Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cantate

Sermon on John 16:5-15
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 10, 2009 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

When you look at it from a human perspective, the disciples were right to be sad that Jesus was going away. The religious movement which had formed around Jesus’ preaching and His miracles was focused upon His presence, His power, His Word. And so this talk of Jesus going away seemed to be worse than illogical. It seemed downright insane. But Jesus has a good reason for going away. From the perspective of Maundy Thursday when Jesus spoke these words, we can see that if He had not gone to the cross the next day and “gone away” from His disciples in death, none of us would be saved. We would all still be dead in our sins and doomed to the eternal torment of separation from God’s love and mercy. If Jesus had simply continued to preach and teach and work miracles, He would have had a large following, and perhaps He might even have become the most influential person in the world. He might even have become the ruler of the world. After all, since He is sinless, He is immortal. He had all the time in the world to continue gaining followers and power and influence.

Of course, Jesus had no need to become ruler of the world in this way. He was already the true ruler of the world by virtue of the fact that He is the Son of God. But more importantly, this huge and influential religious movement would have been without a purpose. Even though those who followed Him often didn’t understand it, Jesus’ entire purpose in coming into the world was to die on the cross so that we might be saved. For Jesus to have stayed with His disciples would have meant that the whole thing would have been without a purpose, a vain chasing after earthly power and glory. For Him to stay would have meant that He would not have paid the price for our salvation. For Him to stay would have meant that His followers, including us, would have been without the Holy Spirit, since it would have meant that there would be no salvation for them, and us, to be converted to. They, would have died in their sins, and so would we, and Christ’s coming to earth would have been completely pointless.


Of course, for us who have already celebrated the Lord’s resurrection and now observe His forty days of visible appearances to His disciples, there is another aspect to what Jesus says here. Our salvation is accomplished. He has paid the price and declared His victory in His resurrection from the dead. We might wonder why He didn’t stay with His disciples in His visible appearances after His resurrection. Why did He remove Himself on Ascension Day from their physical sight? Why didn’t He remain with them to be their leader and preacher? After all, salvation has been won already. It’s not like it was before, where salvation would be given up if He stayed. But again we see that it’s better this way. Ascension Day, which is coming up in a week and a half, is not a sorrowful time. It is a day of joy, because we see that Jesus, who is both true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is in the presence of God the Father and seated at His right hand. We see that He, who is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, is in the highest place in heaven with God. This is the most important message of Ascension Day. But there is a practical side to it too. After all, if Jesus were physically visible to our eyes in one particular place on earth, think about what a burden the Christian religion would be. We would all have to travel to this one place to worship, and if we couldn’t make it to that one place, then we wouldn’t really be in His presence, or at least, we would feel we were missing something if we couldn’t go to meet Him personally. The way it is, He is present through the Holy Spirit’s power wherever His word is preached rightly and His sacraments are administered according to His institution of them. And so He must ascend to His Father, so that the Holy Spirit can bring people to faith and salvation in all parts of the world, so that by the Holy Spirit’s power His body and blood can be present in thousands and thousands of church buildings at the same time every Sunday morning.


Of course, the worries that the disciples had were only natural. After all, the Christian message is so contrary to what human reason would say that if it were up to man, nobody would ever convert to it and be saved. Without Jesus’ presence, without Him being the one who preaches and converts people, the whole movement would flop miserably. And that’s still true of the Christian Church today. The only way to persuade people to join Christianity from a purely human perspective is to modify and corrupt the message to the point that it is no longer the unique Christian gospel anymore. That’s why all attempts to help the Church using the marketing and organizational techniques that businesses use are doomed to fail, even if they show a great deal of outward success for a time. This is why Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, and only through the Holy Spirit’s power, Jesus Himself preaches where His Word is proclaimed. Jesus Himself baptizes those who come to the Church to receive salvation. Jesus Himself nourishes us with His body and blood. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, and where one person is, there are all three. In other words, because the Holy Spirit is sent to us, Jesus is present with us. In fact, that’s the whole point of the Holy Spirit’s work, so that we can be with Christ and He with us. And so He is now present with us in a much more miraculous way than He was with the disciples before His death, resurrection, and ascension. Back then He was present in a particular location where people could see Him. Now, through the Holy Spirit’s power He enters into our hearts and our bodies through His Word and Sacraments. Back then, the disciples chronically misunderstood His words. Now, the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth by working through His Word to create and sustain faith in us, faith which believes the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Jesus Christ.


After all, when I as the pastor of this church preach the Word of God from this pulpit, or when you or I or another Christian confesses the Word we have heard to those we meet throughout our lives, it is not really we who are doing the preaching or confessing, is it? It is instead the Holy Spirit. If it were up to our own ability to be convincing, we would have no hope of ever converting anyone. Sure we might be able to manipulate a few people into feeling good about Church and about saying nice things about Jesus and maybe even getting some warm bodies into the church pews on Sunday mornings, especially if we appeal to whatever their itching ears want to hear. But that’s not the same thing as repenting of one’s sins and being reborn into Christ’s fellowship and loving forgiveness. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we convicted in our hearts so that we are able to recognize the unbelief in Christ that lies within us, the trust in ourselves and our own righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ, the false and idolatrous trust that is hiding inside even the most seemingly pious and upright Christian. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we able to receive the righteousness that we didn’t earn but which Christ earns for us and now presents to God the Father in our behalf. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we able to follow Christ even though it means that we give up this old sinful world and its pleasures. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power, in other words, can people become Christians.


It may seem unfair that Christ was taking away His visible presence from the Church when He ascended into heaven. But the presence that He has in our ears and in our mouths through Word and Sacrament, and the presence that He has in our hearts through the faith that the Word and Sacraments create and sustain, this blessed presence that comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s power, is even more closer and intimate than the presence that Christ had with His disciples when He was visibly walking this earth. It is nothing less than a foretaste of the closeness and joy we will share with Him eternally. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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