“The Story of the Church”
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know, I’m not sure that this section from John’s Gospel applies to us today. In fact, the lectionary had to leave out three-and-a-half verses in order to make it apply, omitting the part about being thrown out of the synagogues and killed (16:1-4a). Since we have our own churches, and we have no connection to synagogues (is there even one around?), those verses clearly don’t apply. And if we put them back in, it is clear that Jesus is addressing His first, Jewish apostles. I suppose we could “adjust” the text so that it would apply to radical Islam, which certainly thinks it is offering a service to God with its homicide bombings. But that doesn’t hit too close to home in northern Minnesota (though it may be different in a few years). And it’s hard to apply the text as comfort for our sorrow when we’re not all that sorrowful that Jesus ascended into heaven, if we think about it at all. There is one thing that does apply to us: none of us is asking where Jesus is going. So maybe we should go to a different lesson. But is the second lesson any better? Peter is speaking in a very specific place and at a very specific time: in Jerusalem, at the Jewish festival fifty days after the Passover. We have no flames, no speaking in other languages, no sons and daughters prophesying here, and there are no Israelites around, let alone Parthians and Medes and Elamites and all the rest. Maybe we should stay away from Acts 2. But Ezekiel is even worse: a valley of dry bones? Sure, we’ve sung some silly Sunday school song about dry bones connecting to each other, but that’s about as far as we’ve gotten. And God specifically says that the bones on which He puts sinews, flesh, and skin, and in which He puts the breath of life, is the whole house of Israel (Ezekiel 37:11). I’m wondering if we shouldn’t just move on to the Offertory.
And yet, maybe we miss the point if we try to apply these Scriptures to ourselves. Our tendency, bred into us by years of personal Bible study, is to read the words right off the page into our current circumstances. We don’t put ourselves into the world of the Scriptures; we superimpose the Scriptures on top of our world. If we read these passages as they really are, without removing verses and skipping parts that indicate specific times and places, it is not surprising that we cannot make them fit exactly, as one piece of our otherwise full lives. But maybe if, instead of us interpreting the Scriptures, the Scriptures interpret us; if, instead of saying what the Scriptures are about, the Scriptures tell us what we are about, we might begin to see more clearly what is happening. It is not really a matter of putting ourselves into the Scriptural world, but recognizing that the Scriptural world is the only real world. What we call the “real world” is only a shadow of the way things really are. We need the Holy Spirit to adjust our eyesight, as much today as they did on that first Spirit-filled Pentecost, so that we see everything in terms of what God is doing in the world; so that we see everything from the perspective of a man or woman who has been written into the story of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When Jesus told His disciples that He had to go physically away from them, their hearts were filled with sorrow and grief (John 16:6). But perhaps they were apprehensive because Jesus had also told them that when He was gone, they would be hated by the world and persecuted (15:18ff.); they would be tempted to fall away under the pressure of their culture (16:1); they would be put out of the synagogues where they had worshiped God since they were children (16:2); they would be killed by people who thought they were bringing an offering of worship to God (as Paul himself thought) (16:2); and their message, which the Spirit of truth would bring through them, would be rejected by many of their own people, who knew neither the Father nor the Son (16:3). Not a happy prospect. But Jesus told them that it would ultimately be better for them if He went away, because He would send them the Helper, who would give them everything they needed. The Spirit of truth would guide them in all truth, in all the things commanded by Him who is the Truth. And this is the work of the one God, Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus said, “[The Spirit] will glorify Me, because He will take from Me and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore, I said that He will take from Me and declare it to you” (John 16:14-15). Neither the Son nor the Spirit speaks independently (John 14:10; 16:13), but they speak in total unity with the Father. And through those Eleven Apostles, and then Twelve with Matthias, and Thirteen with Paul, the triune God was going to continue the story begun in creation, rewritten in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and amplified by the Holy Spirit in the Church .
It is in that story that we find our place. The Holy Spirit did not fall on us at Pentecost, but in the baptism given by Jesus to the Church through the Apostles. There, as in our Lord’s baptism, we were anointed with the Spirit. He breathed new life into these dry, dead bones and strengthened us for our life-long struggle with the devil and our own flesh. We know that He is Yahweh, our God, because when we were cut off and without hope, He raised us from the graves we dug with our own sin, and He is bringing us to the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11-14). Most of us do not speak to large crowds of foreigners who hear us in their own languages, some of whom think we’re drunk. We speak to individuals, one by one, what has been handed down from the Apostles of the Lord: that Jesus, the Son of God, was delivered into the hands of sinful men, that He was crucified, that He was raised on the third day, that He was exalted in His flesh to the right hand of God, and that He poured out the Holy Spirit on His Church so that the glorious Gospel would be spoken without embarrassment, because it is the power of God for salvation—for your salvation and mine. We are not, and we cannot be, the Church of the Book of Acts. But because Jesus is present wherever the Spirit is present, the Spirit bears witness today exactly as Jesus did while He was on the earth: that this world’s damning sin is unbelief; that this world’s righteousness is nothing more than impurity and uncleanness before the God who judges according to the righteousness of Jesus; and that this world’s judgment has already come upon it in the Word made flesh (16:8-11; cf. 3:18-19). We are here because the same Spirit who fell on the Apostles and the rest of those 120 believers came to us through water and Word, and wrote us into a story that, ultimately, has only one Word: Jesus.
There is no true story other than the one that we tell in our liturgy, Sunday after Sunday: the story of Jesus. There is no story other than the sixth-day story, where God re-creates our chaotic and worn-out lives by His Word: He speaks and it happens. There is no story other than the Easter story, where Jesus dies and rises for us so that when we die in confession and sorrow over our sin, He raises us to the new, baptismal life lived in Him by His Body and His Blood. There is no story other than the Pentecost story, where the Spirit falls on us and makes us bold to speak of the love that has been lavishly and extravagantly and excessively poured out on us here. And all to this end: that we would follow in the footsteps of our ancient fathers and mothers and devote ourselves and hold fast to the teaching of the Apostles and the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42); and that the things the Lord has given to us we would use for the good of those in need (Acts 4:34-35; 11:29; Galatians 2:10). As the Lord sustains us in these two intertwined creations of the Gospel—faith in God and love for each other—He will continue to do the same work He did in the early Church: He added to the fellowship of the baptized, gathered around Word and Meal, day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47). This is the story of the Church, it is your story, and it is the story of all whom God the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. By His grace, God will continue to write it through us here in Fisher/Euclid.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/27/09