Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the name of ✠ Jesus.
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.
Throughout the Church’s history, there have been approaches to putting together the lectionary, the sequence of readings from one service to another. Often in the early church, they used a continuous lectionary: one one Sunday, the preacher would expound a part of a book of the Bible, and the following Sunday he would simply carry on from where he left off, until he got to the end of the book and start on another book.
The problem with the continuous lectionary is that it doesn’t work very well around the festivals. If the preacher is going through the book of Leviticus in his preaching, he will have to break off for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and all the other occasions that call for specific readings. And as the number of festivals increased over time, these interruptions became more frequent, and so another approach was developed: the Church Year. In this system, there is a fixed set of readings that follow a logical sequence from one week to the next, based not on the structure of any given book, but the rather the life and teachings of Jesus.
Since it was first formed in the late fourth century, this second approach has dominated the Church’s life, and turned out to be extremely helpful. Therefore, at the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran church retained both the Church Year and the actual lectionary that had been in place for centuries.
However, since it is man-made, this historic lectionary is not without its own problems. The main problem is that since the readings are selected thematically rather than according to the internal structure of any given book, sometimes the selections appear out of context. And unless the hearers know the context, they will not fully understand what the text is saying.
Today’s Gospel reading is a good case to illustrate this point. It comes from the middle of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, which runs from the beginning of chapter 13 to the end of chapter 17. Although this lengthy teaching of Jesus covers more than one topic, it flows almost seamlessly, making it almost impossible to select extracts without doing some violence to the context. However, today’s reading is particularly badly affected, since it is a fairly short extract from a much longer continuous teaching.
Indeed, there’s a clue in the opening word of the Gospel selection: “But”. What has Jesus just said to lead to this ‘but’. And don’t think this is just an academic question—when Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to be our Helper, he isn’t speaking in vague terms, about some generic Helper, but a Helper in a very specific and real need.
Let’s hear the preceding verses:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ’A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.
What we learn from the context is that the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promises here, and which we will celebrate on the day of Pentecost next week, is given to Jesus’ disciples in view of the fact that being a disciple of Jesus leads to the hatred of the world and to all the terrible things the world will hurl at the church.
In case we are tempted to think of this as merely metaphorical, we do well to consider the events immediately following the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to the apostles on the day of Pentecost. No sooner had the Spirit been poured out on them to make them witnesses with the Spirit of Jesus’ resurrection that they began to get into trouble. Verbal chastisement soon led to beatings, and then to martyrdom. In the end, of the eleven to whom Jesus addressed these words, only one, John himself, died of natural causes, and even he had been exiled on the island of Patmos. So when recorded these words of Jesus for the church in his gospel, he had learned through first-hand experience just how literally Jesus was speaking when he warned of persecution.
From the viewpoint of our experience, it’s hard for us to take Jesus’ words fully seriously, since we have so little experience of actual persecution. In part that’s for a bad reason: too often, the church has been a toothless entity, ignored by the world as harmless. Jesus’ words call us to repentance over our own cowardice and our success at camouflaging ourselves in the world. A church not worth persecuting by her enemies is no church at all.
Our lack of experience at being persecuted is also due to historical reasons: for many centuries, the Christian church has been in a dominant position in our society, protecting Christians from the wrath of the non-Christian world.
However, we do well not to dwell too much on the non-Christian world. For the persecution that Jesus promised His disciples was not primarily from that world. Rather, He speaks of persecution from within God’s people:
They will put you out of synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.
No, these are the very guardians of the faith of Israel that Jesus has in mind. It is the Jerusalem Council that had Peter and John flogged for preaching Jesus. The Priests and Scribes who stoned Stephen. It was the learned Pharisee, Saul, who persecuted the Church in Jerusalem and, had he had his way, Damascus. Later, the officials of the pagan Empire frequently persecuted Christians on the instigation of the local Jewish population. And when the Romans themselves murdered Christians, it wasn’t for sport, but out of reverence for the Roman gods.
In later centuries, when Europe was officially Christian, John Chrystostom, one of the finest preachers to have graced the pulpit in the Church’s history, died of maltreatment on his way to exile from the Christian court of Constantinople. The bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, found himself exiled repeatedly for speaking out against the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus.
Why, the soil of Britain is stained with the blood of the Lutheran martyrs Patrick Hamilton and Robert Barnes, who died for the Gospel, not at the hands of the non-Christian world but at the instigation of the church.
And today, the persecution continues unabated, from without and from within.
Why does God allow this? Why does He not protect His children better? Is He not in control?
Jesus teaches us this morning that one reason He allows it is that, in this way, His disciples bear witness to Jesus. They bear witness to the Son of God, who conquers His enemies by bleeding and dying for them. They share in His sufferings, knowing that by sharing in them they will also sharing in His glory. They are called to become martyrs—the Greek word for “witnesses”.
To our comfortable and comfort-seeking ears, this sounds like a bum deal. Who wants to be hated? Who wants to be chucked out? Who wants to die? No one does.
Nor should we want to. God hasn’t called us for being hated, chucked out and killed. He has called us to love, into community, into new life. But the world that hates Jesus enough to have killed Him will not look kindly on those who bear His name and His image in their lives. For the life of Jesus means the death of the world. In Him, the independence of the world, the world’s rebellion against God, stands condemned and defeated.
Against this rage of the world, we are weak and powerless. The very thought of it repels us and frightens us. We are tempted to hide, to camouflage ourselves, to put from sight that which offends those who are not God’s children.
This is why Jesus has given you the Holy Spirit: to be your Paraclete, that is, your Helper and your Advocate. The one who stands by your at your time of testing, and as you stand in trial before the world—whether literally or metaphorically: He is with you, within you—in your mouth, in your heart, in your mind. He will give you words, strength, courage. He will give you peace and joy even in the midst of your suffering.
By bearing witness about Jesus. He will bring to you the incarnate Son of God, who was given to the world, and to you, a worldlling by birth, that it may not perish, and you with it, but have eternal life. He will hold before your eyes the image of the crucified Lord, who would rather die on the cross, forsaken by the Father, than let you perish in your sin. He will hold up for you the risen Christ, who has defeated death and all of Satan’s raging, that you may live even as you die. He will hold before you the Ascended Lord, who is seated at the right hand of the Father so that all His enemies—Satan, the world, and all their ways and their works—may be placed under His feet, and in Him, under your feet.
Through Baptism and faith, you are united with the Jesus and the life that you now live is His life, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. The pain, the sorrows, the griefs and even the death that you experience, is passing. For Christ has prepared a kingdom—and He has prepared a place for you in that kingdom—where “He will wipe away every tear from your eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away”. That you may not lose heart, He reaches down to you today from that kingdom to come with the food and drink of the heavenly victory feast, His own body and blood.
Jesus says to you, “Be faithful to the end, and I will give you the crown of life.”
In the name of the Father and of ✠ the Son and of the Holy Spirit.