Text: John 16:16-22
Though I grew up with the folk-masses of post-Vatican-II Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism, I have come to love hymns and hymnals. For a musician, pastor, and theology student, what could be more fun than cracking open a thick volume of Christian poetry and music just to explore the riches of our musical and theological heritage? One of my favorite 18th Century hymns, sadly omitted in our Hymnal 1940, is “Come, thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robertson. It’s a hymn extoling God’s grace, even in light of our tendency to wander away from God. Take, for example, the third verse:
Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy grace, Lord, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.
Notice who is doing the main verbs in this hymn: God. God binds the wandering heart like a fetter with his grace. God seals the wandering heart for himself and for his worship. This is a key aspect of the Gospel: God doing the verbs, often in spite of our own sinful tendency to stray. In today’s Collect, we address God as the one who brings in the wanderer: “Almighty God, who showest to them that are in error the light of the truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness…” This is speaking to a particularly Christian problem: despite being born again, despite having the gift of the Holy Spirit speaking to us through Word and Sacrament, we can nevertheless fall into error and wander away from righteousness. The pagan, the unbeliever, the non-Christian cannot return to the way of righteousness; he was never on that way in the first place! But God’s grace is such that he sheds the light of his truth in our hearts and draws in the wanderer.
We know from the Gospels that even the Apostles wandered from time to time. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is preparing them for his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. As is often the case, the Apostles don’t quite understand what our Lord is saying. Please turn in your bibles to John 16:16 (page 173 in your Prayer Book):
[Jesus said to his disciples,] “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again an little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Jesus is speaking to them at the Last Supper, on the night in which he would be betrayed. In St. Matthew’s account, Jesus tells the Apostles: “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (26:31). This is, of course, exactly what happened. Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee. Easter Sunday finds them hiding out in fear. There is no faith. There is no belief. There is only sorrow and dread. “We had hoped,” two of them would later say (not realizing they were talking to the Risen Lord), “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). As far as they were concerned, their hopes had been dashed. But Jesus seeks them out, restores them to faith, and brings them joy. Just as he said, the Lord had returned, and everything would be all right.
We know, of course, that there was more to the story. Soon Jesus would depart again, this time he would ascend into heaven. Soon there would be more waiting, first for the descent of the Holy Ghost, and second for the return of Christ. In the meantime, the disciples, like all of us, needed further instruction. St. Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles by saying that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Jesus was again preparing them. Jesus was again shining the light of the truth onto them.
I mentioned two weeks ago that part of the post-Easter season is learning to live in light of the Resurrection, learning to live as Christians. We spend the forty days between Easter and the Ascension revisiting our time of catechesis. After the address, we prayed in today’s Collect, “Grant unto all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s Religion, that they may avoid those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as we need God’s grace to bring our wandering hearts back to him, we also need God’s grace to avoid the things that are against our profession of faith, as well as God’s grace to follow the things that agree with our faith. We live in the light of God’s grace, but we are not to use grace as an excuse for sin. The Law of God still exposes the lingering darkness of our hearts, it still shows us how we are to live, and it still drives us to Christ. Let the truth of God’s Word show you the hidden sins, the areas of your life that are contrary to your profession of faith, so that you can repent and turn back to God.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. We all know that the “things that are contrary” to Christian life are often very seductive, very tempting to our flesh. The old man often still desires them, even after we’ve been walking with the Lord for a long time. An important key to overcoming such temptation is to remember who you are in Christ. St. Peter addresses this in the beginning of our Epistle and the verses that precede it. 1 Peter 2, verse 9:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Though we had been enemies of God, though we had been not-a-people, a no-mercy people, the blood of Christ has bought us. Now we are God’s people, we’re his chosen people, a sanctified people. We’re his flock and he is our shepherd. When looking at our former state, I can’t help but think that St. Peter must have been alluding to the Prophet Hosea. If you remember the story, God told Hosea to marry the town harlot as a living picture of God’s troubled marriage to Israel. When Hosea’s wife conceived (almost certainly by someone other than Hosea), God told Hosea to name two of the children “No Mercy” and “Not my People.” Because of Israel’s sin, God said that he would no longer have mercy on Israel, nor forgive her, “for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” But that wasn’t the end of the story. Despite the marriage problems between God and his people, God himself would fix his people’s unfaithfulness. Hosea 1:10:
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Sons of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.
This head is the promised Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. And he has added to the family of Israel his chosen from all nations, increasing his sheepfold, to the point that they would indeed outnumber the sand on the sea. As the children’s song says, “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.” You see, God uses his redeemed, chosen, holy people, he uses you and me, to glorify his name among the pagans, to declare his lordship. Our very existence as the Church is a witness that the World, the Flesh, and the Devil have been defeated, not by conquering armies bearing the sword, but by the shed blood of the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world. In the further words of Robertson’s hymn:
Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home:
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.