And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (St. John 16:8).
Just before the text of today’s Gospel, our Lord stuns His apostles by revealing just how much following Him will change their lives; He says, ‘…yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service’ (St. John 16:2). Far from being bathed in the warm praise of the world, the followers of Jesus are promised wrath, not from some snarling beast sprung from their nightmares, but rather, deadly violence will come from those who earnestly think they are doing good. We will be meditating today on why we desperately need the Holy Spirit, but even now, at the beginning of our Lord’s words, we start to see how vast our need is in this emotionally driven age we find ourselves: a mad period of human existence which simply assumes truth is both infinitely flexible and relative but also worth killing over. Who but a supernatural enemy, ‘the Prince of this World’ as Jesus mockingly calls him today, who but he could influence a society to live in the immense hypocrisy shown when we publicly condemn the abuse of women but refuse to do anything to slow pornography’s perversion of the next generation of men; the hypocrisy shown when our leaders condemn the legacy of slavery while materially benefitting from the modern day slaves who make our cheap goods. The Prince of this World loves hypocrisy because it is a sure sign of a society’s worshipful disorder—a rebellion against the beautiful order from chaos God first created Man to honor and defend. These types of inconsistencies and injustices are all over our fallen world, and what do people say when they are questioned about them, ‘It’s all for the greater good.’
But, when faced with this solemn pronouncement designed to silence our concerns, we should always ask, ‘What is good?’ From the fallen world, the answer one will always get is the same: the greater good is service to the gods. In ancient times, this reverence would have meant service to Odin or Isis, Mithras or Baal, Molach or Mammon, but all these ancient gods were personified gateways to the gods of our own unimaginative age—the gods named money or power or sex, and it is these gods the supposed ‘greater good’ defends; it is these gods to whom we are asked to sacrifice ourselves and our children. We learn today that the Holy Spirit has come to challenge these gods in every part of this dying world. In fact, the Holy Spirit has come to burn these gods from our hearts.
But, we may fairly ask, if the church is faced with such enemies, how can it be that Christ Himself did not stay and defend us? Why has Christ abandoned us to those who serve the bloody, merciless gods of the fallen world? As we can see, the apostles had similar thoughts as Jesus spoke of returning to His Father in the heavenly realm, and who can blame them? They are, after all, being asked to bear the terrible cost of telling the world it serves devils and lies. Christ rebukes His disciples today not because the threat to them isn’t real, but because their focus on themselves misses the reality of what is going on all around them. In short, every disciple’s temporary suffering or comfort is not more important than what the Trinity is doing to save the universe—what the Trinity is doing to eliminate pain and injustice and suffering to create everlasting peace for the faithful. This reality is quite hard to express in a Western church obsessed with the idea that its purpose is to meet the needs of its customers rather than to exhort desperate sinners to take up a cross and join the rescue mission of the world, but it is still the church’s solemn calling.
And to create and support this rescue mission, the Trinity must undo the terrible choices of humanity: all our ignorant graspings toward what our fallen imaginations deem ‘the greater good.’ For Adam, the first human representative before our Creator, ‘the greater good’ was to try and be his own god, and in so doing he wrapped himself in evil and made it temporarily impossible for humanity to be in the holy presence of the God who is entirely good. To reverse this disaster, God the Son became the second Adam—Jesus Christ—binding Himself to our humanity as a kind of beachhead so that God could once again dwell with Man, but in the name of the greater good our fallen race murdered Christ rather than be in the presence of the God/Man who revealed just how sinful we are, just how inhuman we are. But again, as the ultimate sign that we fallen men are not in charge of the salvation project, God used our own evil to save us: the Cross became the altar upon which God forever cast aside our miserably inadequate attempts to define good and love and justice. All good, all love, all justice begin and end in this divine source, and we are either reflections of our Father’s all-encompassing truth or we are orphan children playing with knives and fire.
And incredibly, it doesn’t end there; no, Christ rises from the grave and once again walks among His people as He did in the Garden of Eden. But Man’s return to the privileges of the Garden, the blessed advent of a new creation, is not the end of the overflowing blessings of God, for the salvation story is about more than a return to the past. Christ must leave His beloved apostles on the first Ascension Day so that the promise of Eden might come to pass; Christ must leave so that humanity can participate in the eternal love of the Trinity; Christ must leave so that God and Man may be united by the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
We see then that the ascension of Christ is not the beginning of his absence; no, it is the infinite magnification of His presence to all the corners of the world by the Word and Sacrament Christ’s Church carries into the darkness. It is in this blessed union to the eternal Godhead, a union made possible by the sending of the Holy Ghost, that we are able to be the human beings who live and act as eternal beings made for glory rather than scared animals scratching out an existence from the pain of our neighbors and enemies. By dwelling among us and within us, God the Holy Spirit unites us with the risen Christ in a more intimate way than if the Ascension had never happened. And so, we have not been abandoned by Christ, far from it, through the Holy Spirit, we are being carried by Christ to every dark corner of this fallen world to show the world what ‘good’ truly means.
The hard part of all of this glorious good news, truly the only hope for a confused and broken humanity, the hard part is that our every inclination, our every instinct and ingrained habit will fight against the God who invades our hearts to cleanse us of our evil. The church in our age, and in many others, always fails at her mission when she confuses her members’ heartfelt desires with the will of God. Again, it is when we falsely believe we are doing good that we are at our most dangerous, and so, our Lord tells us today that the Holy Spirit has come to liberate us from the slavery of sin, self-righteousness, and the standards of the dying world. We all know why modern churches shy away from talk about sexual sin or greed (strangely, progressive churches tend not to talk about sex and conservative churches tend not to talk about money). The consequences of this failure can be seen in the attitudes of modern men. Ask any person in the throws of sexual sin and he will tell you his sin is good, ‘I’ve never been happier, doesn’t God want me to be happy?’, as if happiness in this broken world is a reliable tool for detecting the good and the true and beautiful. Ask the man who hoards his wealth, and he will say, ‘What I earn is mine alone,’ forgetting that if God used this standard we would all have nothing and be barred from the salvation we most certainly haven’t earned. The list of poisoned reasoning goes on and on.
What we must see in this mad, individualistic age is that the Holy Spirit has not come to guide us into the truth we like or even want; no, the Spirit of Truth is Truth, and it is only in our participation through Word and Sacrament that we can know truth as the person of the Godhead He is. When we read and preach and study the God-breathed Scriptures together, when we kneel in abject humility before the Holy Spirit’s blessed and sanctified communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, when we open our homes and our lives to the scared and the lost, we are intimately knowing someone greater than all the fulfillment and authenticity and materialism the Prince of this World dangles before our hungry eyes. In our participation together as Christ’s church, we are daily growing in our union and knowledge of the Trinity, we are daily growing in our love and adoration of the living God. It is in this life-long relation where we can know there truly is a good greater than the plans of devils and the dreams of men: a true and beautiful goodness which knows no end. Here is our only comfort; here is our life.