“These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father nor me.”
Today is the Sunday after the Ascension, which we celebrated this past Thursday. This is what Jesus had been preparing his disciples for throughout the Last Discourse:
“A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father…”
“Jesus said, Now I go my way to him that sent me…”
“It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you…”
“I came forth from the Father and am come into the world; again, I leave the world, and go to the Father…”
The Ascension was the moment of his return to his Father. First of all realize that the Ascension did not bring an end to the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the permanent state of being of the uncreated Son of God. Without belief in the permanency of the Incarnation in Jesus Christ one cannot be saved. If one believes that Christ shed his humanity at the Ascension, one is lost and cut off from the Church. Christ has shown, by the Incarnation and the Ascension, that human nature is open to God, open to assumption, capable of participation in the Life of God eternally without being altered ontologically; that is, human nature is assumable by God without human nature being made into something other than human nature. Remember this: Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature.
Now the Gospel for today historically occurred prior to the Ascension and here we learn about Apostolic authority and the mission of the Holy Spirit. The authority of the Apostles is the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the teaching of the Apostles, their oral communications and specifically the written communications that we know as the New Testament; the Apostolic commitment to Holy Baptism and the Eucharist; and the Christian manner of life modeled by the Apostles – worship, doctrine and life are all invested with this authority. This weightiness, this gravity, is the work of the Holy Spirit that we have seen Jesus rehearsing over and over again in the Farewell Discourse. The Work of the Holy Spirit is specifically circumscribed on three levels: His witness, first, is “from the Father.” In our Gospel for today, Jesus expressly declares that the Holy Spirit is “from the Father.” He comes from the Father and his witness is “of the Father.” The Holy Spirit did not come declare himself, in order to receive honor for himself, nor even that He might be rightfully worshipped in Himself. He was sent; He proceeded from the Father in order to accomplish the specific will of the Father. And what is the specific will of the Father? To witness, to declare, to testify, to interpret Jesus to the Church. Not to the world. To the Church. The second level of the circumscription of the Holy Spirit is his mission to completely disclose the Son to the Apostles. And the third level of the circumscription of the Holy Spirit’s mission is that disclosure of the Son to the Apostles. From the Father, of the Son and to the Church. Imagine three concentric circles. The center is the Father, the next circle represents the Son and the outlying circle represents the Church. Where is the Holy Spirit? Everywhere. He eternally, perpetually proceeds from the Father; He perpetually proceeds through the Son to His Bride, the Church. Early in the Farewell Discourse our Lord declared his intention to send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles after his departure. At that point He revealed to them that the Holy Spirit was already abiding with them:
“I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever… the Spirit of Truth… you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
How was the Holy Spirit already dwelling with the Apostles? He was already present in Jesus. As long as Jesus was with his disciples he protected them. When he departed to his Father, the Holy Spirit would take up this work. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to them in a different manner after he returned to the Father. He would not merely be with them, but He would dwell within them – forever. Please note that the work of the Holy Spirit is not in any respect independent of the Father or the Son. But just as importantly, note that the Holy Spirit does not work one moment independently of the Church. And so we come to the phrase at the end of verse 26 of chapter 14:
“and ye shall testify of me: because ye have been with me from the beginning.”
“And ye shall testify of me”… “bear witness” is not to be understood as an additional witness added to the witness of the Holy Spirit. A better translation would be: “And, moreover, it is you – the disciples, the Church – who must do and bear witness.” This is the work of bearing witness to Jesus Christ in the world. The Holy Spirit indwells the Church and thus enables her to bear witness of Christ contra mundum – against the world. Think of the three circles again: This is the work of the outlying circle, the circle made up of the disciples of Christ – of the Church of God – to bear witness in the world of the revelation of the Son of God. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the Church and the Church then bears witness to the world. It is as though the Church is the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Then Jesus explained to his disciples why he told them what he had told them:
“These things I have spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended.”
“Offended” is a soft way to put it. The more exact meaning is to be scandalized – to be shaken in one’s trust and confidence in Christ. Jesus was saying that the Holy Spirit would abide within and thus empower the disciples. When the world turns all its fury, its hatred of Jesus upon the disciples the indwelling Spirit will give them the strength and courage to prevent them from falling away from Christ. This is a better reading:
“These things I have spoken unto you, that ye should not fall away from me…”
The author of the Forth Gospel, St. John, took his memories of the Farewell Discourse and brought them to bear upon a specific experience of his intended audience – that would be the little parishes throughout Asia that he raised up and cared for till he died. And that specific experience was the expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogues after the year 70.
“These things have I spoken unto you, so that you not fall away from me. You shall be expelled from the synagogues. The hour will come when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. They will do this to you because they have not known the Father nor me.”
The Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of Jesus’ life, words and works. This is happening now. The Holy Spirit bears witness that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. The world has rejected Jesus and the world continues to reject him. This has been a constant theme in the Sundays following Easter in the Farewell Discourse. The world does not know God. The world has rejected God’s offer of Life.
Furthermore the world will treat his disciples just like Jesus. The Beloved Disciple presents a narrative in which the Church is to be locked in mortal combat with the world. The disciples with the Holy Spirit will carry Jesus’ witness into a hostile world. Hostile, yes – but the world cannot ultimately harm the disciples. With verse 1 of Chapter 16 and ending with verse 4, Jesus draws a circle around this exigency – the emerging persecution of the Church:
“These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended…”
“But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.”
The circle that Jesus has drawn is the circling, not of wagons, but the encircling of the Church by the Spirit-inspired Apostolic memory of Jesus’ love, his warning, and his provision to the Church. Every subsequent Eucharist throughout the ages will remind the Church of his betrayal and passion. And even though he is at the right hand of his Father, the world is still compelled to strike out against him. And now the only way the world may now strike out against Jesus is to strike out against his disciples.
“These things have I spoken unto you, so that you not fall away from me.”
Jesus’ disciples are to trust Jesus regardless of what the world does to them. He trusted his Father to the very end. They can do this because Holy Spirit perfected the apostolic memory of all that Jesus taught and did and He perfected their understanding of all that Jesus taught and did. It is not the mere human memory of Jesus’ close friends that we rely upon in the hour of our greatest need – it is the faith of the Spirit inspired worship, doctrine and life of the Church. The Disciples of Christ ancient and contemporary are to remember Christ’s promises and his love for them and finally – come what may – we are to put our life into the loving hands of Jesus.