The Foe Shall Not Divide Us

Text: John 14:15-21
Date: Easter VI + 5/25/14

In a few moments we will sing the Hymn of the Day, Martin Luther’s “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice.” In the seventh stanza Luther puts these words into Christ’s mouth speaking to us: “Stay close to Me, I am your rock and castle. …For I am yours, and you are Mine, And where I am you may remain; The foe shall not divide us” (LSB 556:7). These words are similar to what Jesus said to His disciples on the day before His sacrificial death, which we have been hearing in this Easter season from John chapter 14. They are words of promise, His promise, as He says today, not to “leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Last week we admitted that we share the anxieties of those first disciples wondering where Jesus was going and where He is now that He can help us. Today we recall His words that night when He promised to send, as He said, “another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.” This coming Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension into heaven and then, ten days later, the sending of His promised Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Let us consider this Helper for our lives of faith.

In the first reading today St. Paul is preaching to some philosophers in Athens. In a friendly way he proclaimed Jesus as the one their altar called “the unknown god.” He was right. For apart from faith in Jesus no one can know the one, true God, as we heard Jesus Himself say, “no one comes to the Father but through Me.” After Paul’s sermon St. Luke tells us that some of his hearers mocked him. “But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32-34). Apparently something caught their interest. Actually it was someone. It was that same someone Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. But Paul’s sermon there calls to us with them to repent of our ignorance and of our sin.

In today’s Epistle from First Peter we heard this leader and chief spokesman for the apostles telling us of suffering for righteousness’ sake and to always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. He points us to Christ’s suffering and, after His resurrection, His proclaiming victory over the old evil foe himself, the devil and his hordes in hell. By that victory He says to us in today’s hymn, “The foe shall not divide us.”

And in today’s Gospel Jesus urges us to keep His commandments, to love Him and to love the Father. This reminds us of the New Command He gave that night, “to love one another.”

So, taken together, today we are called to repent and believe, to be prepared for suffering, “to make a defense for the hope that is in you,” to keep Jesus’ commandments and to love God and one another. But in the face of all that there’s still something in us that asks, “Repent? What have I got to repent of?” There is still that nagging question whether we truly believe in the Savior we cannot see. We shudder at the thought that we have not kept all of Jesus’ commands very well if at all, and have to admit that our love for Him and for God and for one another often grows cold and weak. So what shall we do in the face of all these commands and imperatives?

We are called to repent. No matter how long you have been a Christian or how often you have repented in the past, one of the hardest things for Christians to learn is what inspired Martin Luther to write in the very first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” And that is because the whole life of believers is a constant struggle against sin, death and the devil until we are delivered from it all through our grave into the blessed presence of Christ. Yet how often do we feel we need no repentance? How easy is it to take our Christian faith for granted and simply assume we are accepted by God without taking our daily sin seriously.

As for the suffering Peter speaks of, how weak we are in the face of especially public challenges to our faith, which seem to be multiplying in today’s world. It’s been hard to keep up the witness, for instance, against the sin of abortion these forty-one years in our country. And now the Church has the increasing challenge of preserving God’s institution of marriage and of calling everyone to faith and obedience to the Sixth Commandment, to lead sexually pure and decent lives. Add to that the increase of persecution as from the atheist and the Muslim worldviews and it is all the more important to regard Christ the Lord as holy, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Do you have such hope in God? Can you explain to anyone why you have that hope?

And what are these “commandments” Jesus says we must keep? They are certainly not like the Ten Commandments of Moses. In fact, to Lutheran ears, this sounds like confusing Law and Gospel. But this is how Luther spoke about these words, “that you faithfully preach concerning me, have my Word and Sacrament laid upon you, keep love and unity among yourselves for my sake, and suffer with patience whatever on this account comes upon you” (Lenski, John, p. 972). A few “commands” come to mind. He commands us to pray, He commands us to love one another, He commands us to “do this,” namely the Lord’s Supper, and to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching.

Now the reason for dwelling on the requirements of today’s three readings is to understand them all, first, as Law. That is, none of these and none of this (repentance and faith, suffering, making a defense of our faith before the world, prayer, love for God and one another, faithfully “doing” the Lord’s Supper and making disciples), none of this is possible on or by our own powers alone. For all of this we need help. We need a Helper. “I will ask the Father,” says Jesus, “and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…he dwells with you and will be in you.” It is in the mystery of the Trinity, and specifically by the Holy Spirit, that God “calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps” anyone in the true faith, the very faith that enables us to keep Christ’s commands. Oh, certainly not perfectly, but nevertheless really and truly as we live in constant repentance and the forgiveness of our sins.

We will sing the defiant words, “The Foe Shall Not Divide Us,” for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ and of His resurrection, creates and strengthens faith in our hearts; faith and joy and conviction and love. And nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You’ve got God’s own promise on that!