Gospel reading : Saint John 16, verse 5
"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 to God.
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.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne