We have come to know and to believe
the love that God has for us.
1 John 4:16

Sunday after Ascension, 2021

16 May 2021

O King of glory, Lord of hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of truth whom You promised from the Father; for You live and reign with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (TDP)

God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

There are two basic conceptions of God as He relates to us. According to one, we owe Him, and He rightly demands our obedience. According to the other, His goodness flows the other way: a gracious God to us. The details can vary.

Christianity breaks the mold. It conceives of God in both ways: our Creator far beyond our comprehension, to whom we owe everything; and also our Savior deeply concerned with us and our lives to the point of reconciling us to himself and giving us eternal life. When those two ideas meet, it’s Christmas. Then we have God the Father sending His only-begotten Son to be our Savior. In the process, God also revealed that He’s not only one person. When the Son took a human nature, we came to know Him as true God. When He paid for our sins and rose to life again, it’s Easter.

God continues to be our almighty and perfect Creator while also being our Savior. But what about us? Our problem is sin. Rebellion. A rebellious heart refuses even the good gifts of a Savior. No reasoning will help. How do we manage that? We can’t. God has to step in again. That’s what Jesus was teaching His disciples in the Gospel today, and it continues next week. It takes us to Pentecost, the third great feast. We’ll consider the Holy Spirit these two Sundays. Today our Gospel teaches about who He is. Next Sunday the theme will continue as we hear what He does for us.

Today’s Gospel is an excellent place to start when we wonder who is the Holy Spirit. You might prefer the name “Holy Ghost,” but whichever one we may use, it means the exact same person. Our question today: who is this? How is He distinguished from other persons like the Father, the Son, or even angels or us?

Much of this is packed into the very first verse of our Gospel. Jesus said to His disciples, “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.

First, He’s called the “Helper.” This word is hard to translate well from Greek. It also appears in John 14:16, where Jesus promised those who love Him, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.” There again it’s a title for the Holy Spirit, but Jesus calls him another Helper. If the Holy Spirit is “another,” then who is the first Helper? Why, it’s Jesus himself. 

Sometimes this Greek word is just transliterated or spelled out using English letters. That’s the word “paraclete.” It does mean helper, but also comforter. It names a person called to the defense of someone in court, an advocate. The Son of God became a man to live among us and take up our struggle against sin and death. He is our Advocate. Where we were lost, He won our case for us. He went to such lengths that it required His death. That tells us something about the depths of our sin. But it also tells us about His commitment to help us.

That’s the sort of paraclete Jesus is. So when He promised to send another, our knowledge of God’s Son tells us something about the Holy Spirit. Jesus also said, “whom I will send to you from the Father” and that He “proceeds from the Father.” So His work involves not only Jesus, but the Father, too.

This passage is what’s called the “seat of doctrine” for part of our Nicene Creed. In the third article, the Church confesses, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The proceeding from the Father is said exactly right here in Scripture. The proceeding from the Son is inferred, based on the fact that Jesus promised to send Him.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the Holy Trinity, and can talk about the unity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this passage, we have enough to see that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is as far as the Bible goes in describing what the Holy Spirit does internally with the Father and the Son. Somehow, the Spirit has this relationship based on the idea of proceeding. Proceeding without beginning, and without end. This is the Spirit’s activity within the Holy Trinity.

Before we consider His activity beyond the Trinity, let’s consider the title “Spirit of truth.” It parallels Jesus’ own statement to His disciple Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The Spirit is united with Jesus in the matter of truth.

The concept of truth is under sharp attack in our time. Those of you who have read or seen the story 1984 by George Orwell may remember the way language was used. That novel was written in 1949, supposing a totalitarian future similar to what had been done in Germany and Italy under fascism as well as in the Soviet Union and at that time in China under communism. Orwell’s warning was that even the allies in World War II needed to guard against the same evil from within. But what rings a bell today is the matter of truth. In the government of that novel was a Ministry (or Department) of Truth, whose purpose was to spread lies. Its name itself was a lie, a pattern throughout the book. Language  was being turned into a weapon and into a prison to control the minds of the people.

It sounds a little ridiculous to say it, but Orwell’s warning was prophetic. The very idea of Truth is under attack. Language is being torn apart around us and rebuilt in a way that excludes the Bible’s view of things. If you pay attention and stay grounded in your Bible and Catechism, you’ll see it. As only one example, consider one of the most cherished biblical signs of God’s grace and how it’s used in our culture now: the rainbow. Many people don’t know what it really means.

When Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” that’s in direct opposition to the lies of this world. George Orwell may have been prophetic, but he wasn’t a prophet. That’s the ministry (or department) of the Holy Spirit. When a Christian believes the gospel, it’s through that ministry. From that time on, the Spirit of Truth will teach the truth to that Christian and also through that Christian.

The Spirit of truth has other activities external to the Trinity, where He acts together with the Father and the Son. One of these activities is named by Jesus here: “he will bear witness about me.” Then Jesus also told His disciples that they, too, would “bear witness.” This was a continuous comfort.

You may have had a hard job to do. Maybe it was completing a long homework assignment, or washing a huge pile of dishes. Maybe you had a deadline to meet with hardly enough time to finish the work. Maybe it was something like fighting cancer or some other physical problem. Being overwhelmed with something is a regular part of life on Earth. Often it isn’t something you chose or would ever choose for yourself.

Jesus’ disciples became apostles: those sent by Him to be His witnesses. He chose them, they didn’t choose Him. The same thing is true of your faith! Jesus chose you. But after His ascension, it seemed they were left alone. Jesus said they would be “put out of the synagogue.” Ostracized. Banned from society. How could a dozen men with ordinary backgrounds be effective witnesses for the Son of God? An overwhelming task, with many strong opponents, both spiritual and earthly. Seems like a plan doomed to fail.

But in addition to those dozen men was another witness: the Holy Spirit. With Him, the power of their witness was magnified many times. They performed miracles. They stood before kings. They died in peace with gladness in their hearts and forgiveness on their lips, even when they were being put to death by their opponents. In the space of about three centuries and after the victory of many martyrs, the mighty Roman Empire accepted Christianity as a legitimate faith. This progress all by itself is dramatic historical evidence for the truth of the gospel.

How about in our own time? If you want to know the truth and be vaccinated against lies, you need to receive the witness of the Spirit. You need to study it. It’s the Word of God, and He still works through it. If you’ve already been deceived or even spread the world’s lies, the Spirit still calls to you in the Word. He calls you to the truth by the forgiveness of your sins.

Though we may not think it’s true, we have all been deceived from time to time. We want to serve the flesh and go along to get along. Duck and cover, and quietly move out of harm’s way. This is wrong. Jesus said (Luke 12:4), “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” That’s God. We are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. If we do, then we will always wish to remain in the truth of His word.

But since we don’t, we must repent. And when you repent, it is my privilege to tell you the truth about your sin. It is washed away from you by the blood of Christ. In God’s sight, you are pure: a good and faithful servant. For He has imputed to you the righteousness of Jesus. This is what the Spirit of truth says to you. And Jesus says, “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

This week we scratched the surface under the question of who the Holy Spirit is. Next week, Lord, willing, we will continue this series on the holy feast of Pentecost as we see more of what great things the Holy Spirit does for us.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria