Today’s gospel (John 16:5–15) calls to mind the appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene on Easter Day. She grabbed him, as if to say, “I’m not letting you get away again!” Jesus told her, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). In today’s gospel, Jesus explains why the ascension will be beneficial. “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come to you.” Mary needed to let Jesus go so that he could return to the Father and send the Spirit.” Union with God in Christ through the Spirit is better than merely standing next to Christ.
The Father sent the Son into the world to fulfill the Law of Moses and offer the perfect sacrifice. Having completed that work, Jesus returned to the Father to be eternally present with him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Atonement for sin having been accomplished once and for all, the door was opened for the new age of the Spirit (cf Joel 2:28).
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus, who was present in his body on earth in one place at a time, is now present in all places at all times. The effects of the redemption Jesus accomplished at one moment and in one place now reaches all moments and all places through the Spirit. This is the “New Creation.” In the beginning, God spoke, and the Spirit accomplished what his word commanded. In Christ, God spoke again and then sent the Spirit to make all things new.
Jesus describes the ministry of the Spirit as having two points of emphasis. First, the Spirit confronts the world with the truth of its sin and rebellion against God. The Spirit will convict the world “of sin, because they believe not in me.” During Lent, we talked about making a good confession, focusing on the deadly sins and talking about the virtues. This kind of confession is only for those who have already put their faith in Jesus Christ, who already have the Spirit. The world does not accept that Jesus is Lord. The world has not received the Spirit. The Spirit speaks to believers from within so that we may grow in grace. But the Spirit confronts the world from without so that people may repent and believe.
Hebrews says, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things” (1:1). The sin of the world is the refusal to listen to the Word that God has spoken. Thus, the gospel involves an unavoidable confrontation. The Spirit, and the church which is filled with and led by the Spirit, confronts the world and calls it to repent and believe.
The church ought not to confront obnoxiously. We are, as St. Paul says, “Ambassadors for Christ,” as if God did beseech the world through us to “be reconciled with God” (2 Corinthians 5:15). We are not self-righteous ambassadors, for each of us was once a rebel. We always bear in mind that the same Spirit who convicts the world also convicts us of sin when we err and stray from God’s ways. That is why we return each week as penitents, asking again for forgiveness and a new measure of the Spirit.
Nonetheless, there is an unavoidable and necessary confrontation between the community that confesses Jesus as Lord and the world that does not. We reject the modern tendency to take the edge off of the gospel, to pretend that all religions are the same, to pretend that Christ came only to comfort and not to confront. It is, indeed, offensive to the world to insist that Jesus is Son of God and Lord of all (Revelation 19:6). It is offensive to the world to say that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). It is offensive to say to the world to say that “He who has the Son has life and he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 John 5:12). But this is the offense of the gospel.
Jesus said that the second thing the Spirit will do is “guide [the church] into all truth” (John 16:13). This puts us in a privileged position in relationship to the world. We know the truth, and the truth has made us free (John 8:31-32). This knowledge of truth is a gift. It comes to us because of God’s grace, not because of our merit. We also were blind, but God has given us eyes to see. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things that you see” (Luke 10:23).
To be possessed of the truth in the midst of a world that opposes it is, simply, to be the Body of Christ. It is to experience exactly what Jesus experienced in first century Israel. Jesus was the witness for God to Israel. The church “in Christ” is the witness for God to the world.
The church offers the world a sacramental sign of the truth, not just a verbal message. We don’t just say, “Christ is risen.” We are the community of the resurrection. We died and rose with Christ through baptism. We are risen with Christ and we ascend with Christ through the Spirit. The death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord are not merely things we believe; they are what we experience in Christ. We are a sign to the world that the coming kingdom is already here.
Our challenge as the church is to be a faithful witness to the truth in our doctrine and our life. The great temptation of the modern church is to aim at success rather than faithfulness. Of course, we want hearts to be converted and the church to grow. Faithfulness will have its measure of success. But sometimes faithfulness will fail. Sometimes the world will reject it, belittle it and, even, crucify it. Our vocation is to be faithful anyway. We are witnesses to the truth, and the truth is the truth whether it succeeds or fails.
Fr. Schmemann put it this way: “What are the church and each Christian to do in the world? What is our mission?” He answers, “It all depends primarily on or being real witnesses to the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, to that new life of which we are made partakers in the church” (For the Life of the World, 113). It all depends on our lives being real witnesses that our good Lenten confession led to a renewed experience of forgiveness, which results in an increased practice of love. The Spirit leads us to love in each circumstance, sometimes ministering to the least of these–comforting the afflicted, and sometimes saying, ‘This is wrong,” or even, “You are wrong”—afflicting the comfortable.
Jesus will ascend to the Father and send the Spirit to convict the world of sin and lead us into all truth. We, who have the Spirit, are witnesses to the truth.