"It is expedient for you that I go away."
The Gospel lessons for the last three Sundays after Easter are all taken
from the 16th Chapter of St John's Gospel - from Jesus' discourse with
his disciples at the Last Supper. That discourse is one of the most beautiful
and most beloved passages of Scripture, and full of the deepest and most
important theological significance. The three portions of it chosen for
the Gospel lessons on these three Sundays from a series. In last Sunday's
lesson, Jesus warns his followers about his departure from them, and all
the suffering that it will involve. But there will be a purpose in that
suffering, he tells them; it will be like the pains of travail, it will
be the birth-pangs of a new form of life. " Ye now therefore have sorrow,
he says, "but your sorrow shall be turned into joy".
In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus explains more precisely what that new
form of life will be: "If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto
you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you". That is to say, the removal
of the visible, bodily presence of God in Christ, his departure through
death, resurrection and ascension, though it would be for his disciples
a great sorrow, would be the beginning of a new inner and spiritual relation
Next Sunday's lesson speaks more fully of that inner and spiritual relation
to God, the life of prayer. "The time cometh when I shall no more speak
unto you in parables, but I shall show you plainly of the Father". That
is to say, no longer will it be a matter of knowing God just by way of
external things, by way of the visible and earthly presence of Jesus. God,
who is Spirit, will be spiritually known and loved.
Thus, these three lessons, taken as a series, set before us the essential
meaning of the Easter season: they speak of suffering and resurrection;
they speak of death and rebirth; they speak of a transition - an elevation
- from worldliness to new life in the Spirit.
That is the general argument and meaning of these Gospel lessons; but
today, we must concern ourselves more particularly with the details of
today's lesson. "It is expedient for you that I go away", Jesus says, "for
if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart,
I will send him unto you. "Comforter" is a rather old-fashioned word. What
it means is "strengthener" or "fortifier"; it is a name for the Holy Spirit.
So what Jesus is telling his disciples is that only by his own departure
will they be able to know the presence of God and Holy Spirit. So long
as he was physically present with them, they would continue to be related
to him in worldly ways. They would be related to him as a great teacher,
a national leader, a great hero and wonder-worker, and so on. Only by Jesus
departure would that relation be purified to become a purely spiritual
relation. "If I depart, I will send him unto you".
Then Jesus goes on to speak of the effects of that new spiritual relation:
"When he is come he will reprove the world of sin, and or righteousness,
and of judgement: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness,
because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; of judgement, because
the prince of this world is judged". To know God as Spirit is to have a
new and different standpoint; sin and righteousness and judgement are no
longer seen in terms of worldly standards and conventions and authorities.
Sin is essentially unbelief - a turning away from the revealed truth; righteousness
is essentially obedience to that truth, and the basis of judgement is no
longer a worldly standard - "the prince of this world is judged", The Holy
Spirit, "the Spirit of truth" is the living guide to all truth.
The passage concludes by setting all this within the context of God's
own life. "He (the Spirit) shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine,
and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore
said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you. Father,
Son and Spirit are one God." To know God as life-giving Spirit is not to
know some other God;. it is to know God as Father, and God as Son, ever
more perfectly in a spiritual way.
By these lessons, Jesus, at the Last Supper, prepared his followers
to understand the meaning of his Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, and
prepared them to receive the Spirit's gift at Pentecost. And for us, these
lessons have the same significance, as we too share in those events.
"It is expedient for you that I go away", says Jesus. Our worldly attachments
are very strong, and the temptation is always strong to regard our religion
as just another aspect of those worldly attachments - to make religion
serve the world and our worldly interests. But Jesus departs from us, and
we must find him spiritually, or not at all. It is in this sense that our
worldly tribulations may be altogether salutary: by the harsh disciplines
of disappointment and bewilderment and sorrow we may learn to find our
treasure elsewhere, and our sorrow may be turned to joy.
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