"Comfort in Persecution"
And He is ascended—“gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet” (Ps. 47:5). And now He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). And God the Father “put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).
But we find ourselves in the same spot as the disciples. No more seeing Jesus—instead, walking by faith that He keeps His promise to be with us always; instead, living behind enemy lines in a fallen world hostile to Jesus, hostile to His followers, hostile to His Gospel. Jesus warned His disciples and us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn. 15:18-20).
That’s how Jesus Himself leads us into our Gospel reading. Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us two themes: first, about the Holy Spirit, and second, about the persecution we may expect with 100% certainty.
Who is this Holy Spirit? Jesus says He “proceeds from the Father.” He’s no mere energizing lightning bolt from heaven. Nor is He some cosmic force that, properly felt and channeled, aides a Jedi-in-training in conquering the “dark side” and blowing up the latest version of a death star. The Holy Spirit is a Person—a Person of the Godhead. Since He proceeds from the Father, He is God, just as the Father and just as the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father. And all of this from eternity—never a time when the Father did not exist, never a time the Son did not exist, and never a time the Spirit did not exist.
The Greek word for “proceeds” gives the picture of a soldier marching out on a mission. The Holy Spirit certainly marches out to carry out the mission of God to bring Jesus to you and you to Jesus. That word for “proceeds” can also give the image of a “flowing forth”—like a little stream that flows from a spring of water. As Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit” (Jn. 7:37-39). It’s what we confess when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed).
Jesus says three things about the Holy Spirit to give us the ultimate in consolation as we walk by faith while we live behind enemy lines. First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraklete,” “the Helper,” the “Comforter.” Don’t think of a fluffy comforter keeping you cozy warm on a chilly night. Instead, think of a comforter—an advocate—who comes along side you and comforts you before a judge when you stand accused. The devil accuses you before God’s throne of judgment day and night (Rev. 12:10). But that’s where the Holy Spirit performs His best work on your behalf as He intercedes for you. Your own conscience accuses you, because you know you do not and cannot keep God’s Law. You falter and stumble at loving God with every fiber of your being. You struggle with loving the neighbors whom God has given you. But, again, the Holy Spirit comforts and intercedes for you. He holds before you the comforting promises of God, His grace, His forgiveness, His gift of eternal life—all through Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
Next, Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of Truth.” He guides the apostles and all believers into all truth. Before our text, Jesus said the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Just a few verses after our text Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13). When the Holy Spirit guides you and your fellow Christians into all truth, He guides you to Jesus. Jesus Himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) wrapped up in flesh and blood. When you know Jesus, when you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism, you know the truth—the truth of sin, the truth of God’s forgiveness, the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and devil. As Pastor Johann Gerhard said, the Holy Spirit “thus empowers us inwardly by the Word of Truth. Like unto the finger of God, He inscribes Christ into our hearts and ignites in us true knowledge of God…. He creates and works in our hearts the fact that we are truth” (Postilla, vol. I, p. 444).
Third, Jesus says the Spirit, “the Helper,” “the Spirit of Truth,” will bear witness about Him. The Holy Spirit does not want to draw attention to Himself. (Sorry, Pentecostals and Charismatics!) No, the Holy Spirit wants to draw attention to Jesus. He works in your heart and mine to comfort us with Jesus. He etches the Truth who is Jesus on our hearts and minds. But He does not do this mysteriously or only in the unseen, hidden recesses of our inward selves. The work of Jesus taking on our flesh, restoring our human lives, dying on the cross, and rising again the third day are objective facts. But, as Luther says, “If the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried, but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed. In the Word He has the Holy Spirit bring this treasure home and make it our own” (LC II:38-39). The Holy Spirit comes to you and works in you, bearing witness to Jesus, through the Word and the Sacraments. That’s where and how He works faith, when and where it pleases God. The Holy Spirit gives comfort and gives truth only by the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection. This alone comforts. This is the heart of all Truth.
The disciples were quite distressed when they could no longer visibly see their resurrected Lord. And we find our selves in the same predicament—not seeing Jesus, walking by faith, and stuck for a time behind enemy lines in this fallen world. Is it any wonder the world looks on Jesus’ followers as hopelessly behind the times, or dusty relics from a bygone era, or sorely out of step with modern progress and enlightenment, or even as annoying bumps in the road on the way to ultimate “freedom” in sexual expression and control by those elites who know what’s best for the rest of us? The Jesus followers have His comforting Spirit, His Spirit of Truth. The world's so-called truth, or truths, simply do not measure up. In fact, the Truth of Jesus exposes the world for the dark, lying place it truly is. The Jesus followers have THE Truth of Jesus, His forgiveness, His life, His way of life, His meaning for all of life, and His freedom to be the children of God.
So Jesus prepares us: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you”—or exiles you from the public square, or levies massive fines when you won’t abide by their agenda du jour, or enacts policies to change your bathroom habits, or judicially tries to change the truth of what marriage really is, or seeks to keep you, your faith, and your ability to express your faith within the confines of your own home—“will think he is offering service to God.” Jesus prepares us to live under such persecution behind enemy lines. He also sends His Holy Spirit to give us His consolation, to strengthen and sustain us.
St. Peter’s words are most fitting and really say all that we need: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).
This is your comfort in persecution behind the enemy lines of this fallen world. You have the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, proceeding from the Father, to give you life and hope and consolation. He gives you a heart of flesh to love Jesus and love your neighbor, even when that neighbor seeks to string you up and run you through. He gives you a heart of flesh to walk by faith and in God’s statutes, whatever the cost. And He gives you this comforting, true, and Spirit-filled promise: “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:28). Amen.