A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, April 28, 2018
The Epistle, St. James 1:17-21 – The Gospel, St. John 16:5-15
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The Paraclete
In today’s gospel Jesus explains why his Ascension into heaven will be good. The disciples were sad because Jesus said he was going away to the Father. Jesus explained,
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 (Jn. 16:5-7).
The word “Helper” in this passage translates the Greek word “paraclete.” The King James version translated paraclete as “Comforter.” Other translations have rendered paraclete as “advocate” or “counselor.” None of these are really accurate and a good case can be made for always keeping this word in its original Greek, the paraclete.
The world paraclete means “called to one’s side.” Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. Then the Holy Spirit was sent to us to walk alongside us; to comfort, counsel, strengthen, convict, and advocate for us; to draw us into the experience of God’s love.
Jesus said this is a better arrangement than his in-person presence. There are two reasons for this. First, Jesus’s personal presence was exterior to his disciples. The Holy Spirit dwells within us. Sometimes we think how great it would have been to walk with Jesus in person, but Jesus teaches us here that the interior gift of the Holy Spirit brings us closer to Jesus than the disciples were before Pentecost.
God reconciles the world to himself in three stages. The first stage was the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The second stage is the Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Our sins are forgiven we live in union with God in Christ through the Spirit. The third and final stage be when Christ comes. The New Creation will be completed, and heavenly marriage will be consummated. Jesus is saying that step two in this process brings us closer to God than the disciples were in step one.
The second reason the gift of the Spirit is better than the personal presence of Jesus is practical. Within the limits of time and space, few people could be with Jesus at any given moment in time. In the Ascension, Jesus left the dimension of time and space and entered back into the dimension of eternity. Through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus’ presence with us transcends the limitations of time and space. He can be with each one of us always.
II. The Spirit of Truth and the church
Jesus said that, “When… the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). The Holy Spirit led the church into a right understanding of who God is and who Jesus is. Various heresies or wrong beliefs surfaced in the early centuries of the church. The church, led by the Holy Spirit, responded to error by clarifying the truth.
The earliest heresies denied the Incarnation, that God really became human. This gave way to subsequent heresies that denied that Jesus was really God. This gave way to errors about the Spirit that led the church to clarify its belief in the Trinity. Then there were various errors about worship that resulted in iconoclasm, the smashing of pictures and images. Against this, the church affirmed that it was okay to use pictures and images in worship. Because the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1), physical things can point us to spiritual realities.
The Nicene Creed is the church’s authoritative summary of the truth into which the Holy Spirit led the church. To say “amen” to it is an action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. It reveals the Spirit has led us to the truth. To deny its truths is to reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the whole church. This highlights an important principle. The Holy Spirit will never lead an individual into truth that is different from the truth the Spirit revealed to the whole church. Thus 1 John exhorts us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). We test the spirits by the teachings of the Bible as summarized in the Creeds.
III. Love and the truth about ourselves
The Creeds are not all there is to know about God. The Creeds are foundational. One danger of the Creeds is the implication that knowing the truth about God is primarily a cognitive or thinking thing. The Creeds describe our relationship with God. We know God the Father through the Son in the Spirit. To love another person, you must know who the other person is. However, a summary of facts is not a relationship. Love involves many unspoken and unspeakable relational truths that are known only through experience. If we asked someone to describe his beloved and that person produced a resume, this would reveal that the person did not know the truth about love.
We grow in our experience of love as the Holy Spirit reveals to us the truth about ourselves. We have many false beliefs about ourselves that keep us from fully experiencing God’s love. We believe the gospel in our heads, but we have emotional barriers that keep it from penetrating our hearts. For example, many people believe in their heads that Jesus died for the sins of the entire world but have emotional barriers in their hearts that keep them from experiencing the reality of forgiveness and grace for their own real sins.
We come to know the truth about God’s love only by experiencing it. This is revealed in our liturgy of Word and Sacrament. In the Liturgy of the Word, we learn the truth about God. In the liturgy of Sacrament, we experience the reality of God’s love. “This is my Body which is given for you.” “This is my Blood which is shed for you.” As you receive Christ into your mouth and heart, the Holy Spirit leads you into the truth about yourself—that you are loved, deeply and personally, by the One through whom all things were made.
The Christian life is a process of surrender to the experiential truth that we have been redeemed by Christ and that we are loved. It is a progressive operation by the Spirit of truth, through which we come to know more and more about God and more and more about ourselves. Our defenses are slowly broken down, sin is washed away, our hearts grow in love (Romans 5:5), and we are changed by grace.
We are led into all truth through the experience of love in the life of prayer. This is how we learn that it was good for Jesus to go away. As Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32).