Text: Isaiah 65:1-9
Date: Pentecost V + Proper 7 + 6/19/16
In today’s Gospel Jesus heals a man possessed by a demon. There were differing reactions. “When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled.” When the people from town came out and saw this man sane, clothed and sitting at Jesus’ feet “they were afraid” and “asked him to depart from them.” You see, on the one hand no one could deny what they saw with their own eyes. But instead of sensing and maybe believing a divine miracle they didn’t want anything to do with it. They rejected the miracle and the man who performed it.
Now on the surface it at first appears that today’s Old Testament reading was chosen because it mentions “a rebellious people,” “who sit in tombs” and “who eat pig’s flesh,” a thoroughly disgusting idea to any who considered themselves Jews. But the better observation is what the Lord says especially of His people, the nation called by His name. This is the Lord’s answer to the prayer of the previous chapter. But instead of beginning with a promise of acceptance and forgiveness, the first words are a word of judgment. You see, while there were faithful believers still in Israel, only about a third were so. The majority of them, while they still considered themselves “God’s people” were actually guilty of apostasy, dismissing God’s grace and their need for it.
The Lord says of them, “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually.” Nevertheless, “As the new wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” In other words, just because there are a few rotten or useless grapes in the cluster God will “not destroy them all.” Are these what we often refer to as so-called “inactive members”? Maybe it’s more dangerous than that.
As the people in today’s Gospel rejected Jesus even though they saw a miracle with their own eyes, so God’s people have always been in danger of apostasy, abandonment of their previous loyalty of faith. This is what the Apostle John in his first epistle calls “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16). Therefore, today we receive this word of warning to reassure us that our sin has been forgiven, that we have not rejected God and continue to live in His grace and favor.
When we prepare ourselves for worship in the Divine Service we begin the service of Confession and Absolution speaking St. John’s words, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Those are pretty devastating words. Do we or have we ever said “we have no sin”? Only those who reject the truth are so deceived. In this life the Christian faith does not divide people into two distinct groups, believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints. Rather we confess the truth we have learned from scripture, namely, that we are all sinners, and Christians continue to fight against their sin which so easily besets us. But we also believe that God has forgiven our sin, all of it, for the sake of blessed faith in the Person and work of deliverance of our Lord Jesus Christ. So at the same time still tempted and drawn down by our sin, in God’s eyes (truth be told) we are also His holy, forgiven saints. The Latin phrase describes the Christian, “simul justus et peccator,” at once saint and sinner.
Without a lively faith that knows that the Christian life is one of a constant struggle with sin, one can begin to take God’s grace for granted, presume on God’s grace, which is actually to give up the fight and reject God’s grace all together. This is apostasy or St. John’s “sin that leads to death.”
With this phrase John is not speaking of physical death but of the death of saving faith. Have you known anyone who, though once an admitted Christian, has rejected God and gone their own way? I have. And it is a devastating thing to hear and see as one said it to me, “I just can’t believe that Jesus Christ stuff anymore.” But maybe the apostasy isn’t so blatant. St. John says that we are to pray for fellow Christians when we observe that they have fallen into sin, these are “those who commit sins that do not lead to death.” But then he says, “There is sin that leads to death.”
Some have called this the unforgiveable sin or the sin against the Holy Spirit. Christ died for the forgiveness of all sin. In Christ there is no unforgiveable sin, thanks be to God! The so-called “unforgiveable sin” therefore is but the rejection of God’s proffered grace and forgiveness. God does not force Himself or His forgiveness on anyone. But what sort of demonic madness is it that rejects God’s forgiveness? The sin that leads to death, the sin against the Holy Spirit, the unforgiveable sin is the consistent and stubborn refusal to believe in Christ, deliberately opposing the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring a person to faith through the message of Christ.
So it is good, right and salutary for us all to ask, “Have I committed the unpardonable sin?” No one who worries that he or she has committed this sin is guilty of it because the essence of this sin is that a person defiantly and without worry rejects any thought of the need for repentance or faith. “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), forgive and cleanse us every day, every hour of our struggle of faith. He does this because He has brought forth “offspring from Jacob,” His chosen One, our Lord Jesus Christ who “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” See Him then reaching down to you, especially in the blessed sacrament of His body and blood, reaching down with love, forgiveness and power to keep you firm in the one, true saving faith.