Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Spirit of Truth

This is my sermon for tomorrow, the fifth Sunday of Easter (Cantate). The pretext for this sermon is the Gospel from the three-year lectionary, John 16:12-22, part of which served as the text of my sermon last Sunday. Understandably, I chose to focus on the other part of the pericope...
"I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said, that He takes of Mine, and will disclose it to you" (John 16:12-15).
A man raised in the Missouri Synod recently caught up with one of his confirmation classmates. In an exchange of emails, this man explained why he bailed out of Lutheranism and joined a Pentecostal, non-denominational church. He still expects to hear nothing but the pure Word of God, because Pentecostals say the Bible is inerrant. As to the lack of fellowship between Lutherans and Pentecostals, he blames our insistence on “denominational doctrines” that, he says, shouldn’t divide Christians, because they are “not a salvation thing.” But mainly, what drew this man to his “non-denom” church? What do they have that we don’t have? His answer: An experience of “joy” in worship.

The story I have just told is non-fiction. Why have I told it to you? Because it is not a unique case. Many of us have friends and even family members who have charted a similar course. Someone you were confirmed with, or went to Sunday School with, may be in the middle of this process right now. Apart from praying for them, what can you do? What can you say to them? What’s to stop you from joining them? That’s the question today’s teaching will answer.

Today’s Gospel is about the teaching that puts the “Pentecost” in “Pentecostalism”—namely, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells His disciples: “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever he hears, He will speak… He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you.” Here Jesus promises that God would send His Spirit to bring gifts to the church. So far, the Pentecostals would agree. They would also say that Jesus’ promise was fulfilled on Pentecost, when the Spirit came in the rushing wind, in the tongues of flame resting on each disciple, in the sudden boldness to proclaim the Gospel to thousands gathered in the city, and in the miraculous ability to speak in languages they had never learned. That, the Pentecostals would say, is when the Christians first tasted of the Spirit. That, they would say, shows the way every Christian must be anointed with the Spirit, and the gifts we should expect to see. Forgive me for being blunt, but life is too short for beating around the bush. In the teachings I have just described, Pentecostalism is flat wrong.

I do not say this on my own authority. I am not expressing my own opinion. This is a “thus saith the Lord” thing. The Bible, which Pentecostals believe to be inerrant, sends a different message. It’s not just a doctrinal sticking-point that Lutherans stubbornly cling to, a teaching that should never divide Christians. This is a “salvation thing,” because it’s about how God brings salvation to us. Because this hour of worship is filled with God’s “salvation thing,” it is truly an hour of joy. My prayer is that you will recognize what a precious gift this is, so the Holy Spirit may protect you from the satanic delusion that has drawn so many Christians away from the Spirit’s joy-filled and saving gifts.

Let’s go back to that ex-Lutheran’s reasons for leaving Lutheranism. In passing, he mentioned doctrines that should not divide Christian fellowship, because these doctrines are “not a salvation thing.” He seems to be saying Lutherans go beyond the letter of Scripture to teach things that may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. If they’re not necessary for salvation, it would be a sin to hold Christians to them, to bind their conscience, to deny their God-given right to take Communion regardless of where they stand. He never says what these issues are, but if your ears are tuned to the drum-beat of Evangelical Protestantism, you may recognize the tune. The sin of Lutheranism, what Evangelicals paint in every shade of condemnation from “it’s not a salvation thing” all the way to “it’s a lie out of hell,” is our teaching on how the Holy Spirit comes, how we receive Him, how we get hold of saving faith and how we keep hold of it, and how we recognize the gifts of the Spirit. The sin of Lutherans, they say, is to claim the answer to all these questions is Word and Sacrament.

In his explanation of the Creed, Third Article, Luther confesses: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith, in which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers, and will at the last day raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”

Yet the Pentecostals would say, “This is most certainly NOT true.” They would not agree that we cannot accept Jesus by our reason or strength. Making a decision for Christ, exercising free will, inviting Him to be our personal Lord and Savior, lie at the heart of what Pentecostals believe. And to say that the Holy Ghost has called us “by the Gospel” adds insult to injury! The Holy Ghost comes to Pentecostals directly, like a bolt out of the blue, like the wind and the fire at Pentecost. After all, that was the birthday of the Church. Before that, there was no Holy Spirit. So, today, He must come in the same way.

The problem is, the disciples did have the Holy Spirit before this. In Matthew 16, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered with the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus said: “Blessed are you… because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” How could the disciples believe in Jesus, how could they confess their faith, how could they preach His Word, how could they cast out demons in His name, without the Spirit?

So, if Jesus isn’t promising a Spirit the disciples already have, what is He promising in John 16? Jesus is promising that even when He is not visibly here to teach and lead us, after He has been taken away into heaven, we will not be alone and comfortless. He is promising the Spirit that He has already bestowed will remain, and that by the Spirit’s power, the Kingdom of God will flourish. He is directing our attention not toward our inner feelings or experience, but toward His truth. He is teaching us to distinguish what is truly of the Spirit. First, the Spirit of Truth will only repeat the things that Jesus taught, and so any other revelation is not of His Spirit. Second, the Spirit of Truth will only glorify Christ, and so “spiritual gifts” that glorify anyone else are not of His Spirit. Jesus describes the Spirit who dwells in His Church so that we cannot mistake it for the false, man-centered spirit of Pentecostalism—a spirit that takes glory away from Christ and gives it to men; a spirit that makes light of Jesus’ teachings and points its followers toward man-made doctrines and personal feelings.

In the upper room 10 days after Jesus’ ascension, the blowing and the burning and the speaking simply served as signs to assure Christ’s church that His promise was being fulfilled. The miracle of Pentecost was a sign to ratify the church’s authority to glorify Christ and proclaim His teaching. More importantly, the sign of Pentecost shows that all the church’s work is carried out by the power of God. Jesus does not tell us to wait for a similar sign to indicate our baptism in His Spirit. Rather, Jesus teaches: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5); and “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Jesus tells us that when His spokesmen on earth forgive our sins, we are forgiven in heaven (Matthew 16:19; 18:18; John 20:22-23). Jesus has tied forgiveness and salvation to the eating of his body and drinking of his blood (Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:53-58).

These are the teachings that divide Lutherans from Pentecostals. These are the sticking points that, according to our ex-Lutheran friend, should not prevent us from joining in fellowship, because they don’t really affect salvation. But that is where Pentecostals veer into grave danger. Scripture says we are saved through faith, faith that cannot exist apart from the power of God’s Word, the preaching of Christ crucified. Scripture tells us that water Baptism is a washing of regeneration that actually saves us and cleanses sin. Scripture says the bread and cup that we share is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and, yes, essential to our salvation. All other Protestants say that none of these things gives salvation or forgives sins, that Baptism does not regenerate, that the Spirit does not come through Word and Sacrament. In their view, these are just “denominational doctrines” showing that Lutherans are too Catholic and didn’t take the Reformation far enough. And since they’re not a “salvation thing,” we shouldn’t let them divide Christian fellowship. Some Pentecostals will even say these teachings “stifle the Spirit” or clash with “faith alone.”

But we’re not talking about “denominational doctrines.” We’re talking about teachings of Christ. We’re not talking about work we have to do, as opposed to “faith alone.” In Word and Sacrament God is working to give us faith. We’re not talking about a minor issue where we can agree to disagree because it isn’t a “salvation thing.” Christ reveals that He brings His salvation to us through these things. We’re not talking about reliable information God lays out so that we can make our own decision. We are talking about His miracle-working power to open our hearts, to grant us repentance, to call us to faith, to gather us, enlighten us, nourish us, and protect us. Luther confessed this in his explanation of the Third Article, but it was not his original idea. It is the teaching of Christ.

Beware of the grumbling spirit that says, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). This was the spirit that grumbled against Jesus’ teaching that it is necessary to eat His body and drink His blood. Jesus answered: “Does this cause you to stumble? ...It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Here, Jesus is saying pretty much the same thing He told Peter: “Flesh and blood do not reveal the things of God to you, but only My Words, which are Spirit and Life.” We did not find Christ’s way of salvation by our reason. We did not adopt the true faith by free choice. God sought you and found you, even when you were a helpless baby dripping over a baptismal font. He opened your ears and filled them with His Word. He changed your heart and gave you repentant faith. Today He opens your mouth and fills it with Christ’s body and blood. And when His servant on earth says your sins are forgiven, Christ opens His books in heaven and, behold, your debt is taken away.

“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” says Jesus (John 16:12). It’s not just that you can’t bear sitting any longer to listen to my long-windedness. It’s because, without the Spirit of truth, we cannot accept the mysteries of Christ. They are not grasped by natural reason. We came to spiritual life when God found us flat-lining in the throes of sin and death. God breathed His Spirit of Life into us, like a rescuer giving CPR into a drowning child. The life that has been breathed into us is the Word of Christ. “My words are spirit and life,” Jesus says. Our faith results from God breathing His Word into us. Knowing the truth isn’t just a step toward eternal life; it is life.

So our Introit says: “The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:2). Today’s first lesson says: “The Gentiles also had received the word of God,” and so “God has granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:1, 18). Peter describes this as a gift God gave to them (Acts 11:17). Today’s reading from Revelation agrees with this: “Behold,” says Christ, “I am making all things new.” Who is doing all these things? God is. We are not the actors. We are being acted upon. In this place, in this hour, we are surrounded by the presence of the Lord. We will soon be filled with the body and blood of the Lord. We are hearing words of Christ that are both spirit and life. How could worship be more joyful? It is not we who are glorifying Jesus, but the Spirit glorifies Him. It is not we who decide what is true, but the Spirit takes from Jesus’ words and guides us into truth. It is not what we do, but what we receive from God’s hands, that makes this a Divine Service.

Yes, there are some who find this hard to believe. It’s not that Scripture is unclear, or that we’re dealing with “denominational doctrines” that are “not a salvation thing.” Rather, it is as Jesus explains in John 6: “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” The result of this remark was that “many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore.” But Jesus turned toward the Twelve and asked, “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter confessed: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

If only we all held this conviction in our inmost heart! If only we felt its joy in every step toward this house, where the Spirit takes from the teaching of Christ and returns all glory to Him. If only we held the Spirit’s Work in the Divine Service as our most precious medicine against the power of sin and death. Behold, God has judged our sins in Jesus’ body, and now we have full righteousness before Him through faith. This saving faith is born of the Spirit in Baptism and Christian teaching. This faith is fed and fertilized by His Absolution and the Sacrament of Christ’s body. And this faith is strengthened by the joyful gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ.

If only we could hold these promises in our heads and hearts! If only we could bring them to our lips when we see loved ones being drawn aside by another spirit. If only we could unite our desire to make disciples with the realization that this is done by baptizing and teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We have no right to regard any teaching of Christ as non-essential, or to view a denial of that teaching as anything but a rejection of Christ and His Spirit.

We have wonderful promises from Jesus, promises tied to His miracle-working power in Word and Sacrament. These are the only promises that can furnish us with total assurance of God’s full, free, unconditional forgiveness. Where there is forgiveness, there are life and salvation. Where there is Jesus’ Word, there are Spirit and Life. Where we live by Christ’s gifts and teachings, there is also His promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And while He is now with us only in an invisible way, the same Jesus also promises: “I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

This is the joy He brings us today in the Divine Service—a joy founded on the certainty of Christ’s unchanging promises—a spiritual joy that cannot be destroyed even by the down-swing of your emotional pendulum. This is a joy built on truth and life. This is a joy of receiving all that God does for us, a gift that can never be incomplete or insufficient. Any gift or work we present to God must fall short. Any worship form based on what we feel, experience, decide, or do must lead to doubt if not despair. And so any spirit that commands such worship must be opposed with all our strength.

Oppose him, little children. Cling to the joy Christ gives you, joy that no one shall take away. Otherwise, to whom shall we go? His Words are both spirit and life. And oh, how we stumbling sinners need them! We are weak. We are sick. We are sometimes close to death. But here is medicine unto eternal life, medicine that is available nowhere else. This is a salvation thing for you and yours. Know it, love it, and share it, in Jesus’ name.

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

FOOTNOTE: This is probably the longest sermon I have EVER preached.

I got a little worried before the early service when I overheard one of the ladies my congregation saying that she hoped to persuade one of the parish's shut-in members to go to a Baptist service. All through the sermon I was thinking, "I'll bet that lady doesn't care for the way I'm trashing Pentecostalism."

But a most remarkable thing happened after the service. The same lady whose response to my sermon made my imagination cringe, came up to me and asked me if I could give her a copy of it to share with a loved one who is "teetering on the brink" between staying Lutheran and joining a Pentecostal church. She said she thought it might be very helpful. Which goes to show: you never know how the Spirit is going to use the message you proclaim!