Our guest blogger today is the Reverend Robin Fish, Jr., the pastor who filled in for me while I was on vacation this past weekend. As I was, Pastor Fish is a pastor without a congregation--in his case, very much without cause. He currently serves as the organist for Epiphany Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and he serves as Executive Assistant to the Editor and Distribution Coordinator for "Good News", a magazine produced by the Lutheran Heritage Foundation. He has his own blog--where this sermon was first posted--called A Fort Made of Books. If any of you vacant congregations out there are looking for a faithful Lutheran pastor, don't overlook Pastor Fish! Tell all your friends (and district presidents) that this man needs to be serving a parish!
What with stores being open seven days a week, there are ten shopping days between now and Ascension Day. Then there are nine shopping days between Ascension and Pentecost. A week later, we will celebrate the Holy Trinity. So the next handful of weeks are packed with days whose Christian meaning we would do well to pause and ponder. But more likely, we will not pause to ponder much. Life goes on at its rapid pace. Even to many who worship regularly, those squares on the calendar represent no more than any other Sunday, when perhaps we will roll our eyes and check our watch and wish the preacher wouldn’t ramble about today’s importance in the church year.
Actually, today is no more special than any other Sunday. The Divine Service for this Sunday has a name—Cantate—but that’s only because the Introit begins with the words Cantate Domino, “Sing to the Lord a new song.” This Sunday doesn’t celebrate any person or happening, other than the regular, every-Sunday celebration of Christ and His rising from the dead. Mother’s Day isn’t until next week. So what is it about today that’s worth getting up and dragging yourself to church? The answer is: The word of God.
But… When are we without the word of God, especially on Sunday morning? You can find the Word of God any week, and any day of the week, if you know where to look for it. But this Sunday’s selections from Scripture are so rich, I want you to notice what they have in store for you. If you do, you might become, like me, a fan of Easter 5. Today’s readings, especially the Gospel, give us so much. They give us Jesus’ teaching about Ascension, and Pentecost, and the Trinity, weeks before their scheduled time. Jesus tells us what the proclamation of His word is all about, what it will lead to. Together with the lessons from James and Isaiah, today is rich in testimony to the power of God’s Word.
Let’s consider first what Jesus has to say. It’s the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. He has been talking to His disciples about going away for a while, then coming back again. The disciples are too disturbed by these sayings to ask any intelligent questions. So Jesus says, “But now I go away 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. 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 depart, I will send Him to you.”
So let’s ask the question Jesus’ disciples didn’t ask: “Where was He going?” A careful interpreter could stand here all day and shwaffle over whether Jesus is talking about His death and resurrection, or about His ascension and return on Judgment Day. But let’s cut through the shwaffle. When Jesus talks about the Helper coming after He goes away, He is clearly foretelling the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, ten days after His Ascension. The Spirit proceeded from Jesus as He died on the cross. Jesus breathed the Spirit on His disciples after He rose from the dead. This same Spirit, Jesus promises in today’s Gospel, would finally be poured out in a mighty, miraculous way after His Ascension. The Spirit’s job is to help the disciples after Jesus stops being visibly present on earth. After Jesus has ascended far above the heavens to fill all things, after Jesus has sat down at the right hand of God, then the Helper comes.
And what is the Helper supposed to do? Jesus says: “He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” That sounds impressive, but how many of you understand it? Not to worry; Jesus explains: “Of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” Oh, thank you! That is so much more clear!
Actually, this isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. Impressive, yes; mysterious, no. The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world, or to bring the world to a conviction—in other words, to convince people concerning three things: sin, righteousness, and judgment. The messages of sin and righteousness are as simple as our familiar friends Law and Gospel. By the message of Law the Holy Spirit must convict you of sin. Why? Because you are indeed a sinner, by nature unable to please God. Unless you are convinced of this, at best, you will go on trying to please God by your own deeds and virtues. You will never truly know God or how to find favor with Him, unless the Holy Spirit convicts you of sin.
Likewise, by the message of the Gospel the Holy Spirit must convict you of righteousness. Why? Because the righteousness of the crucified and risen Christ covers your sins and makes you righteous in God’s sight. This is a gift that you can only receive through faith in Christ. And yet this is such a foolish message that no one would accept it without a Holy Spirit-powered miracle in the heart. So the message itself creates in you the ability to believe what the message promises: forgiveness of all your sins, for Jesus’s sake. When the Spirit does this miracle in you, He convicts you of righteousness.
The third message—judgment—is a reminder that Jesus is not going away forever; He will return to settle accounts, punish evil, and reward good. This is a warning against those who remain unconvinced by the Spirit’s teaching of sin and righteousness. But it is a message of comfort to all who believe. Why? Because in our daily struggles against the temptations of the flesh, the sorrows of the world, and the flaming darts of Satan, we have the assurance that our victory has already been won. The ruler of this world has been judged. The devil has already been defeated. And He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
So we know three things, and we know them only through the help of the Helper: Sin, because of which we can do nothing without Christ; Righteousness, our new status before God, which is a gift purchased in Jesus’ blood; and Judgment, because God expects us to live from now on as though freed from sin and growing in righteousness—and yet because of our weakness we need to be constantly assured that our Judge’s final verdict has been locked in since Jesus raised his voice on the cross and cried, “It is finished!”
Now back to our original question, the one Jesus’ disciples were afraid to ask: Where was Jesus going? Or rather, why did He have to go? The answer: Jesus has gone away so that the Holy Spirit can use the means Jesus appointed to bring many, many more people to faith. And that is what happened, not only along the Lake of Galilee or on the Mount of Olives, but throughout the world. Jesus has gone away from us, not to hurt our feelings or to put us to the test. Rather, Jesus has withdrawn His visible presence so that His word and sacrament can have free reign throughout the world. Now the living voice of Jesus can be heard wherever His message is preached—neither more here than there, nor less. Now the preaching of Law must convict us of sin, because within each of our hearts there is still an unbeliever. Now the Gospel must convict us of righteousness, because Jesus isn’t here to show us His nailwounds. Now our victory over Satan, sin, and death must be proclaimed to us in the power of the Spirit, because our experiences often raise doubt as we daily stumble, as we succumb to temptation, as we suffer in body and mind, in family and career, and in so many ways we do not understand.
The Holy Spirit works to create these convictions not only through the spoken Word, but also through the sacraments, which I may be forgiven for calling “God’s sign language.” I’m not saying the sacraments are only signs. God’s word clearly reveals that Baptism washes away sins and causes us to be born again. God’s word teaches that when we receive the Lord’s Supper, our mouths are really eating and drinking Jesus’ body and blood, and so we receive a medicine for sin and death that operates on our bodies as well as our souls. The Sacraments are not only signs; but like the message preached and taught, they are a kind of language that God uses to convict us of sin, righteousness, and judgment—and so the Sacraments are also vessels of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a peculiar slander that Pentecostal Christians like to hurl at Lutherans. It’s implied by a poster I recently saw, showing a blown-up image of an electrical plug and the words: “The Christian who neglects the Holy Spirit is like a lamp that’s not plugged in.” The implied question is: “How can you think you’ve got Christianity right when you neglect the Holy Spirit?” This type of question had led a lot of Lutherans to be seduced into Pentecostalism. Is it true, though? It is true that our focus is centered on Christ, on His cross and resurrection, on His word and sacraments, and on His promises, chiefly the forgiveness of sins. It is true that, unlike many Pentecostals, we do not dwell at length on so-called spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, prophecy, faith-healing, and so on. But does this make us guilty of neglecting the Holy Spirit?
This is where the second half of today’s Gospel comes in. Jesus says: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.”
Here Jesus tells His disciples they are not ready to be told every detail of what the church will believe, teach, and confess. But He adds: The Helper, who is the Holy Spirit, will lead them to understand the whole truth. Mind you, this Spirit will teach them nothing new. This “whole truth” will be lifted directly from what Jesus taught, just as everything Jesus taught was grounded in Old Testament Scripture. Everything that is of God belongs to Jesus. Everything that the Holy Spirit gives will come from Jesus. All Scripture points to Jesus. And all truth comes to us by interpreting Scripture through the lens of Jesus.
So it comes to this: The Holy Spirit will work only through Word and Sacrament—that is to say, through Christ-centered teaching, preaching, and worship. The Holy Spirit is only active when this teaching is faithful to the word of Christ. The Holy Spirit breathes life into Christ’s promise-filled sacraments, and that life comes into us through them. The Holy Spirit is not to be sought elsewhere than through the means Christ has given. And the Holy Spirit gives all glory to Christ, points to Christ, leads to Christ, and derives His authority from Christ. The Holy Spirit does not sound a signal of His own. He does not fly colors of His own. Like the best preachers, who serve beside Him and under Him, the Holy Spirit’s goal is to get out of your way, or to become transparent, so you see only Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
James the elder writes: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” In other words, don’t focus on the exceptions to the rule. When Jesus says that one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born again by water and the Spirit, or without eating and drinking His body and blood, we immediately spring up, like a knee that jerks when your doctor hits it, and exclaim: “What about the thief on the cross? What about all those who came to faith before they were baptized, or who died before they could be baptized, etc.?”
James wants you to understand: God does not change. He has only told us so much about how disciples are made and how Christ’s righteousness is applied to sinners. He has not revealed any other way to create and sustain faith than through teaching, baptizing, absolving, and communing. He does not want us to reason like the serpent who hissed in Eve’s ear, “Did God really say…?” He does not want us searching for our own way to catch the Spirit or to become God’s people. He is not inviting us to bring Him the best that we can find or create for ourselves. In word and sacrament, He gives us gifts—gifts that James calls “good” and “perfect”—and it is the unchanging will of our unchanging Lord that we receive the gifts He gives.
James writes further: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak… Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” It could not be clearer than this. We have not come forth like volunteer herbs in your kitchen garden. We did not plant ourselves. We are spiritually alive because God planted us, or rather He planted in us His word of truth. He has grown us, and is still growing us, so that we bear fruit. And it isn’t because we prayed a sinner’s prayer or decided to accept Him. It’s because Christ gave Himself for us while we were still unrighteous, wrathful, filthy, and overflowing with wickedness. He made us righteous by His blood. He applies that righteousness to us through faith. And even that faith is His gift, planted in us through the living and imperishable seed of His Word.
And so with Isaiah we may say: “O LORD, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid… Praise the LORD, call upon His name; declare His deeds among the peoples, make mention that His name is exalted… Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!’”