2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-end.
Three hundred and thirty-four years ago, on the 13th of October 1684, John Child of Bedford committed suicide. Child hanged himself in despair, because he believed he had sinned against the Holy Spirit – the “eternal” sin, that Jesus in today’s gospel says “can never have forgiveness”. Child’s belief that he had sinned against the Holy Spirit may not have been the whole reason for his suicide: he may, for example, have been suffering from severe depression or some other illness that today could be treated or even cured. But there is also no reason to disbelieve that he himself sincerely believed that he had committed the one sin that could not be forgiven: the sin against the Holy Spirit. John Child was an associate of John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who himself for years wrestled anxiously with the possibility that he too had committed this unforgivable sin, but unlike Child, eventually escaped from what he called ‘the Giant Despair’.
Why did Child, unlike Bunyan, surrender to the despair that he had sinned against the Holy Spirit? Bunyan and Child were members of the independent or ‘nonconformist’ congregations which had grown and flourished during the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. But with Cromwell gone and Charles II back on the throne, members of these congregations were often persecuted, prosecuted and, like Bunyan himself, imprisoned for refusing to conform and return to the established Church of England. It was all a bit too uncomfortably like the Communist Party in the 20th century Soviet Union; but fortunately the persecution did not last. Bunyan was set free: he became widely popular as a preacher and writer; and today he is celebrated even in the Church of England, by a lesser festival on August 30th. In England today too, and especially here in Cumbria, the descendants of those 17th century Independent, Congregational and Presbyterian congregations, gathered in the United Reformed Church, are now working increasingly closely with the Church of England and with the Methodists – come to see, next Sunday afternoon in Appleby! But back in the 17th century, at the height of the persecution, it was very different: the pressure on nonconformists to conform to the established church was intense and unremitting – and John Child conformed. Incredible as it may seem to us, but not as it later seemed to John Child, the sin against the Holy Spirit in his case, was bowing to pressure and returning to the Church of England.
How could Child have believed this? Certainly he had betrayed his nonconformist faith and friends by conforming: but was that the one sin that ‘can never have forgiveness’? Had not St Peter betrayed Jesus himself, and yet been forgiven? If John Child sincerely believed that it had been wrong to conform, why did he not have the courage of his convictions, repent, return to nonconformity and be forgiven – rather than taking the infinitely worse option of ending it all in despair? We cannot now know what psychological, family, financial, social or other reasons ultimately drove John Child to take his own life: but we may well wonder what interpretation of Jesus’ teaching could have led Child into such desperation and despair.
What interpretation of Jesus’ teaching could have led Child into such desperation and despair? Quite early in the Church’s history, in the 4th century, St Augustine said that what Jesus meant by the unpardonable sin, was to deliberately, and persistently up to the moment of death, refuse to seek forgiveness, beyond which there was no forgiveness: but Augustine then went on to say who such people were: they were the members of the heretic Christian churches who refused to conform to Augustine’s own Catholic Christian Church; and if, before they died, these heretics did not repent, seek forgiveness and return to the true Church, their sin would not be pardoned and they would suffer eternal damnation. In the centuries that followed, Catholic theologians were to elaborate on the various forms the unforgivable sin could take; and in the 16th century, the Protestant reformer John Calvin argued that those who sinned against the Holy Spirit were people in the church whose faith seemed to be genuine, but really was not, and who would eventually backslide, demonstrating that they were those whom God had elected to damnation and not salvation. This teaching, that people who considered themselves faithful Christians might not really be, was designed to, and clearly did, literally put the fear of God into people like John Child, who could never be sure that whatever they did, they might be damned from the beginning. And their anxiety was only made worse if they happened to belong to a church, sect or denomination which, some other church, sect or denomination, like Augustine, identified as heretical sinners of the unpardonable sin.
Was that really what Jesus meant? Let’s look again at today’s gospel in which he speaks about the sin which ‘can never have forgiveness’. These words come in the middle of an account of how the scribes from Jerusalem, and Jesus’ own family, convinced that Jesus is possessed and ‘has gone out of his mind’, are trying to argue him out of whatever he is up to. What Jesus then says to the scribes, and the apparently callous way he asks “Who are my mother and my brothers?”, may make it seem as if Jesus is both rejecting his own family, and, represented by the Jerusalem scribes, rejecting the Jewish family tradition. But if we see this story in the light of what the gospels also say about what Jesus taught – about God’s justice, love, mercy and forgiveness – all in the true spirit of what the Jewish prophets before him had taught – what we see, is that Jesus was not rejecting either his own family or the Jewish religious traditions, but enlarging them to include ‘whoever does the will of God’. The kind of love Jesus had experienced in his own home, and Israel’s experience of God’s tender love for them as his children, these were not to be their exclusive possession, but were for ‘whoever does the will of God’, under whatever name. All who were prepared to accept the good news, that the all-knowing God, is also the all-loving and all-forgiving God, these were Christ’s mother, brothers and companions in the faith, hope and love that are stronger than death.
But what then of “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”? The Holy Spirit, ‘whom the Father will send in my name’, Jesus says in John’s Gospel, is ‘the Spirit of Truth’. To ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’, in other words, is to deny what you know in your heart to be true. But if you know something to be true, why deny it? – especially if what you know is that God, who knows all, is willing and eager to forgive all, so that all might be one in the encircling love of God. Why deny this? There may be many different reasons. For many people today, they are cultural: the historical legacy of the many ways in which Christians over the centuries have misrepresented the good news has made it all too easy today to dismiss the dimension of faith as irrelevant. But more fundamental, I think, are the twin temptations which Christian wisdom has always warned against, the temptations of pride and despair – pride in imagining that we are better than other people, despair in imagining that we are worse – and at the bottom of it all, fear – fear that we do not really count, that our individual lives do not really matter. Acknowledging our need for forgiveness is the only remedy for this twin trap of pride and despair: for knowing that we are forgiven, forgiving ourselves and forgiving one another, brings us back to our senses, to the knowledge that we are members of one another, who need one another to live and to flourish, to be ‘life-forgiven and more humble’, but also consequently more joyful. As long as we deny this truth hidden at the bottom of our hearts, then perhaps we do ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’ and consequently can ‘never have forgiveness’- never have it because we can never bring ourselves to ask for it. Never that is, until we acknowledge in our own hearts what God, all along, like a good parent, has been waiting for us to discover for ourselves. For, despite what some of our Christian forbears may have said, God is infinitely patient and can wait for us to discover his truth in our own time, in our own way; and even into the mysterious realm of eternity, of which we cannot speak meaningfully, except to say that there also, God is love. And if we still wonder what this verse means, let us be still, and pray in the words of an inspired modern hymn, set to the tune of the Skye Boat Song: “Spirit of God, unseen as the wind, gentle as is the dove: teach us the truth, help us believe, show us the Saviour’s love”.