A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
St. John 16:5-15
by William Klock
Our Gospel today is taken from the same “Farewell Address” that Jesus gave to his disciples in the Upper Room from which last week’s Gospel was taken. Last week he was preparing his disciples for his death and we heard that phrase over and over: “a little while”. “A little while and you won’t see me, but then just a little while and you will see me. A little while and you’ll mourn, but just a little while after that you’ll be rejoicing.” The next day Jesus would be nailed to a cross. They would mourn the death of their friend, but his death had to happen so that on the third day he could conquer death and sin, rising to new life and bringing that new life to his people—bringing them something greater to rejoice over. At his death they would mourn because he was gone, but at his resurrection they would rejoice that he was back—and back with new life.
Now in today’s Gospel Jesus takes up a similar theme. In John 16:5-6 he tells them:
But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.
Jesus had just finished telling his friends how difficult their lives were going to be as his followers. They were going to face persecution and the scorn of the world. As we’ve seen over the last two Sundays, to follow Jesus will cost us something. He calls us to pick up our own crosses—to follow in his example of suffering. But as we’ve been learning, the solution to suffering and sorrows and persecution here on earth is to have our treasure and our hearts in heaven. And Jesus points us to heaven—points us to eternity again. He tells his disciples, “I have to leave you so that I can go back to him who sent me—back to my Father.” And he knew that for them this was a hard thing to hear. He was their friend and teacher and none of them wanted him to go. More importantly, he was the Messiah. They expected him to establish his kingdom. They’d been following him around for three years with the expectation that at some point he was going to throw off his clever disguise, stop playing the part of the poor itinerant preacher, and take up his kingly office, give the Romans the boot, and re-establish David’s kingdom. And now he says, “It’s time for me to go back to my Father.” And the disciples are thinking, “Um…but Jesus, you haven’t done anything yet! Jesus, have we been wasting our time following you these last three years?”
And yet Jesus knows what they don’t. Jesus had a heavenly and eternal perspective, and so he says to them—he reassures them:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
The disciples already had their own idea of what it was Jesus had been sent to do. As far as they were concerned, it was all about having Jesus with them—having Jesus in the world. And it’s hard to think otherwise. I doubt that any of us would pass up the chance to go back in time and follow Jesus around with those men—to see him, to see his own example, to see his works of mercy, and to hear him teach and preach. That would be absolutely amazing. Nothing could equal that—at least up to that point in time. But Jesus tells them: there is something better. In fact, he tells them: “It’s actually better for you that I go, because having me with you in Spirit is going to be far better than having me with you physically. I need to go back to my Father so that I can send you the ‘Helper’.” The Greek word he uses is Parakletos, which carries the idea of both an advocate—someone like a lawyer who speaks on your behalf and in your defence, someone who will apply the saving work of Jesus—but also the idea of a helper—and that may be the best way for us to understand what Jesus is getting at. Here he’s been teaching the disciples for three years about what it means to live in his kingdom, he’s now about to offer himself as a sacrifice for sins, but somehow the new life he’s about to make possible has to be applied to those who believe and trust in him, somehow his kingdom has to be brought into existence now that he’s laid the foundation for it. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit—the Helper—who will take the work Jesus has done and actually apply it to his people. Jesus laid all the groundwork for his kingdom—for his Church—but it’s the Holy Spirit who actually creates the Church. So as long as Jesus was here, he could talk and talk and talk about his kingdom, but until he left and sent the Holy Spirit to do his part of the work, the kingdom—the Church—would just be talk. Jesus could die and rise again for our salvation, but since it’s the Spirit who comes to indwell us and through that to connect us to Jesus—it’s the Spirit who makes us the Body of Christ—as long as Jesus was here on earth, the new life he offered could never actually be ours. If we want to take part in everything Jesus offers, it means he has to return to his Father—he has to leave us and send his Spirit.
The disciples thought that life in the physical presence of Jesus was the pinnacle of spiritual life, but Jesus is saying, “No. I’ve actually got something better in mind for you. I have done and will do some great things for you while I’m here with you, but it’s my Holy Spirit who’s going to actually take what I do and apply it to your lives. You may think it’s great to have me standing here next to you, but just wait. When the Holy Spirit comes to you, I won’t just be standing next to you—I’ll be in you and you’ll be in me!
That’s the mission of the Spirit—to make known the things that Jesus did and then to apply them in the world and especially in the lives of his people. Look at what Jesus says about the Holy spirit in verses 8 to 11:
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
And this is exactly what happened when the Holy Spirit came. When Jesus sent the Spirit down on Pentecost it was like a flood of light from heaven that exposed the darkness and sin and wickedness of the world. On that day everything that they had seen and heard while walking with Jesus for those three years suddenly came together, suddenly made sense. The Spirit gave understanding and Peter got up and preached to the crowd—he preached the Gospel that men are sinners, but that God is a great Saviour and that through Jesus they could find forgiveness and restoration. And as Peter proclaimed that Spirit-inspired message—as he shone the light of heaven into the darkness of the world, St. Luke tells us that the thousands there were “cut to the heart” and that they asked Peter and the apostles, “What do we do now?”
And the Spirit gave the answer just as Jesus said he would. The Spirit’s work is to point us to the perfect righteousness of Jesus—to show us that without him there is no righteousness. And here’s something important to notice: Just as Jesus never sought his own glory, but was always seeking to glorify his Father; the Holy Spirit never seeks his own glory and never points to himself, but always points us to Jesus, always works to help us to glorify our Saviour. The Spirit shines the light of Christ into the hearts of sinners and turns our eyes to heaven. But on the flip side of that, in pointing men to Christ for righteousness, the Spirit also brings judgement to those who refuse his light. As St. John wrote, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). And yet the Spirit’s work in convicting the world of the judgement it deserves for rejecting the light, is a source of confidence for the saints. The Spirit is himself proof that Jesus has defeated Satan—that when he rose from the dead he did so as the conqueror of sin and death. Remember that Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of fun and games. He tells us that we will suffer for our faith at the hands of those who reject him. He bore a cross and he tells us that if we want to follow him, we have to bear our own crosses. And so he sent his Spirit, not only to apply his righteousness to us, but to give us strength and to comfort us. Again, the Spirit is “the Helper”, as John describes him. Charles Simeon wrote: “Are we bowed down with a sense of sin? we may be sure that Christ has sent his Spirit to work that conviction in us; and that, if we be instant in prayer, he will, by the same Spirit, lead us also to a view of his righteousness. Are we ready to despond by reason of the power of sin? the resistance which the Holy Spirit has enabled us already to make to its dominion, is a pledge that “we shall be more than conquerors, through Him that loved us.” Let us only seek the Spirit as our Comforter, and we need regret no loss, no pain, no trouble, that may be the means of bringing him into our hearts.”
Of course, the disciples didn’t understand all this yet. Jesus tells them:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (John 16:12)
I’ve often wondered why Jesus didn’t just explain everything to his disciples up-front and in plain English so that they would have been prepared for his arrest, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, and his sending the Spirit. To me it just seems like it would have made sense for them to be fully informed—knowing exactly what was happening when he died and not having to mourn—knowing that he was going to rise. They could have gone to the tomb on Easter morning, joyfully confirming what they knew. No one would have doubted his resurrection when he appeared to them. They would have been excited at his ascension and expecting the Spirit. But instead Jesus chose to speak to them in riddles and parables. In his wisdom and sovereignty that’s how God works. When Adam and Eve sinned, he didn’t send Jesus to save them the next day, instead he gradually revealed his plan over the millennia. And so Jesus now tells them: “I’ve got more to tell you, but right now you’re not ready—you wouldn’t understand.” It was after his resurrection that St. Luke tells us Jesus poured over the Scripture with them so that they would understand. And yet even then, until he left and the Spirit came, their understanding wasn’t complete—they hadn’t had the “ah-ha!” moment yet. That came at Pentecost.
Jesus tells them: “I can tell you this much now, but you won’t be ready for the whole story until I’ve gone and sent my Spirit to you.”
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:13)
That’s the Spirit’s job—to guide his people into truth—guiding the Church today spiritually the way the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire guided the Old Testament Church in the wilderness. Again, the Spirit applies the work of Jesus. In a lot of ways, modern Christians have confused or at least developed an unhealthy image of the Holy Spirit and what he does. Last year I saw poll results collected by Barna showing that, depending on the age group, 55 to 78%—the majority—of Pentecostals and Charismatics define the Holy Spirit as a “force”, not as a “person”. Sadly, I don’t know that the statistics would be much different for other Christian groups. But, brothers and sisters, that means that the majority are functional heretics—denying one of the most basic and essential truths of the faith. The Holy Spirit isn’t an impersonal “force”. He’s not something we can control like Obi Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader controlled the “Force” in Star Wars. The Holy Spirit is a person and that means he acts deliberately and with purpose and that, being God, he is sovereign in his actions. But it’s not just that. I’ve noticed that we tend to think of the Holy Spirit only, or at least mostly, in personal terms—what the Spirit does or how he acts for mepersonally. One of the greatest errors that arose in the last century was to separate the gift of the Spirit from Holy Baptism and from regeneration and conversion. That sort of thinking blinds people to the most critical work of the Spirit: the creation and oversight of the Church. It encourages Christians to think in terms of the individual instead of understanding that we are all vitally linked together as the Body of Christ—that’s what the Spirit does.
I found it interesting in that over the past year I decided to reread Francis Hall’s ten-volume Dogmatic Theology. A friend of mine was looking at the books and made the observation: There’s a whole volume on “God”, another whole volume on “The Trinity” and two whole volumes on the person and work of Jesus, but judging from the titles, none of the volumes deals directly with the Holy Spirit. As I pointed out, however, the Holy Spirit is the main focus of one of the longest volumes in the series: the volume on “The Church”. Yes, the Spirit works in each of us individually, but his ultimate purpose in doing so is to bring Jesus’ people together. He unites us to Jesus and makes us his Body and for that reason there’s no such thing as a loner Christian. We need the Church. St. Paul draws on that body imagery and reminds us that for a Christian to leave the Church would be like an eye or an ear or a finger or a toe deciding to leave the body—it just doesn’t work that way. To leave the Church is to leave Jesus’ Body and to blasphemously and deliberately undo the work of the Holy Spirit.
And notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “Peter, the Spirit will guide you into truth. John, the Spirit will guide you into truth. James, the Spirit will guide you into truth.” No, he points to them all as a group and says, “The Spirit will guide y’all—you all, my Church—into truth.” Just as the Spirit equips us each for ministry for the express purpose that the Body as a whole can function for ministry, so the Spirit also guides us as a whole. One thing you notice as you study the history of the Church is that it’s those who withdraw from the Church—who decide that they’re going to go into the closet, just them and their Bibles, and try to start over from scratch and develop a faith based on pure biblical doctrine—those are always the ones who wind up in serious error; those are the ones as we’ve seen this week spending millions of dollars spreading a false and horribly damaging message that Jesus is coming back on such-and-such date; those are the ones who start cults. You also see that those groups that separate themselves and withdraw from that thing we affirm every week in the Creed—the Catholic Church, that Body founded by Jesus on the Apostles and their line and teaching and ministry—those groups that separate from that Church, inevitably drift further and further from the teaching of the apostles with every generation and every further split. Why? Because this is what Jesus promised: His Spirit would guide his Church into truth collectively, as his Body. Christians need each other in order to function the way he intended. And when I say we need each other, I don’t just mean that you and I here need each other. We as a group need the rest of the Church Catholic—both our brothers and sisters here in the Church Militant, but also our brothers and sisters who have gone before us and are now part of the Church Triumphant—the ones whom the Spirit led into truth before us.
It’s all part of the Spirit’s work of applying Jesus to us. He unites us in Jesus’ Body and as he guides us into truth, it’s specifically Jesus’ truth. Jesus goes on:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
Brothers and sisters, if we want real life, real power, and real vitality, we need to follow the advice St. James gives us in the Epistle: “Be quick to hear and slow to speak.” The power of God—the new life he offers and the light that we should be shining brightly in the world as Easter people—are here in the truth that the Holy Spirit communicates to us so powerfully—the message of the Gospel itself and the Word of God.
The uncompromised proclamation of the Word of God and his Gospel has always been the power behind the Church. I was reading this week about Martin Luther. The Reformation that he kicked off was powerful precisely because it was rooted in the Gospel, but toward the end of his life, Luther feared that the power might be lost even in the next generation. He saw too many people leaving the Gospel, leaving the Word of truth, and looking for power in other places. In his day it was often the relics of the saints—a coat supposedly once worn by Jesus, a finger bone from St. Joseph, a vial of the Virgin Mary’s milk, a piece of the cross—it’s said there were enough of those kicking around Europe to build a galleon. Why would people flock to see these things, even spending large amounts of money to do so? They did so because their lives were spiritually empty and they wanted spiritual power. In the 16th Century they looked for power in the bones and possessions of the dead.
And we hear that and think it’s silly. We’re above that…we think. And yet I talk to Christians and I read books and see things on T.V. that tell me we’re not very different. People today are just as hungry for the things of the Spirit and so they go looking for “signs and wonders”. As if the power of the Gospel to transform sinners into saints isn’t enough, they’ve got to add the latest fad, whether it’s hysterical laughter or preachers who dress like bikers and kick elderly women in the face to supposedly heal them of cancer. Someone recently directed me the website of a local group wanting to bring revival and the tagline at the top was something about what God is doing “through the wineskin of relational honour.” I saw and thought, “Huh?” I don’t even know what that means. The website emphasises a lot of different things, but looking down the page what was conspicuously absent was any mention of the Gospel. How does revival happen without the Gospel? The Enemy knows where our real power is and he’ll do anything he can to distract us from it.
Brothers and sisters, let us not be distracted from power of God’s Word. R.C. Sproul writes this: “The true power, the power that will change your life, is the power…of God the Holy Spirit, and God promises to attend the preaching of His Word with that power. Preaching has no power unless God the Holy Spirit takes His Word and penetrates hearts with it. That’s where power is.” And that’s what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel. If we want to be Easter people, if we want to be people full of the Spirit and full of spiritual life and vitality, we need to be people steeped in the Word and in the Gospel that Jesus declares to us and applies to our hearts by his Spirit. If we want to transform our world, the power to do that comes as we first allow the Spirit to transform our own lives with the Gospel message. If we want to be bearers of the light of Christ—burning brightly and holding it high—the solution isn’t in gimmicks, it’s not to add things to the Gospel—it’s to live the Gospel itself and to carry the Gospel message to the people around us—the message that men and women are great sinners, that Jesus Christ is an even greater Saviour, and that true life flows through his cross.
Please pray with me: “Heavenly Father, we are nothing without you. We are sinners who can do no good without your help. We are poor and weak and powerless without your help. And so we give you thanks and praise that in your love for us you not only sent your Son to restore us but also sent your Spirit to be our Helper—to draw us to yourself and to apply your Gospel to our hearts. But Father, as we seek to follow you, as we desire spiritual vitality, as we seek to carry your message to the world and bring transformation, remind us that true power isn’t found in gimmicks or fads, but in the transforming power of your Spirit who always accompanies the proclamation of your Word, of your Gospel. And so we ask, through our Lord Jesus Christ, let that Gospel transform our lives by the power of your Spirit and let us never be ashamed to proclaim it. Amen.