True Joy

Text: John 16:12-22
Date: Easter V + 5/2/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

The scripture readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter have us looking both forward and back. The reading from Revelation is obviously a glimpse of what is yet to be, the new heaven and the new earth of eternal life. Indeed, today’s Gospel has Jesus speaking in future terms. But it is important to remember that these words were spoken at the Last Supper of Thursday of Holy Week, before His death and resurrection. He said that there were things that His disciples “could not bear,” that is, understand right then and He promised them the Spirit of truth and that their sorrow would turn to joy in “a little while.” While we can apply these words to our need for understanding and spiritual growth and our experiences of sorrow as we await our Lord’s second, final, triumphant coming on the day of judgment, our first consideration must be to understand what He meant originally on that night. Today with resurrection eyes, knowing that the crucifixion led to the empty tomb of His rising again, we can go back to recall and to understand now what we couldn’t understand before. In doing so we hope to discover and understand the True Joy of being His disciples.

When Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” what were those many things? I think of last Sunday’s reading from Acts where St. Paul tells us of something Jesus Himself said that is not written anywhere else in the New Testament, namely, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The only way we know Jesus said that is because here St. Paul tells us so. Or we can think of St. John’s statement at the end of his Gospel telling us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book” (Jn. 20:30). Obviously there are many things that Jesus did and said during His earthly ministry that were never recorded. Then, we might think of His words in the Book of Revelation of around the year 90 a.d., as in His dictating to John the letters to the seven churches. You would be most correct if you think of the many things He still had to say as predicting the preaching of the Holy Apostles and especially the writing, collection, preservation and transmission of the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For His very next sentence is that important word upon which rests the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” etc.

The little footnote in the Lutheran Study Bible catches precisely the right way to understand this when it says this “is not a promise of new revelations, but rather that the disciples would understand how Christ’s death and resurrection applied to the Church after Pentecost. The Spirit will lead believers into a clearer understanding of God’s truth as they make their way into the future” (LStB p. 1814). This is why it is important, first of all, to hear these words with “Maundy Thursday ears.” The shocking arrest of Jesus, the phony trials, the mocking, the bloody beating, the betrayal and the crucifixion and death of Jesus will be overwhelming to the disciples. Remember they all fled the scene in fear. Even on Easter Sunday they wouldn’t believe and they locked themselves behind doors of fear. So even the good news of His resurrection, even when He Himself appeared to them showing His hands and His side, St. Luke uses the strange phrase, saying, “they still disbelieved for joy” (Lk. 24:41).

Nevertheless, with the coming of the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles were empowered to preach the Good
News of Jesus to all the world. Some of them (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James and Jude) as well as a few others (Mark and Luke) would write Gospels, epistles or letters that were eventually collected into what we call the New Testament. More than merely the writings of men, however, we believe that they are the Word of God because they were inspired, or breathed into the writers, by God, as it says in 2 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” and 2 Pet. 1:21, “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” Let us add Jesus’ promise to them earlier in John 14, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (vv. 25-26).

The Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, whom both the Father and the Son have sent to guide and speak and declare the truth of God’s Word. “He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak. …He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” In other words the Spirit is God works through the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments, to bring about repentance and faith in the hearts and minds of those who hear the Gospel. He doesn’t come up with anything new. He always points to Jesus Christ. Jesus is always the center of attention.

Now as it was for the Apostles, so it is also for those sent through the ages in the apostolic ministry. Beware of those preachers (mainly of other so-called denominations, but there can also be those in our own fellowship) who propose something “new,” that does not square with scripture. Our pastors are taught and trained to rightly handle the Word of truth  (2 Tim. 2:15), properly distinguishing between the twin messages of Law and Gospel, preaching both Law and Gospel but letting the Gospel prevail, always proclaiming not them or ourselves but Jesus Christ.

In the Church’s rite of ordination, all candidates are asked, “Do you believe and confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” and to “promise…that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with the Holy Scripture and with the Confessions.” In such faith and under such guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God we, like the first disciples, can look forward to learning the “many things” of Jesus from faithful pastors and teachers to this day. We might mention here the joy over the 150 new pastors being added from our Synod’s two seminaries just this past week.

The second word Jesus spoke on that night in which He was betrayed was the “little while.” It is almost comical how St. John narrates the conversation. For he repeats the phrase three times. First, Jesus says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Then, some of the disciples repeated to one another, “What is this…’A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’?” Then Jesus asks them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’?” Can such repetition be simply to illustrate the slowness of the disciples to understand? Or can it be, rather, to emphasize the importance of what Jesus is going to say? How about both? From their perspective, these are words meant to sustain them through the “little while,” namely, the three days they were about to witness of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” Indeed, the weeping, the anger, the sorrow, the fear of the crucifixion scene and everything that led up to it almost broke them. And the world rejoiced…the wagging heads, the mocking and jeering of the ignorance of the masses to what was really going on before their very eyes. So it seems the world rejoices today as the voice of the Christian Church seems to be very weak or even confused, and the world mocks and criticizes the Church at every opportunity.

But it was only a little while, namely a matter of hours, a total of no more than three days and the disciples’ sorrow would turn to joy. And in the joy of seeing their risen Lord, triumphant over Satan, grave and death, they would forget the pain of the last few days, much as a woman who is giving birth has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a baby has been born into the world. “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

In a similar way we can take these comforting words to apply to the sorrows we bear and endure specifically in connection with our identification with Jesus Christ. There’s a sort of simplistic camp style song that says, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart; down in my heart; down in my heart; I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart; down in my heart to day.” As silly as it might seem to sing that little ditty, however, it’s true! For the joy of knowing Christ and having faith in Him, is not like a plastic smiley face or phony, but dwells, much of the time, hidden, sometimes behind tears, fears or pain, but, nevertheless, “down in my heart.” For it is a joy that “no one can take from you.” It is the joy of the ultimate victory that has been promised us of eternal life in the complete forgiveness of all our sins and the promise day of resurrection, the day of the new heaven and earth where God Himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This is the true joy of Easter.