A Sin against the Holy Spirit

Trinity I – 2012

 A Sermon  human cruelty preached on Sunday 10 June 2012 at St Lawrence,North Hinksey and St Margaret’s, Binsey

Fr. Martin Henig

Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mark 3,28-29)


+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen


What might be ‘a sin against the Holy Spirit’? In the immediate context of the Gospel passage selected for today’s Eucharist, we seem to be concerned with a quarrel between scribes from Jerusalem and the Jesus movement in Galilee , the former questioning the authority of Jesus’ acts of healing, and ascribing them to the work of a demon. Whether the incident  concerns Jesus’ own problems orreflects  those encountered by his followers later (or both)  the passage has a fairly narrow remit.

If we are  Trinitarian Christians  we have to take the work of the Holy Spirit seriously; if  like me your approach to religious truth is both inclusive and ecumenical you will see the hand of the Holy Spirit everywhere, and you will in any case want to apply the concept far more widely, by asking oneself exactly what sins seem to one hard to forgive, and maybe  even hard for God to forgive.

Sin, defined as a falling away from God, a distancing  from God, is unfortunately all around us and has been from the time of the Fall. In our daily reflections, privately or in the formal services of the Eucharist or the  Daily Office we repent of these sins ‘whose memory is grievous unto us’ and are given Absolution by God through the priest. The Church also has a  ministry of Sacramental Reconciliation or Confession. In all such sins there are  elements of what the later Middle Ages called the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ – Pride, Envy, Sloth, Covetousness, Anger, Lust  and Gluttony. These ‘cardinal sins’ can find expression  in a mild form- and who has not manifested each of these failings at some time?- but they can on occasion lead to actions and states of mind that seriously inhibit the action of God’s Grace. They, as it were, block the arteries of love and compassion because they are all about self-regard.

Institutions, both of State and Church, are often touched by  the self same sins for they are human institutions. Last week we sung at our evensong service G.K.Chesterton’s great hymn  O God of earth and altar which prays for liberation from pride, covetousness and sloth. It is so easy to take too much pride in the external trappings of the Church and ignore the message that should lie at the very heart of our faith; it is so easy to be ‘sectarian’, angry at the acts of others and blind to our own failings; it is so easy to take refuge in a false patriotism, in ‘the easy speeches/ that comfort cruel men’ and in  envying  others whole states have done evil. How often as communities and individuals we denigrate others so that other people, whether gypsies, asylum seekers or benefit scroungers are seen as bad rather than as fellow humans in difficulty? We concentrate on minor perceived failings and give them undue importance while ignoring our own actions, those of our society and of our churches which have  the propensity to cause hurt, misery and suffering. We condemn the fault that lies outside us and ignores the canker  that lies within.

How easily it seems such apparently minor sins can be fanned into acts of real horror. Alas, you do not need to go very far to find instances of horrendous evil. The past week has seen disturbing scenes of massacre including the killing of children in Syria. We do not need to travel back too far in history to be confronted with massacres in Bosnia, Ruanda, or Cambodia. The image of  the Shoa (or Holocaust) in which six million Jews were systematically murdered during the Second World War comes to mind and before that the Armenian Massacres. This list is very far from complete even for the past hundred years or so. Amongst all the comments made, the wisest is perhaps that uttered by the Late Rabbi Hugo Gryn. The question to ask, he said, is not ‘Where was God?’ but ‘Where was man?’ It is all too easy to blame others, whether the current Syrian regime, Serbs, Huttus, the Khmer Rouge, the Germans orthe Turks.  Let us remember for example the British slave-ships running between Africa and the Caribbean in the 18th century, the gratuitous cruelty of burning and hanging drawing and quartering in the 16th and 17th century period in Britain itself and the public love of public executions which continued into the railway age. Some of the earliest train excursions into Oxford were arranged in order to make it easy for people in the small towns of Oxfordshire to see people being hanged.

In order for any of these events to happen it was necessary for those who performed them and those who supported them to be massively desensitised.  And such desensitisation is not confined by any means to cruelty to people. Cruelty to animals has the same result, as is proved by the link, now well established, between cruelty to animals and the abuse of children in the same household. There are so many stories of  very cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, and indeed while the public is happy to see scenes of grain and vegetables being harvested, people avoid seeing or thinking about where their meat comes from. Compassion in World Farming  has just put out a video of very upsetting scenes of the mistreatment of cattle prior to slaughter in Egypt. But  there is also enormous cruelty in the force-feeding of geese for the production of pate de foi gras . But what about the vast number of poultry killed for fast food restaurants, the pig industry (remembering pigs are as highly developed as dogs) and what about the whole practice of killing animals generally? It would not be possible to work in a slaughterhouse killing animal after animal unless one ceased to feel the life-giving emotions of love and compassion, that is unless one was desensitised and ceased to think of one’s victims as one’s sisters and brothers. It worries me that it is so easy for us to become accessories after the fact as customers, as consumers of  meat beautifully packaged in supermarkets and  by simply ignoring very unpleasant facts. Once one sees either other people or other animals merely as things rather than as living creatures, as the  ‘other’, all manner of evil is possible.

There are two aspects, the effect on the victim and the effect on those who perform  cruel acts or perform killing. I want to emphasise the latter aspect here, because while empathy is a pathway for the Holy Spirit; those who have been desensitised have lost that saving connection with God. While in this world the position of the victim is worse, we should not forget the problem of evil in general. There have always been animals (including humans) killed by accident, or by the powers of nature such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods and forest fires let alone epidemic and other diseases. Moreover many animals have to prey on others for food (and there is an argument that subsistence hunting by humans is legitimate). This is a large problem but we can hope as our faith encourages us, that through the saving power of God’s Grace all victims will find peace with the rest of Creation, or at least that part of it which is in accord with God’s will . I have been thinking about this problem for many years, long before my own conversion, but it was the realisation that God himself, in the person of Jesus, was himself the victim alongside those who were martyred for the faith that he proclaimed, that drew me to Christianity and a burning desire to serve Christ , however inadequately, in the spirit of love proclaimed in the Gospel.

What of those who have committed such evil that the deeds they have done amounts to the unforgivable ‘in against the Holy Spirit’?  We can only quote Our Lord in the context of the salvation of the   rich: ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matt. 19:26).   We cannot judge in any absolute sense of course, and it may be that God in his infinite kindness can even rescue the horrendously evil from the hells they have created for themselves, that somehow the desensitised can again find the lost path and learn to love. But, for ourselves, we should not count on it. Thus we must try to be as compassionate to all creation , as we possibly can at all times, not only for the sake of others but for the sake of our own immortal souls.

There is no room for complacency here. It is very easy to avoid seeing cruelty. That too is a gross act of desensitisation. People who were not involved could ignore pogroms and other genocides by ‘not knowing’. People did not know about the Concentration camps. Too often when children have been bruised and battered, even killed, the neighbours did not want to interfere. None of us want to visit a slaughterhouse or even want to know what that building is where double stacked lorries of bleating sheep enter never to re-emerge. I am afraid I did not dare to look at Compassion in World Farming’s video footage of  some of the horrific abuses it has uncovered. We tend not to ask; we prefer not to testify.

But if one had been in Jerusalem two thousand years ago and saw a man carrying a cross, one might well have turned to one’s companion, talked about the weather or more probably discussed that year’s Passover meal. I fear I might have done so,.

But let me end on a calmer note. Someone I hold in high regard, and who was honoured by the Anglican Church  on Friday would not have passed by on the other side. Thomas Ken was born in 1637 and died in 1711, on 19 March [his day has been transferred to June so it  falls outside Lent]. Ken is best known for his Morning and Evening hymns and we will sing the second of these, Glory to thee my God this night shortly. Education in Oxford prepared him for high office in the church but as Bishop of Bath and Wells he withstood  James II as one of the seven bishops , but having taken an oath to James, he refused to disavow the oath he had taken and lived the remainder of his life as a non juror. On his death-bed he proclaimed :

I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.

May this understated declaration of faith by a kind, compassionate and dedicated man, who would seem to have been a 17th century version of Dylan Thomas’s Rev Eli Jenkins and not just for his Sunset poem, ,  keep us all safe from sinning against the Holy Spirit.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen