Sermon for Cantate – Easter 4
James 1:16-21 + John 16:5-15
Look around you at these who call themselves Christians. Look at this building that was built for one purpose, to worship the Christ by proclaiming and hearing His Gospel, and by administering and receiving His Sacraments. Consider the other parishes of our diocese and all the churches around the world where the Christian Gospel is now preached and has been preached for so many centuries. All of this is the handiwork of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.
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. The apostles must have been completely baffled by this saying of Jesus. How could it possibly be better for them that Jesus should go away? But you and I can see the truth of Jesus’ words as we look around at the Christian Church that has been built solely by the divine help of the Holy Spirit.
And how has the Spirit done it? He’s done it all through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. The apostles preached, and some believed, and a church grew in that place where the Gospel was believed. Of those who believed, some were chosen to preach somewhere else, and in those places, some believed, etc., etc. And so it has been since the Day of Pentecost, after Jesus went away and sent His Spirit to earth to fill the preaching of the Gospel with power.
Of course, in our time, in these last dying days of this sin-infested world, the power of the Gospel seems smaller, somehow. The world has gone mad in so many ways, to the point that it can’t even recognize any more the basic truth of who is a man and who is a woman. As for the Church, false doctrine taints almost every pulpit in the world and the pure teaching of the Church catholic is taught and believed by an ever-dwindling number of the faithful.
Where has the Helper gone?
Of course, He hasn’t gone anywhere. His help remains with the Church, as Jesus promised it would, until the very day of Jesus’ return. And His work remains unchanged. Because the work of the Spirit has never been to conquer all evil in this world, to create a just society on earth, or to build a Christian Church that would dominate the nations of this earth. His work is and has always been to convict the world with words of truth and to guide the Church of Christ with words of truth. The work of the Spirit has never been about numbers—how many believe or how many disbelieve or how much or how little evil there is in the world. It’s always been about telling the truth, no matter how many believe or disbelieve it. That work continues unchanged to this very day.
And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me. Through the preaching of the Word of God—the Word that centers on Jesus Christ and Him crucified—the Holy Spirit convicts the world about sin. The world—that is, the unbelievers in the world, the “heathen,” as the King James Version used to call them—remains in its sin. Unbelievers remain in their sin. They can deny their sin all they want. They can plunge into every form of evil and sexual perversion and try to justify it. They can practice every form of hypocrisy imaginable and pretend to be the ones who really care about people, even as they lobby for the slaughter of little babies in the womb. Or they can be very religious and devout followers of their religions. And a very many of them pretend to be Christians or think of themselves as Christians. But they don’t listen to the word of Christ. They don’t believe in the Jesus who is preached in Holy Scripture, and so they are branded as sinners by God the Holy Spirit.
Someone will say, “Yes, but, we’re all sinners!” That’s true. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, believers and unbelievers alike. But we’re not all branded by God as sinners. The good news that is the Gospel is that sinners who repent of their sins and believe in Christ Jesus, who was crucified, suffered and died for the sins of the world, are forgiven their sins by God. And to be forgiven means that God no longer brands a person as a sinner, no longer counts a person among the sinners of the world who will perish eternally for their sins. Where there is faith in Christ, all sins are covered. Through the waters of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit washes away sin and gives new birth and new life.
The Spirit will convict the world of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more. Through the preaching of the Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit convicts the world about righteousness. Now, the world thinks of righteousness differently, according to its own wisdom. What the world considers to be just and right changes from generation to generation, or even from one election cycle to the next. But throughout the ages, since the Garden of Eden, since the time of Cain, the unbelieving world has had this idea about righteousness: if you do what you think is right and live a decent life on this earth, if you treat your neighbor relatively well and devote yourself to serving God, then God will view you as being righteous and will accept you.
But through the preaching of the Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit tells the world that it’s wrong about righteousness. All of the world’s works are filthy and unrighteous in God’s sight, even as Cain’s offerings to God were unacceptable to Him, because they are done without faith in Christ. The only works God considers to be good and righteous are the works done by Christ Jesus, the Righteous One, which include the works done by those who have been united to Christ Jesus by faith. Now He has gone to His Father, and with Him, all hope of being judged as righteous before God and of doing works that are truly righteous. People can give to charity. They can practice their religions and go to church and give money to their church and fight for the rights of the poor and outcast. And still, they will never be judged as righteous before God, unless they receive the righteousness of Christ by Word and Sacrament, by faith in the Righteous One who now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Only believers are counted righteous—are justified—before God, and only believers can now do the works that are righteous and pleasing to God our Father. Because it is God’s Holy Spirit who sanctifies us and produces fruits of righteousness in us.
The Spirit will convict the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. People pretend that they will escape the judgment that awaits them at their death, as if death were the end of their existence. And they pretend that Jesus will not be coming again for a terrible Judgment Day. And they pretend that hell doesn’t exist, or at least, will only be occupied by those who were “really bad people.” But the Spirit announces to the world through the Gospel that they are wrong about that, too. He tells them the truth: the devil is real and stands eternally condemned before God, and so will all those who remain in the devil’s kingdom, who continue as members of the unbelieving world. They may prosper and flourish now. They may have wealth and riches and fame. They may have power, and they may succeed at persecuting the members of Christ’s holy Church and making their life miserable here on earth.
But it will only a little while longer. God’s judgment has already been pronounced: God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
Of course, it’s that very judgment that has the power of God’s Holy Spirit to bring members of the unbelieving world to repentance and faith in Christ before the final Day of Judgment. It’s that Gospel by which the Holy Spirit has called you to faith in Christ Jesus and has thus drawn you out of the world and made you a member of Christ’s Holy Church. Whether a person believes the Gospel or disbelieves it, it remains the truth.
And it remains the task of Christians to speak it—I from the pulpit, you in your various vocations. It’s not about persuading people or convincing people or selling the truth to people or winning arguments with people. It’s simply our task to tell the truth, and to live our lives as those who believe it to be the truth, no matter what negative consequences that may have for you in your life. That means you don’t jump into sin with the unbelievers around you. You don’t treat the preaching of the Gospel and the reception of the Sacraments as an optional thing that you can do once in a while, when it’s convenient, or skip regularly, if you have better things to do. It means you do order your life around the Word and Sacraments of Christ, knowing the Word of Truth and speaking the truth in love.
The Spirit has done His work faithfully for almost 2,000 years, continually convicting the world with words of truth. But the age of the Spirit appears to be coming to an end as the world’s rejection of God’s truth spreads further and further. Just as it was necessary for Jesus to go away for a while until the Helper had done His work, so also it is necessary for Jesus to come back. And that, too, will be to our advantage, because when the Church has been fully gathered by the work of the Holy Spirit, it will finally be time for Christ to rescue us out of this wicked world. Until that day, let us sing our Maker’s praises and in Him most joyful be, as we sang in the first hymn today. His Spirit is still with us. His Help will never leave us. He has taught us the words of truth. And His truth will stand against all the lies of the devil and the world. Amen.