S. The Day of Pentecost.15 “Graduations” John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
The weirdness we spoke of last Sunday at Christ’s Ascension continues today, the Day of Pentecost. We thought it a little strange that Jesus should disappear from view just 40 days after His Resurrection if His Resurrection is something He wants to convince everyone to believe. Seems like it would have been easier to accomplish this goal by just sticking around visibly. But we also realized that our thoughts and ways are not God’s (which is much, if not all, of our problem!) and that when things go the opposite from how we’d direct them, it’s a pretty good sign that it’s God at work, not us. Which, we figured, was a good thing…
Jesus ascends to heaven, it would seem, to draw us up with Him, to set heart and mind on things above. But instead of drawing us up right away, today we see the Spirit descends to help us on the Way. He comes with fire, with the sound of a rushing mighty wind, with the power to hear the Gospel of Christ Jesus spoken in our own tongue, in a way we can finally grasp. But how does all this help, exactly? The disciples, I notice, after the Pentecost event, don’t go anywhere. They don’t seem to move in any obvious, tangible way even an inch closer to heaven. To the contrary, they seem to be more rooted and settled in Jerusalem than ever before (they’d hang out there for a good many years, according to Acts). The Spirit’s chief work seems to be organizing a pattern of worship for the disciples, centered around the Word and Sacraments of Christ Jesus. But how, exactly, does that help?
Jesus says something really strange, to my ears at least, in the Gospel today. He says “if I do not go away, the Helper (Paraclete) will not come to you.” Now, Jesus promised at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that He would be with us always. In John’s, He promises not to leave us orphans. But here, in John, He says plainly that He is going away, far away, so that we will “see Him no more”—and that we should consider this Exodus of His a good thing, because unless He departs, the Holy Spirit will not come to help.
And I’ve always been confused by this. We are taught, as Lutherans, to emphasize that Jesus is always with us, that He never goes away, that He’s just present with us in another way, by faith, through Word and Sacraments, in the Church, in our worship, and that this is great, far better really, and we should be happy that we don’t have the burden of seeing Him directly like the Apostles had to put up with for three years.
But seeing Jesus directly, face to face, never seemed like a burden to me. Seems like it was pretty great for those who did see, seems like this is the chief joy of heaven—that this beatific vision gets restored. But Jesus says quite clearly that He is going away and also equally clearly that we should be pleased about that because, then, the Holy Spirit will come, and this will help. The help specifically has to do with sin, righteousness, and judgment but Jesus’ words on how precisely His Exodus and the Spirit’s descent helps with this have always seemed a little murky, to me.
Until I look at the Apostles and how it goes with them. As long as they saw Jesus face to face on earth, they didn’t make much progress with Faith, and their worship of Christ seems haphazard and weak—like their faith. But as soon as He ascends, everything changes, and oddly enough, for the better. Their church attendance instantly improves—they are now constantly in the Temple worshiping and blessing God. Jesus seems like He practically has to drag them to Temple service in Jerusalem before this! Now they go on their own! Confidently! Joyfully!
And suddenly, they learn how to tell the Story! 10 days after Ascension, the Spirit descends on the Jewish Festival of Pentecost (50 days after Passover) and Peter, along with the other 11, is suddenly possessed of a miraculous eloquence, and proclaims the Gospel with a straightforward and winsome clarity, in words everyone easily grasps. Makes ‘em laugh, makes ‘me cry, convicts them of Jesus’ death, and acquits them by the water of Baptism and the word of faith. Wow! And from this, a vital worshiping community grows. And a clear pattern of worship around the Apostolic words and sacraments and liturgy is set and continues…
And now they are fearless, these guys who used to be so clueless and timid. They get the snot beat out of them (good old fashioned police beating by the authorities for this Jesus worship of theirs) but they walk away rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of Jesus’ Name—happy that now people are confusing them with Him!
So I do see, when I look at the Apostles and their post-Pentecost acts, that things are definitely better with them for Jesus having “gone away” and the Spirit having descended upon them. Oddly enough, they seem to know Jesus’ better when they don’t see, but only have Him reflected mystically, by the Spirit, in the worship of the Church. How does that work, exactly?
My thoughts have been much on graduations this weekend, with my daughter Bethany graduating from high school last Friday, and our confirmands concluding their catechesis today. It’s sort of weird that just as our kids get interesting (as Henry Jones Sr. said of Indy) they leave the house, strike out on their own, and we don’t see so much of them anymore. I can see how not having mom and dad always in your face, or having pastor point out all the stupid questions in the catechism explanation would be an improvement from their perspective. But there are days for all of us when we miss the old ways, the simpler, more direct togetherness; independence is exciting, but sometimes lonely. Graduations can be bittersweet.
At Pentecost, the disciples graduate into a new relationship with Christ Jesus that involves distance and a new sort of closeness, fueled by the Spirit and the worship of the Church. Were there days when they missed/remembered the times of their life, tramping the dusty roads together, sharing a meal, an inside joke, in some hostel, somewhere? No doubt. But they also saw that they could, in a way, see Jesus better for not seeing, for having to rely on the Spirit’s reflection of Him. We never graduate out of our families. We never graduate from Church. But we do gradually discover new ways of being family, of being the Body of Christ in this world…
How, exactly? Getting out of the house gives you a perspective on your parents. The going away of Jesus into heaven makes room to see Him more clearly by His Spirit. If we weren’t sinful, this wouldn’t be necessary, this distance (I don’t think), but absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? With some Help, yes, it will. So the Spirit helps us in our weakness, on our Way. He doesn’t lead us charging straight up to heaven, hot on Jesus’ heels. He roots us first in Jerusalem (that strange City), by worship of Christ, through the apostolic witness, word, sacraments. He bridges the distance by a new presence; and without mom, dad (or pastor) telling us what to do (or think) their voice, in strange ways, may sound more clearly, more winsomely in our ears even (especially?) through absence, suffering, trials, journeys.
“It is to your advantage that I go away” Jesus says, so it must be. But by His Spirit, the distance is not so great. Today, we graduate into new ways of being family, of being Church, by Word and Sacrament, through Jesus’ cross, so Peace surpassing understanding will guard heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Always. Amen.