Generous Orthodoxy  


A Sermon for Pentecost
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge
April 2016
Diocese of Dallas Clergy Conference
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Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin (hamartia) and righteousness (dikaiosyne) and judgment (krisis): concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father….concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:7-10)

 

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This sermon is specifically prepared for this congregation of clergy. I wouldn’t preach it on a Sunday morning in a parish church—too much exegetical detail, too many Greek words. Of course the gospel of John was written for everybody, but at this particular time, I think there’s a special word here for those who preach and teach and lead congregations. Alan Jacob’s diagnosis yesterday [1] seems to me to be exactly right: American Christians today have different antagonists. In New Testament times, Christians needed to be fortified to face certain persecution, even to death. In our time, it is not our lot to be burned at the stake, but we are surrounded by an unbelieving, even hostile culture. It might not be quite as true in Texas as it is in New York, but Alan gives us the flavor of the hostility when he writes that in the “intellectual ecosphere” of academia and other rarefied circles, the worst thing you can say about a thinker is to compare his ideas to Christian belief.

 

The passage for this sermon is from the Last Discourse of the Lord in the Gospel of John. In this text from the 16th chapter, we find a remarkable trio of words: Sin (hamartia), righteousness (dikaiosyne) and judgment (krisis). Most preachers today avoid these words and concepts as if they carried the Zika virus, and there is precious little about judgment in the lectionary; but all three of these theological words are lie close to the center of the Scriptures in both Hebrew and Greek.

 

In a sense, this is a Pentecost sermon. The Last Discourse contains the central Johannine teaching about the Holy Spirit. We have many great commentaries on the Fourth Gospel; Rudolf Bultmann’s is one of my favorites. You have to read it selectively, but Bultmann had an undeniable affinity for the Fourth Evangelist. Bultmann’s title for this section of John’s Gospel is “The Judgment of the World.” Let’s see if we can grasp the central truth of what John wants us to know.

 

John has two ways of referring to the Spirit: one is “the Spirit of truth,” and as you know, the other word, in Greek, is parakletos. In John, the Paraclete and the Holy Spirit are synonymous, but the Paraclete in John has a special character and function which is not emphasized in the other books of the New Testament, so I’m going to refer to the Spirit as the Paraclete.

 

Now let me explain the context for this sermon. As I see it, the church is going through a period of withdrawing from the radical particularity of the apostolic preaching. I see this tendency growing, not shrinking, especially as the mainline churches try to distance themselves from the Christian right. Commonweal, a serious Roman Catholic magazine, recently published a favorable review of my new book. I was both amused and bemused to read some of the online “comments.” One person wrote that the themes of “atonement and redemption should have been buried with Augustine.” Another wrote that the theology of the book was “embarrassing” and “woefully out of date.” These comments are coming from a perspective called “presentism.” This neologism was (I assume) originally coined as a tongue-in-cheek take-off on the “isms” of our time, but it has now become part of the vocabulary. In this case, the basic idea of “presentism” is that the first 2000 years of biblical interpretation in the church were primitive and benighted. Only now, in the “present,” can we enlightened ones discern which passages of Scripture are worthy of our attention. So the thinking goes. But the essayist Lance Morrow, in his recent book entitled, simply, Evil, writes that “Auschwitz and Hiroshima brought the snake into the garden of the Enlightenment.” Since these events of the 20th century, he mordantly concludes, we had better speak in our own time of “the Endarkenment.” [2] W. H. Auden wrote words in the 1940s that are startlingly apt today:

 

The evil and armed draw near

The weather smells of their hate

And the houses smell of our fear;

Death has opened his white eye… [3]

 

In the Fourth Gospel, the word “world”(kosmos) is very prominent. I’m going to refer on and off in this sermon to the kosmos, not only because it’s the biblical word, but because of its cosmic implications. There are two different angles on the kosmos in John. The first one is the famous verse 3:16—“God so loved the kosmos that he gave his only begotten son.” But the greater part of Jesus’ teaching in John depicts the world as hostile to him and to his disciples—so hostile that his followers will be persecuted. This is the setting for the Last Discourse. Jesus is preparing these disciples—who will become his apostolic witnesses—by assuring them that the Paraclete, when he comes, will “prove the world wrong.” I’m using Raymond Brown’s translation there (it’s the same in the NRSV). The word in Greek is elenchein, a word much disputed in this context. It’s been translated as convict, convince, reprove, rebuke, argue, unmask, bring to light, judge, and prove wrong. Bultmann’s word, translated from German, is uncover. Whatever the differences, elenchein refers to the judgment not of individuals, but of the kosmos by the Paraclete—the uncovering of the world’s lies by the Spirit of Truth, which is the living presence of Jesus in the disciples and by extension, in the church.

 

Schnackenburg, in his massive commentary on John, calls this scene “a cosmic trial scene in the presence of God” [4] It’s the great and final Assize in the court of heaven. [5]

The Paraclete’s function is to be prosecuting attorney. This isn’t the only role of the Paraclete; the concept also means something like “to stand beside,” as in the familiar translation, the Advocate, or even the Comforter, as in the King James. Whether defense attorney or prosecutor, though, both of these roles have forensic connotations, and it’s John’s Gospel that emphasizes this function of the Holy Spirit. The Paraclete will not only defend the apostolic witnesses, he will prove that the world of their enemies is wrong on three fronts—wrong concerning sin, wrong concerning righteousness, wrong concerning judgment. The ultimate sin, Jesus teaches here, is to reject him—and in rejecting him, rejecting also the Father. The ultimate righteousness is his own righteousness because the Father has vindicated him; it is the righteousness of the Father that the disciples see in Jesus. And the ultimate judgment is Jesus’ conquest of “the ruler of this world (the archon tou kosmou).”

 

In every book of the New Testament, the rule of the Evil One over the fallen creation is simply assumed. Many within the church still find this idea “woefully out of date,” but as I’ve indicated, many thoughtful secular commentators in our time suggest concerning recent history that there is indeed an alien agency operating not only “out there,” but also “in here,” undoing our best efforts and causing us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. [6] The Fourth Gospel proclaims that this “ruler of the kosmos” has been driven from the field by the victorious Christ and no longer has any real or lasting power over those who bear the apostolic message. [7] The judgment of the world is carried out by the Paraclete in his dual role as 1) the defender of the followers of Jesus, and 2) as the prosecutor of the world who judges the world guilty of disbelief. Therefore we’re to understand that this teaching is for the strengthening of the apostolic witnesses as they face the hostility of the kosmos—as Jesus says in the Synoptic Apocalypse, “Behold, I have told you all things beforehand.”

 

How are we here this morning to appropriate all this? The context is crucial. Neither you nor I are going to go out from here preaching sermons to mixed groups about how wicked the world is, or how satanic human nature can be, or how the world’s peoples’ reception of Jesus is going to be the ultimate criterion of human history. This last discourse of Jesus is specifically directed to the inner circle of disciples and, by extension, to the church, and particularly to us who lead the church in our own times of trial. I don’t mean to make this sound like esoteric Gnostic teaching, far from it—but it’s necessary for the leaders of the American church to understand the connection between Jesus talking to his disciples in 33 AD in the Roman Empire and the teaching of Jesus for us in the American church in the 21st century.

 

I will readily admit that as a child of the 50s, I was not expecting what was going to happen since then. I was really thrown, at first, by the kind of disdain and scorn that I, as a Christian witness, would meet from our increasingly secular population. I don’t mean disdain for me personally—I can take that, or at least some of that. What really hurts is disdain for, even hostility to, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the faith of his people. It’s a favorite sport among the intelligentsia in New York City, where I come from, to sneer at Christian faith. A particular kind of sneering is the kind that regards the church of Jesus Christ as a conspicuously backward, unevolved, self-deceived group of people whose wishful imaginations cause them to ignore reality. When Christian witnesses are regarded that way, it’s an attack upon the Lord himself. In precisely these sorts of situations, the Paraclete, the living presence of Christ with us, comes to inhabit the church and to defend it against hostile unbelief. This is what Jesus is teaching in the Last Discourse. He’s teaching us two things at once, to love the world as he does, but not to be afraid of the hostility of the world. The world, in this sense, is judged already. That is our confidence.

 

I love a phrase of Alan Jacob’s: “dialectical weakness.” I can’t think of anything more important for preachers and teachers of the faith today. John Keats referred to “negative capability,” the capacity for entertaining two seeming opposites at the same time without reaching too quickly for a resolution. Here’s an example from John’s Gospel, from the scene with Nicodemus:

 

For God so loved the kosmos that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the kosmos, not to condemn the kosmos, but that the kosmos might be saved through him.

 

And then only three verses later:

 

And this is the judgment (krisis), that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

 

These two perspectives on the world seem to cancel one another out. It’s a dialectic. It would be a lot easier to choose one over the other: the world is all good, or the world is all evil. Our challenge is to hold both of them in creative tension, in dialectical weakness if you will, making ourselves vulnerable in order to bear witness to the world’s salvation. To love the world, and at the same time to see that the world is the realm of unbelief, and yet to love the world even unto death as Jesus loved the world.

 

So the “trial scene” here with the Paraclete as the accuser and “prover” is not only the trial of the world. The trial of the disciples is in view, and so it is with us today. We are in a time when many Christians are afraid to challenge “the world.” This passage presents the Paraclete as prosecuting and convicting the world for its sin in not believing in him. We have backed off from this, partly from timidity, partly from lack of conviction, partly I suppose from a hope that if we soften our message we will be more attractive; but the purpose of the Last Discourse is as Jesus says in 16:1, “I have told you all this to guard you against the breakdown of your faith” (16:1, Revised English Bible).

 

So the main action today, right now in this passage addressed to us, you and me, is not the trial of the world. The trial is in our hearts and minds. The “trial” that is going on today is the test of our faith in Jesus, and our trust in his eschatological perspective on the unbelieving world. The Paraclete proves the world wrong concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. These “proofs” by the Spirit are not “ethical concepts” that the world can recognize and debate (Bultmann). These are cosmic events happening in the eschatological dimension where Jesus is already reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords.

 

As this sermon draws to a close, Jesus the Lord looks beyond the disciples to whom he speaks in the Last Discourse. He looks past them into the future and he sees you, today. You are the ones to whom he speaks. He is risen; he is alive; the Paraclete—the Holy Spirit of Truth—is his living presence among us, here, now. With his righteousness he is ready to vindicate your faithfulness in the sight of the world.

 

Every sermon from the Fourth Gospel should probably end as John did, with these words from the 20th chapter in which he states his purpose:

 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

Amen.

 


[1] Alan Jacobs is Professor of English Literature at Baylor and author of Original Sin: A Cultural History, among many other books.

[2] Lance Morrow, Evil. New York: Basic Books, 2003)

[3] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being, Advent section

[4] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St John, Volume Three, 130.

[5] In my book The Crucifixion, I treat this subject in a chapter called “The Great Assize.”

[6] Conspicuous examples are Andrew Delbanco’s book about Satan and a four-volume work on the Devil by Jeffrey Burton Russell.

[7] John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11.


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