Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Easter, April 29, 2018
“And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.”
THE ONLY THING we can really be sure of is that, whatever appears to be going on, it will change. Change can be good, and change can be bad. Change is change—and I don’t think that even dying and going to heaven will stop certain kinds of change, continuing our growth and deepening of ourselves. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Mere Christianity
Hatch or go bad. People are heading in one direction or the other all the time. There’s no holding still. Hold still and you rot. One of the maxims of this world is that perfection is a process, not a location that we know anything about. What we do know is that ‘perfection’ does not describe the present moment of our lives. We are far from perfect. Our restless human spirits moan in general dissatisfaction at the state of things—yearning for the resolution of the tension in us, that tightrope we walk between our base tendencies and our ideals. And if we fall . . .
Jesus threw out a number of real zingers after dinner on Maundy Thursday. Wonderful, empowering, scary words—and the Apostles had to mull over them after He was gone, as we do in these Sundays after Easter. His ascension will mark His “going to the Father,” which had to be the most joyous anticipation of His earthly existence. Returning to His Father was for Jesus the best reward imaginable. And it filled the Apostles’ hearts with dread. He said,
“It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” John 16
Zingers like that. It doesn’t sound good. Just what was He referring to?
The Holy Spirit comes to put a light on things. What He lights up is us. The Spirit is like a street lamp fully blazing inside each of us, telling us what’s there. He also illuminates what is outside of us, what is going on in our immediate world. He lights our steps. And He shows us exactly what we’ve stepped in.
Jesus says the Spirit brings conviction. We think then of convicts, imprisoned for years behind bars. That’s extreme. Conviction is also the kind of realization that brings a guy to his senses. Conviction’s not a bad thing, not when penitentiary life actually causes penitence. I used to read this passage: “He will convict the world,” referring to “the world” that we are in but not part of, that evil world we renounce at Baptism. I don’t think so now. This use of the word “world” is what God so loved that He sent His Son, and now sends His Spirit into. He loves the world of human beings. All of us need His Spirit.
The Spirit convicts, and that’s not a death sentence, but a reality check. He shows us sin, righteousness & judgment. When we are immersed in our lives, treading water to keep our noses in the air, we can’t see where we are or where we’re going. Most of us live so buried in ourselves that we don’t have any perspective. But the indwelling Spirit achieves within us, if we let Him, a new lofty perch from which we may see the patterns of life, the trend of things, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Were we to truly see sin for what it is, it would not have any allure for us. Sin runs rampant only because we don’t really believe God and what He says on the subject. Sin is whatever takes us from Him and His kingdom. In the midst of its power, sin can deceptively dress itself in royal robes, rich brocades, silks and satins, seductive promises, fragrances and fantasies, lipstick and lace—Oh, it all looks incredible from inside its thrall. Ask a meth user how they like their high. Of course they like it. But from outside the miasma of the drug, we can observe the rotting teeth, the caved in faces, the emaciated bodies, the dirty clothing, and wasted lives. How does sin look? Well, from inside, it feels dazzlingly wild and even looks pretty. Get a few feet back, and the horror comes into focus. The Holy Spirit convicts—or convinces us by showing it to us clearly—the sin that only means we don’t truly believe Christ.
The Spirit convicts of righteousness also. This passage speaks to the entire human race. The Spirit is doing a good thing. “Convicts” here means He shows it to us clearly. We may mistakenly think of righteousness as “some wimpy, goody-two-shoes kiss-up kid who gets straight A’s because he has no fun and always does his homework. Righteousness doesn’t know how to enjoy himself. He doesn’t know what life’s about.” Wrong. Righteousness is Frodo crawling up Mount Doom with the ring of power dragging him down to the dust, yet his resolve to complete the quest and save the world from Sauron is his only thought. Righteousness is a mother who tends her sick child through the night, though it costs her all her sleep and her peace of mind. Righteousness isn’t a white-washed show of goodness. It is goodness, down deep, like Jesus was good. He touched lepers. He spoke with compassion to harlots and tax collectors. He confronted the holy-joes and set them straight. Righteousness is His dying form on the cross, forgiving us all. And as He goes to His Father, the Spirit lights our way to follow Him through the many twisted paths of this planet toward God. The path that leads to God is righteousness.
The Spirit also convicts of judgment, and I have struggled to understand this word here. He convicts the world of judgment because the ruler of this world is judged. That ruler is the devil. We hear the word judgment and think of that last day: doom for the devil and for those he has deceived, and deliverance for the faithful. Surely it does mean that. But that’s Jesus’ work and something for a time that is still down the road. Christ’s words are for the present. Judgment also means discernment, telling the difference between this way and that. It means wisdom. It means knowing which way to go. It means change for the good.
You remember Pink Pearl erasers. Eberhard Faber, a German pencil company since the 1760s, brought their invention to New York in 1861, adding a pink eraser to one end early in the 1900s. They made those for Woolworth’s. They also made big Pink Pearl erasers for big mistakes. To a rubbery substance they add pumice and volcanic ash, fine abrasives to slightly cut the paper and lend to the removal of errant strokes of lead.
We all make mistakes. We begin to draw a picture of something, and sketch lines here and there, only solidifying our image gradually as the image we have in our mind informs us that it’s more this way than that. Some of those first lines need to be erased. There is no condemnation for us to refine our drawing and take away the earlier guidelines. The picture improves, it is hoped, as we darken the object lines and add shading. But keep that Pink Pearl handy, just in case.
Life is a pencil drawing. Ink comes later. We are tentative beings from the start and we make stabs at discovering what we can and can’t do. Ask a five year old what she wants to be when she grows up. She may say a ballerina. She may say a queen. Don’t tell her she’ll be teaching five year olds, or running a computer, or flying drones over Yemen. She isn’t ready to hear that yet. She’s just sketching her life with the only pencils she has. Luckily, there’s that big eraser.
At some age it’s inevitable that the Holy Spirit puts a light on something we’ve done that isn’t a simple childish error, not an awkward blunder, but a really bad and intentional wrong we committed, and we meant to do. That line is dark, and scores the page, leaving a deep impression, as well it should. If we’re lucky, we’ll be found out. Then we can be punished—I hope—and we’ll get over it. The momentary pain of scolding, spanking, or solitary confinement gives way to forgiveness, but we associate the wrong with the pain, and it will be harder to make that error again. We get into adulthood, and take many more diversions, our lives no longer governed by parents. The drawing gets messy and even ugly, as we go on drawing. It’s a mess. What can we do?
Here Jesus’ words bring clarity, and a keen sense of reality, its harsh light and clear definition showing us what our lives have become. Realization comes in stages, but we finally see the problem. A lot of people want to run at this point, but frankly: does that do any good? It’s like hearing you have cancer, then running away from the doctor. To have any hope of a cure, you have to stay with the voice that tells you where and why it hurts. Judgment. “Here it is, right here. Let’s get that out.”
We have all made whoppers, doozies, nasty unmentionable and foolish choices. The word “choice” itself holds an unsavory connotation for me as the mantra of the abortion lobby. Choice should mean making important decisions with judgment, but as Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” If you don’t get it any other way, by all means make use of your poor choices. I’ve said for years, I can always serve as a bad example. If I have done wrong, let me tell you about it, and let you see that you don’t need to try it yourself. You really don’t.
Scripture gives hundreds of verses in praise of judgment. Some of them refer strictly to the final end of evil people and demons, the Last Day and God’s final victory. For those of us trusting to be on His right hand, it will become evident to all that there was nothing more He could do for them, and that we have finally been made free of the evil that pervades our world, that even pervades us from time to time. In that world to come, no such struggles will persist. Our robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb, we will stand in stainless glory to give Him our complete worship.
Most people think of perfection as a status long lost, a crystal vase that dropped years ago when they first became personally aware of sin. The shattered pieces can never go together again, and there’s no hope for perfection now. But that’s exactly opposite from the truth. You and I were never perfect. We were always sketches. Our vase was broken before we were conceived—that’s the human condition. Our rebirth in the faith corrected our originally shattering spirits, and gave us the Great Gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. The Resurrection will finish the job and give us new bodies that have never known sin nor its ravages.
On paper, all you need is a Pink Pearl eraser and you can start all over. In human flesh, it took a human Savior, whose blood has washed us forever clean, and whose Resurrection has given us trust in a future where we will live without any shame.