Alleluia! Christ is risen! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In today’s reading Jesus speaks of two things. First Jesus tells us about the Helper, the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth: “But 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.” The Holy Spirit will bear witness about Jesus: he will tell who Jesus is and what he has done. We’ll see this play out next week on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes, the disciples preach, and those who hear say, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God,” the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So first Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit’s testimony. Second, Jesus speaks of the world’s response to this testimony. “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” What? What kind of response is this to the Holy Spirit’s testimony? It’s unreasonable that a dying world would hate the Word of life.
But as unreasonable as it is, we can understand it somewhat. The Holy Spirit’s work of bearing witness about Jesus is the same as the work we heard about two weeks ago, that the Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. Part of hearing that Jesus saves sinners is hearing that you are a sinner. Part of hearing about Jesus’ righteousness is hearing that you have no righteousness of your own. When the Holy Spirit opens his mouth, the world hears that what it does is wicked and wrong, which is true. But rather than believing the Spirit of truth, many prefer to believe a lie. And they believe the lie because they love their sins, as Jesus says in John 3, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” So the world hates the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
But the world not only hates the Holy Spirit’s testimony. It also hates all those who believe what the Holy Spirit says, those who hold fast to the Word and confess it. Or in other words, the world hates the Church. And from the world’s perspective this makes sense. The world is constantly trying to silence its conscience, because the conscience very often tells the truth about sin. People can deaden their consciences to some extent, justifying their iniquity and trying to divorce their consciences from the Law of God. But the conscience recognizes that it should be bound to God’s Law. All it takes is one Christian speaking or living the truth to wake the world’s conscience from its delusion. The Holy Spirit can call into question with one word the lie that took the world a million words to set up. Therefore it’s not enough for the world to lie to itself. It must also destroy whoever exposes the lie by speaking and living the truth.
The prototype of this is the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Cain and Abel were the first two children ever born of woman. Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. Abel’s sacrifice was in remembrance of the sacrifice that the Lord had made for Adam and Eve in the garden, when he made garments of skins for them and clothed them. It was a sacrifice that anticipated the sacrifice of Jesus to cover all sin. Cain, on the other hand, didn’t take the Lord’s sacrifice seriously. He approached the Lord flippantly and boasted of what his own hands had done. He did not share the faith of his brother: “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
Cain became angry. The Lord rebuked him, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain had done wrong. The Lord told him so, and Cain should have acknowledged the truth of the Lord’s words. He should have said, “Why am I angry at my brother when I’m the one in the wrong? Lord, forgive my sin.” But what did he do instead? He killed his brother Abel. He eliminated the righteous one so that he would not have to look at the righteous deeds that reminded him of his own wickedness.
The Apostle John comments on this in 1 John 3, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Then John concludes from this: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” You heard similarly in today’s Epistle, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” And Jesus himself tells us, “I have said all these things to keep you from falling away.”
Jesus and his apostles say these sorts of things because of the false expectations we so easily entertain as Christians. The world should love the Church! The ungodly should hang on every word that the Holy Spirit speaks. People should be flocking to the church and packing the sanctuary. Christians should be well-respected in the public square as those who have the wisdom of God. Christians should enjoy the favor of all people. And when’s the last time any of those things happened? Never.
What should we expect? We should expect that the world will hate the Church. We should expect that the ungodly will plug their ears when the Holy Spirit opens his mouth. We should expect the world to shun our congregation. As Christians we should expect to be marginalized and vilified in the public square. As Christians we should expect all kinds of worldly harm and persecution. For good reason we say in our confirmation vows that by the grace of God we intend “to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”
What, then, is our comfort as we face the world’s hostility? Here’s our comfort: Jesus says, “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” “Their hour” refers to the world’s hour of persecution. But it also points us to the hour of Jesus’ passion, as Jesus says to the chief priests and officers when he’s arrested in the garden in Luke 22, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” When we look at how Jesus fares in this hour, we also see how we’ll fare.
And there’s consolation for us when we see Jesus suffer at the hands of the world. We can note first of all that Jesus’ labor had not been in vain. Though there were ninety-nine self-righteous persons who hated him, Jesus succeeded in saving one lost sinner. As it says in Isaiah 55, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” This is often a meager harvest. But it is harvest enough to prove that the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus produces the fruit of faith.
So that’s our first comfort: the testimony about Jesus is never in vain. Our second comfort as we consider Jesus in the hour of darkness is that it’s ultimately his hour. Persecution belongs to Jesus, and he can do with it what he will. The world had its reasons for killing Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t killed for those reasons. Jesus laid down his life because he had his reasons for dying.
You were in the darkness and you needed his light. You were the sinner who needed a Savior, the unrighteous one who needed his righteousness. Would Jesus fail to save you because of the world’s persecution? Or would Jesus prove false because of the pain of the crucifixion? Of course not! These things were not unanticipated evils imposed on him by the world, but things chosen by him, which he used to lay down his life for you. So make no mistake, the world’s persecution is not its own, but Christ’s who uses it for the good of his Church.
Flowing from the second point, that persecution belongs to Jesus, is the obvious third point, that the world doesn’t get its way. As obvious as this is, it’s still worth reflecting on just how far the world was from getting its way. The world did everything it could to destroy Jesus: flogged him, hung him on a cross, watched his dying breath. But after all that the world did, is Jesus dead? No! He has risen from the dead never to die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
The resurrection of Jesus is our boast against the world, both corporately as his one Church, and individually as members of his one body. Corporately we have Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.” Jesus has risen from the dead and shall no more die. Therefore his Church will never die. If she’s persecuted, she’ll flourish in the midst of it. If she’s forced out of one place, she’ll spread to ten other places. When the world tries to put out the Church it’s like a crazed man trying to quench a fire by pouring lighter fluid on it. For all its efforts, the raging world will only prosper the Church. Jesus is her eternal life, and nothing can take that away.
The resurrection of Jesus is also our personal comfort. We have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, and thus, in a certain sense, we’ve already gotten death out of the way. All that’s left is to depart and be with Christ, and if the world feels like hastening that departure, then God’s will be done. As the psalmist sings, “The Lord is for me; I will not fear. What can man do to me?... I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” Now if all we had were life in this world, and in this world all we had were suffering, then we Christians “are of all people most to be pitied,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15. But Jesus has risen from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. We have life eternal in store, and once we enter into it, this life of toil and tribulation will seem like a fleeting dream. This little while of suffering is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all compare.
And “the end of all things is at hand,” as we heard in the Epistle. Fear not them who can destroy the body and after that can do nothing. Because as it says in 1 John 4, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Amen.