Preached May 22, 2011
St. James 1:17–21
St. John 16:5–15
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, five weeks after Easter Sunday, the feast of the Resurrection. Thus we are well into the time period when Jesus was with His disciples following His resurrection. By this time he had been seen by a great many people and no doubt everyone was wondering what was to expect next. Clearly things were not as they had been prior to the Crucifixion, but at least at the moment, Jesus continued to make Himself known among many people. What would He do next?
We, of course, have the advantage of hind sight. We know that the time of the Ascension was in fact drawing near, the time when Jesus would finally return to Heaven to remain there until the end of time. This would be followed by Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Ghost as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Before the Crucifixion ever occurred, Jesus spoke to the disciples the words that we have recorded in our Gospel lesson for today. He tells them that He is going to the One that sent Him, and that can only mean that He will be returning to the Father. Surely the disciples understood that — or did they? It is hard to be sure just what they understood and did not understand, because they were right there in the middle of the whole process, rather than observing it from after the fact as we do. Jesus went on to tell them that He was going to send the Comforter, but that the Comforter would not come unless Jesus leaves. To be honest, I have to think that statement would have made very little sense at all to the disciples. Would they not have said, “who, or what, is this Comforter? we think we would rather have Jesus stay with us.” I’m sure that they were also quite accustomed to saying among themselves, “what did He mean when He said, ….?”
Again with 20–20 hind sight, we understand that Jesus what talking about the Holy Ghost, His Spirit that would come upon them and work throughout the world until the end of time. Jesus talked about the things the Holy Ghost would do. He said that the Holy Ghost would reprove the world of sin and of righteousness, which is to say that He will demonstrate these things with utter clarity to believing minds and will completely silence all objections. Now we may still misunderstand what Jesus is saying here.
He goes on to elaborate, John 16:9 Of sin, because they believe not on me; Now it begins to become more clear; Jesus is saying specifically that the Holy Ghost will convict the Jews of their sin in not receiving Him, the Messiah that was sent specifically to them as foretold by the prophets to the Jews, such as Isaiah 35:3-6 3 Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. 4 Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6 Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. Exactly this did happen, the Jews were convicted of the sin of unbelief on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:37 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
Taken more broadly, we should understand that the Holy Ghost still convicts all men of sin, He shows us what sin is, He shows us our sins, and He shows us what we must do to atone for our sins. Thus while the original application of the words seems to have been directly to the unbelieving Jews, it extends today to all men where faith wavers and sin remains rooted in our hearts.
When we look at the life of Christ, what did He do? Well, of course the answer to that question is many things, but supremely His sacrificial death on the Cross and His rising again for our Salvation, His completed sacrifice for our sins. We can never say too much about that central aspect of Christ’s ministry, but if we look at the other things that He did, the two things that are prominent are His teaching and healing. But now, Christ has told the disciples that he is going away; so who is going to pick up those important parts of His ministry among men? St. John answers this for us when he quotes Jesus as saying John 16:13-15 13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. 14 He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. 15 All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you.
This passage takes us right in the heart of the mysterious Holy Trinity itself. Jesus is describing a power transfer from Himself to the Holy Ghost. In both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, we confess that Jesus Christ has ascended into Heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father. This indicates a connection of extreme intimacy and power between the Father and the Son within the Kingdom of Heaven, and indeed Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, All things that the Father hath are mine: But Jesus also says that the Holy Ghost will receive that which belongs to the Christ, and will show it to men; Jesus actually says this twice. Thus the charge to the Holy Ghost is to continue the work of Christ among men throughout the world until the end of time. This is what it means for the Holy Ghost to guide men “into all truth.” Thus we see the ordered relation within the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – each of the three Persons of the Godhead taking a different role in the on–going process of the salvation of mankind.
It is the Holy Ghost that St. James has in mind when he writes in our Epistle lesson for today, James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. The Holy Ghost is that good and perfect gift, the gift of God who is stable and enduring.
In the popular mythology of our day, we are all pretty good folks. Just look around you. We all dress well, we drive nice cars, we speak well, we all have enough money that we all come off as pretty good folks. But are we really? Are you really? Are we prepared to say to Jesus that we are pretty good folks? Are we ready to tell the Lord that everything is under control, and we are confident of our sinlessness? Most certainly not if we are even a little bit honest! We are in some respect the Pharisees of the present day. We at least manage the appearance of respectable lives, lives without flagrant sins that are readily visible for the whole community to see. But that certainly does not mean that there is no sin in our lives.
Thus, even though we lead apparently respectable lives, we are still aware that we are sinners, under God’s judgement. We are want to say with the Psalmist, Ps. 143:2 And enter not into judgement with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified. This is where the role of the Holy Ghost becomes so crucially important for our lives. We have been justified by the blood of Christ, but we are far from being sanctified, made holy. He is the steady beacon in our lives, coming from God the Father through Christ the Son, the one who is completely unchanging. Even those whom we think of as the most steady among us are remarkably lacking in constancy by standards of the Lord. This is simply our human failing, the weakness of human nature that it does not have the stability required to remain truly fixed on God. It was to remedy this defect that the Lord has provided the Holy Ghost, to give us the steadying influence, the guide to keep us fixed on Christ our Saviour, in order to secure our salvation by continuing to lead us in holiness.
For those who accept this guidance, they become the people given over to the Lord. This is what St. James means when he speaks of “a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” The evidence of belonging to this select group is being quick to hear, to listen, but slow to speak, and particularly slow to show wrath.
And then we come to another passage that is particularly important for us in our present times, James 1:20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. In America today, we live in angry times, times when many people are very angry over the way our political system is working, or not working. What does this verse say to that? Does this mean that we, as Christians, should remain on the side lines, and stay uninvolved because anger is much a part of the process? I do not think that is what it means at all, but rather that we should be sure that our own motives are not those of anger. As Christians, we are to be involved in the civil government, we are to take a part and express our thoughts, even strongly if necessary, but without violence to other people. In this way, we can express the righteousness of God, but without wrath.
The last verse of the Epistle lesson sounds a bit strange to modern ears: James 1:21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. Even so, the message is quite clear: we are to abandon all the sinful desires of our human nature, the sins of the flesh which also infect the mind. These things lead straightway to death and push out God. Rather, under the guiding of the Holy Ghost, we are to receive the Word of God, as something grafted into us, much as a new branch is grafted onto an existing stem. Think about that for a moment; this is not something that we are born with at all. Rather this is something that comes to us through Water and the Holy Ghost in our Baptism. It is nurtured and grows throughout our lives under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. This is the way that holiness is developed within us after we have been received into the Church through Baptism.
Our Collect for today expresses rather well our situation when it says,
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.