Help from Falling Away

Text: John 15:26—16:4a
Date: Easter VII + Exaudi + 5/20/07

     Our Easter celebration continues. For the last 43 days we have rejoiced that the “little while” of our Lord’s departure by way of the cruel cross and the cold tomb ended in the bright warmth of His bodily resurrection on but only the third day. And we have rejoiced in his eleven recorded appearances to the first disciples for some forty days thereafter. But now He has ascended into heaven. He has returned to the Father. And it is starting to get rather lonely again. Oh, don’t get me wrong. For we, with the first disciples, remember His words, His promise that He would send the Holy Spirit and in this way He would be with us forever. He said it on that last Holy Thursday night, remember? “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” [John 15:26]. He said it just before He ascended, remember? He told us not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father” which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” [Acts 1:4-5, 8]. This Sunday we once again imitate the actual passage of time of the Biblical event as we gather on this day between our Lord’s Ascension last Thursday and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit ten days later, next Sunday on the Day of Pentecost. This gives us an opportunity to understand what has happened to us thus far and to be prepared for what will happen to us in the future; to understand the identity of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and His purpose, what He does.

      In our short Gospel text Jesus speaks of two things: first, the Holy Spirit, and then the opposition and even persecution experienced by Christians who confess and preach the gospel to the world. It is God Himself, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Who leads us to an ever-deepening knowledge of the Gospel truth and gives us the divine strength needed to enable us to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of the kingdom.

     In the old English we sometimes call Him the Holy Ghost. I suppose it is because of evil spirits or ghosts that the Church in our day in English speaking countries has preferred the word “Spirit.” In our text Jesus calls Him the Helper. The Greek word is parakletos, paraclete—“kletos” meaning to call, “para” meaning around or beside, the “paraclete,” One called to the side. This name tells His function, what He does. He is the “comforter,” the “helper,” the “advocate” and “intercessor.”

     From a human point of view it is the Son of God, Jesus, Who gets all the attention. At His baptism and again at His Transfiguration the Father said of Him, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” Likewise Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Helper, always points and directs us to the Son as He says today, “he will bear witness about me.” No one comes to the Father except through the Son. And the Holy Spirit brings nothing new or other than what has already been revealed to us by the Son. The Father is the Father of Jesus Christ in a way He is the Father of no one else. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, our Savior, our only hope in the face of sin and death which He Himself has conquered for us and for our salvation.

     As for the work of the Holy Spirit, it is He that creates repentance and saving faith in the hearts of those who hear the Gospel. Do not miss this most spectacular miracle, namely, when you find yourself believing the Gospel, desiring God’s presence and help. It is nothing less than a miracle for, as we summarize the Bible’s teaching in the little catechism about our fallen and spiritually lost and blind condition, we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him” but only as “the Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel, enlightens me with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps me in the one, true faith.” This is the chief and most important work of the Holy Spirit, the creation and strengthening of the gift of faith, the hand the grasps the promises of God.

     Yet sometimes that “grasp” seems to be slipping. In our text our Lord warns against the danger of falling away from the saving faith. Now there are many influences, the devil behind them all, to make us fall away. Jesus speaks of only two specific things that are actually one thing: being ostracized or excluded, and even martyrdom. He warns, “they will put you out of the synagogues.” Unless the leaders, the rabbis and the faithful Jewish people come to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah, they see Christianity as a threat to their religious heritage. Consider the Apostle Paul before his conversion who, as Saul, violently persecuted the Church. Or consider those who call themselves Jews to this day. It is one thing to be ostracized and rejected by the unbelieving world for faith in Christ. Still, it is even more troubling to be ostracized or rejected by your own people. Think of Martin Luther whose enlightened faith in and confession of the Gospel caused him to be excommunicated by the very Church he loved and served and even being labeled “outlaw” by the government.

     Now you may think that you and I do not face such major, historic or important kinds of opposition from within the Church. Yet I just heard this past week of another incident that seems to be a growing problem in our church body today. Many if not most of our congregations these days are facing dwindling numbers of members and financial crises. This is very troubling for all of us. There are reasons for this and they are to be found mainly in the influence of the society around us chipping away at our loyalty to and faith in Christ. When anxiety (especially concerning money!) gets the upper hand people begin to turn against one another. And who is the easiest target of all in the church? The pastor! I can’t tell you the number of conflicted congregations I’ve seen or heard of over the years, and even more so recently, where a handful of confused, conflicted and anxious members turn their frustration to identify the pastor as the problem. When conflict and anxiety rule, people’s value system comes crashing down and every little problem becomes a life-and-death issue. Therefore, St. Peter slaps us upside the head in the words of today’s Epistle, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” That is, the first fruit of the Holy Spirit, divine love, enables you to forgive, and to just let go of what are really minor faults in others [1 Peter 4:7-11]. This seems like such a simple thing. But when anxiety and anger gets under your skin it is the toughest spiritual warfare to wake up, repent and learn again the New Command of our Lord: “to love one another as I have loved you.”

     As for martyrdom, “when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God,” we have records of those who were physically killed for their faith in Christ. All the apostles except for John were martyred. And the list through the centuries has grown even to our own day especially under communist, fascist and atheist regimes. And now the centuries-old threat of Islam has been heating up again. Again, few if any of us have had to face this threat. But it brings up again persecution from otherwise religious people.

     Jesus says, “but I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you;” not in an “I told you so” sort of divine taunt, but so that at least you will not, as St. Peter, again, said it, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you…but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…. Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” [1 Peter 4:12-14, 19].

     The Holy Spirit has been actively involved in creating faith in Jesus’ disciples from the beginning. But He is also active especially in comforting and helping Christians to always remember Jesus’ words and in this way remaining strong in faith, even displaying amazing boldness for Christ especially in the face of opposition, and amazing calmness and love in times of conflict and anxiety.

      We now implore God the Holy Ghost
      For the true faith, which we need the most….
      Thou sacred Love, grace on us bestow,
      Set our hearts with heav’nly fire aglow
      That with hearts united we love each other,
      Of one mind, in peace with ev’ry brother.

    Lord, have mercy! [TLH 234:1a, 3]