The Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity
St. John 15:1-16:33
A number of you, I suspect, have never been inside a prison. And that’s a shame, because your education is not complete.
I spent many years dealing with high-profile athletes – and I have met more interesting people in prison. It is intensely difficult for an inmate to be a spoiled brat. Inmates have interesting stories to tell, some of which are true. And prison tats are an art genre like no other.
There’s a spectrum of theology in prison that runs from free will to free will, and covers all the nuances in between. You’ll never get bored listening to prison theology. Irate, maybe, but never bored.
Theology comes through in music, of course, and in prison there’s the rich diversity of Christian music, everything from rock to rap. I have no doubt that someone in some prison somewhere has produced a hip-hop arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”
In the prison I visited for many years, one of my favorite songs included the eternally repeated line, “. . . in the power of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost is especially popular in the joint because He bestows gifts – visions, prophecies, tongues. And who doesn’t like gifts?
In the second part of His farewell discourse, Jesus amplifies a theme He introduced in the first: Upon His departure, His disciples will not be set adrift on a raging sea. They will receive the Paraclete, the Comforter . . . the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther called the Holy Spirit, who appeared in this world on Pentecost, alter Christus, another Christ. But of course the old Reformer did exaggerate a bit now and then. Did Luther go too far?
He did not. Luther captured very well in that phrase the stature of the Spirit as Scripture presents Him. The Christ and the Spirit are equally Persons of the Godhead. What’s more, they are intimately associated not only in their Personhood but also in their work.
It sometimes appears in Scripture that the Christ needs the direction and even the power of the Spirit to accomplish His work, as when He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the temptation of Satan or when He returns by the power of the Spirit into Galilee.
At the synagogue in Nazareth, He reads from Isaiah 61, where it is prophesied that the Spirit will come upon Him. Elsewhere, we read that the Christ has or gives or sends the Spirit, as though the Christ is the more potent of the two.
But when we take a step back and view the Bible as a whole, we see without much difficulty the Christ and the Spirit working hand-in-hand for the salvation and edification of the people of God. Their missions are merged into a seamless whole.
I want to call your attention to a picture that illustrates the relationship of Christ and Spirit. It appears in the 14th chapter of the Book of Leviticus. God is giving Moses laws for the cleansing of lepers and He takes him through a rather elaborate two-stage procedure for what to do when the priest finds that a leper has been cleansed – that’s the word that’s used, “cleansed.”
After an initial ritual involving two birds, God commands shaving of hair, washing of clothes and ritual bathing to mark the person’s new state of cleanness. The healed leper, who has been forced to remain outside the camp and apart from God’s tabernacle, returns to the community. And then we read:
"And the priest shall take one male lamb and offer it as a trespass offering, and the log of oil (the “log” is a measure, about a half-pint), and wave them as a wave offering before the LORD. 13 "Then he shall kill the lamb in the place where he kills the sin offering and the burnt offering, in a holy place; for as the sin offering is the priest's, so is the trespass offering. It is most holy. 14 "The priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 15"And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. 16 "Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the LORD. 17 "And of the rest of the oil in his hand, the priest shall put some on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot, on the blood of the trespass offering.” (Lev 14:12 NKJ)
Now, I know that passages such as these from our own sacred text sound today like the initiation rites of some secret society that meets in a river bottom on foggy nights. The rituals of ancient Judaism are far removed from our experience – until we look into how they prefigure the very real practice of our faith in the here and now.
In this picture, the two agents God commands for cleansing are blood and oil. We find sin presented as spiritual leprosy. The leper has been put outside the camp because no one who is unclean may dwell where God dwells. The priest is the representative of God. He has no power to cleanse the leper but he does have authority to authenticate cleansing God has done.
The priest has pronounced the leper cleansed while outside the camp and performed the first-stage ritual with the birds. He has restored the leper to the life of the saints in the holy city where God dwells among them.
The priest then kills a lamb and makes atonement for the leper “before the Lord.” The blood of the lamb is mixed with the water of cleansing that the priest sprinkles. The priest also applies oil. The blood of the Lamb hardly requires explanation. Both Old and New Testaments use oil to picture the Holy Spirit.
First, the priest applies some of the blood of the lamb who is slain to various parts of the leper’s body -- the ear, thumb and big toe. He is following the same procedure used for the consecration of priests. He whom God does not cleanse remains outside the holy city. He whom God cleanses is restored to the community of the saints of God on the same basis as those consecrated priests of God.
After administering the blood, the priest applies oil to those same body parts “on (meaning “on top of”) the blood of the trespass offering.” That cleansed person now has a place in the same holy city as the priests of God and he has a right to the same blood and oil, the justification and the sanctification of God, which are inseparable.
This is the picture of blended blood and oil, justification and sanctification, Christ and Spirit, we bring to our text for today. The Holy Spirit does indeed bring gifts.
To put a fine theological point on it, the Holy Spirit is incarnate in us. Like our Lord Jesus, He takes on human flesh. Arthur W. Pink, a preacher and theologian of the last century, identified 18 points of correspondence between the advent of the Christ and the advent of the Spirit, alter Christus, another Christ. This incarnation is one of them.
As God the Son took on flesh, so does God the Spirit. A week ago we heard Jesus telling His disciples in John 14, “You know him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”
Again, we hear the sublime symphony that is the concerted working of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Son took on flesh when the Spirit “overshadowed” Mary. The Spirit takes on flesh when the Father and the Son send Him to dwell within each of us who find salvation in Christ, then to experience sanctification by the Spirit. The Son sent the Spirit to indwell His saints. The Spirit will deliver those saints to the Son on His return in glory.
Can it be that some still do not discern truth and beauty in God’s word?
I find myself aching to beg forgiveness of the Spirit. The Son had no human father and thus the flesh He inhabits has known no sin. The Spirit takes up residence in the likes of me, a sinner begotten in sin, soaked in sin, striving for sin.
While my Lord sits at the right hand of His Father and intercedes for me, the Spirit does the dirty work; He inhabits the dark, damp places within me and intervenes against me. He remains locked in mortal combat with my flesh, waging war for my sanctification.
Is that any way to treat God? And yet He delights in this grim toil for He would till forever this contaminated soil to present to the Father the spotless spoil of one soul won back from sin.
The Christ suffered His flesh to be torn on the cross that He might spill forth blood mixed with water to sprinkle us and cleanse us of sin. The Spirit indwells our sin-torn flesh that He might anoint our wounds with his healing oil and preserve us unto righteousness.
Maltbie D. Babcock wrote No Distant Lord:
No distant Lord have I,
Loving afar to be,
Made flesh for me He cannot rest
Until He rests in me . . .
Ascended now to God
My witness there to be,
His witness here am I because
His Spirit dwells in me.
In our present passage, the Spirit appears as the solution to a vexing problem as our Lord prepares for His departure from this mortal coil. Why will the world hate the disciples? Because it hates their Master.
Jesus has appeared as the embodiment of God, the final revelation. His disciples will continue to publish His gospel of peace and they will incur the hatred of the world. Now we learn that the Spirit will join with Christ’s followers in their witness to who Jesus is and what He has done: “He will testify of me.”
So it is that, 2,000 years after His ascension, the world grapples with the question God posed to the denizens of the first century: Who is Jesus?
The Lord reveals to His followers the persecution they will face, even to the point that “whoever kills you will think that He offers God service.”
Indeed, at Thomas Cranmer’s execution by burning at the stake, a sermon was preached. Through all the ages, the irony of the persecution of Christians could hardly be more poignant. Though not in the way they supposed, the tormenters were serving God. They were offering up to him the sacrifice of a martyr.
To this point, the Lord has absorbed the hostility of His opponents, sparing His disciples. Now that He is leaving, they will wear the bull’s eye on their backs.
It is for their good that the Spirit will come. The Old Testament is replete with prophecies that the Spirit will appear in a new and startling way in God’s kingdom on earth . . . but this will only take place after Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation.
This Holy Spirit is the Comforter, to be sure, but His role extends far beyond succor. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. Jesus came to force a decision regarding who He is. The Spirit will carry on that work.
Working primarily through the Christ followers whom He indwells, He will show the world its sin, expose the false righteousness of zealots such as the Pharisees who pursue religion but refuse faith and lay bare the morally perverse judgments of a world that has rejected its Savior.
Put another way, He will carry on the good works Jesus has set in motion.
As God and man are united in Christ, the Spirit inhabits human flesh and applies oil upon the blood of salvation our Lord shed for us so that we might bear witness of Him among our fellow sinners.
As you are aware, I spent too much of my life in locker rooms. Until I went straight several years ago, I interviewed and wrote about high-profile athletes. I know things that I’m not at liberty to say and that would make you cringe, or worse, if I did. Suffice it to say that when young men who are full not of the Holy Spirit but of themselves become multi-millionaires, bad behavior often results.
These young men were not unaware that kids looked up to them as heroes. When they did decidedly unheroic things, and those things became public knowledge, they fell back on lines such as, “Ain’t up to me to raise your kids.”
What they could not escape, no matter how much they rationalized, was the unrelenting fact that one doesn’t get to choose whether to be a role model or not. Once a kid looks up to you, you’ve got the job.
Still more are we without excuse. We are Christians not because of any power of our own, any merit within us, any talents we can claim to set us apart. We are sinners saved by grace and even the faith we must use to access that grace is a free gift of God bestowed on some for a reason we do not know.
But we do know the purpose. We are to worship Him eternally and to be His witnesses even unto the ends of the earth for the few fleeting years of this life. To that end, the Holy Spirit, our Lord tells us, will teach us all things. To that end, we have the filling of the Holy Spirit, whom we are commanded not to grieve. If we do not know why we are chosen we do know that we are chosen.
Under the Old Covenant, the Jew received the mark of circumcision in his flesh as a token that he belonged to God. Under the New Covenant, we have so much more. We have the baptism of the Holy Spirit and His continuing presence in us.
It is then incumbent upon us to make our Lord’s interests our own. Here is where our human will comes into play. We can choose to serve the flesh or the Spirit, the self or God. “Be not drunk with wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Be not drunk with pride, lust, power, riches, rich food . . . but be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit by desecrating His temple which is your body. If you would live for Christ, live by His Holy Spirit. If you love God you will love the God who dwells in you.
What is our witness? We say our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit of God. Do we treat them as such? W. H. Griffith Thomas wrote, “More souls are lost by abuse of things lawful than by the use of things unlawful.”
God shapes us with His two incarnate hands, the Son and the Spirit. When we remain supple, we are the clay He forms into the likeness of the Son. When we harden ourselves, we become brittle and break.
Anyone who has had a teenager in the house gets the picture – except this time we’re the teenager. God’s commandments are in place not for His good but for ours, whether we choose to acknowledge that truth or not.
Never treat lightly “the power of the Holy Ghost.” Amen.