-family relationships, and instead emphasizing his relationship with all those who are doing the will of God, creating therefore a new community, an alternative family. This is revolutionary in his Jewish context, because it can be seen to undermine family as the building block of social stability by providing a new different basis for solidarity.

For Jesus, community is created through obedience to God, not just through birth.

(All of us wrestling with our Christian vocation will know how challenging and difficult that can be of course, and how painful and damaging that might be to family members, especially in clergy households where there is always pressure to do ‘more ministry’ and carve less time for family.

Thankfully, over time, we have come to realise the importance of the the right balance between God’s call in ministry and the mutual care and support that family can bring in this endeavour.

+Mary, after forty years, you and your family are for us a good example, doubtless honed in after years of difficult balancing and compromise.)

Sandwiched in the middle of this episode we hear of the scribes who see Jesus as an agent of darkness, himself possessed, because he is able to cast out demons.

As usual, Jesus answers in a parable to try and catch them out. Satan would not cast evil out which would be akin to shooting oneself in the foot, nor would he want to divide the kingdom of evil and darkness, lest the whole would fall like a house of card.

Jesus uses the vivid image of the invasion of a house and the binding of a strong man – which reminds us that the battle between God and evil is indeed a violent and deathly business.

But Jesus continues with an offer of amazing grace to those who feel they may be lost: all the sins and blasphemies committed will be forgiven, except blasphemies against the Holy Spirit which will result in ‘eternal sin’.

And what is this blasphemy? Here we are told that it is directed at those who dismiss Jesus’ casting of demons by calling the work of God in Jesus the work of the Devil, and therefore not allowing even a possibility of belief in the power of Good.

As I was pondering on this text, my heart was heavy at the scanning of history and the involvement of the Church in acts of great violence, or of great silence in the face of great violence, committed against minorities of all sorts in the name of God through particular understanding of God’s call which resulted in just such denials.

And how we can still today look at people who seem different from us, have a different skin colour, who worship differently, behave differently, speak other languages and have different customs, and we can still say: there is nothing of God in them – denying them their God given humanity, their belonging in the community of Christ, and thereby committing a sin against the Holy Spirit.

(In his ‘Screwtape Letters’, a book of letters between Uncle Screwtape – Satan’s agitator in chief – and his nephew Wormwood, a jobbing devil whose task is to temp humankind, CS Lewis writes:

‘My dear Wormwood, be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work, Uncle Screwtape.)

Today, I feel great sorrow at the discovery in Kamloops, and at all the undiscovered atrocities yet to come to light. And I can’t fathom out how anyone could do this to defenceless children other than having totally denied their humanity and committing a grave sin against the Holy Spirit.

Yet the question facing each and every one of us today is when and how often do we find ourselves in situations when we, knowingly or unknowingly, metaphorically kill people with our words and our actions, shunt them out through established systemic practices which we can conveniently refute, and thus deny the spirit of God present in them.

It’s probably not quite the sermon that our Bishop was expecting today, yet her celebration of forty years as a deacon gives us energy and hope. Hope, because the servant ministry of the church is one which brings reconciliation in word and deeds, one which seeks to engage with the needs of the world and bring them to our altars, together with the gifts of bread and wine, the staple foods of the day, which become for us the focal point of the body of the Risen Christ amongst us.

Deacons are called to go out to the highways and byways and take comfort and the Good News of God’s love to those in needs, and come and tell the tales to the community of Jesus to which they belong.

We are blessed with Permanent Deacons, such as Peter Huish amongst us, and the late Bob Coolidge who was a stalwart advocate of the diaconate.

I am always struck by the title ‘transitional deacons’ given on this side of the Atlantic to the newly ordained who will, a year or so later, be ordained priests. Because of course once we are ordained a deacon, we always remain a deacon, and then add the Order of Priest, and in the case of +Mary, the Order of Bishop.

The servant ministry of the church is also embodied in all of you, through the vows made at your baptisms:

– to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers;
– to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;
– to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ;
– to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself;
– and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Bishop Mary, blessings on this significant anniversary of ministry. And to all of you, may God guide you in your ministries, that together we may continue to grow as the Body of Christ and witness to his love in this world and specifically our little patch of Downtown Montreal, now and always.


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