Easter 5 • John 16:12–22 • April 24, 2016
By Jeff Gibbs
This lection from John 16 shows how important it is to first interpret what a text meant before one can take in hand the question of what it means. These words of Jesus address his disciples in the upper room the night that he was betrayed, the day before he was crucified, two and a half days (we might say) before he was forever raised as victor over death. Significant portions of the reading only apply to those who were present in that original historical context. Note the following:
In verse 18, Jesus says, “With reference to a little [=in a little while] and/even you will no longer see me, and again with reference to a little [=in a little while] you will see me.” This refers exclusively to the fact that Jesus will leave the disciples in his being betrayed, condemned, killed and buried—and then they will see him through his postresurrection appearances. I can think of no way in which these verses apply to me or to other Christians today.
In a similar vein, in verses 19–22, Jesus responds to the disciples’ confusion over what he has just said in verse 18. His words about their weeping and mourning, the world’s rejoicing, and the disciples’ subsequent indestructible joy apply to the sequence of his death, burial, and resurrection. There is no immediate or direct way to apply these words to Christian existence today.
I encourage the use of this text, then, first to explain and teach it in its historical context. I would suggest that even the words of verses 12–15 about the Spirit of truth and his guiding and speaking applies to the original apostles and not (at least, not in a direct way) to us today. That is why we confess our faith in one holy Christian/catholic and apostolic church; the Una Sancta is built upon the unique and unrepeatable foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the only cornerstone (Eph 2:20). To be sure, the texts of Scripture always come to us through the lenses of historical particularity in one way or another. This one, however, especially manifests that hermeneutical reality that preachers and teachers might sometimes forget.
So, what shall a preacher do with these ancient words that meant something to the apostles, but not to us? We remember, in the first place, that Jesus does have in mind not only his original disciples, but also those “who will believe in me through their [i.e., the apostles’] word” (Jn 17:20). A simple thematically driven sermon might work with a declaration such as “Easter turns sorrow into joy.” In the first part, the sermon would expound on the utter necessity and impact of the first Easter on the original disciples; this would be more of a didactic approach, even a doctrinal one. If Jesus only dies, and they don’t see him alive again, then there is no joy, no hope, no gift of the Holy Spirit to guide the unique apostles into proclaiming the faith that we today will cherish. If Jesus only dies, then sin and Satan win because death has defeated Jesus just as it has been defeating people since Genesis 3.
But Jesus does not only die. He lays down his life in order that he may take it up again (Jn 10). Easter activates and renders powerful the events of Good Friday. And risen from the dead, Jesus sends the Spirit to the apostles, and guides them into the truth that becomes the Church’s faith and our faith today.
The second part of the sermon could make valid applications to ways that Easter turns our sorrow into joy. One would begin, of course, by saying that our situation is not the same as that of the original disciples. Quickly then, however, the preacher can declare the good news of Easter, promising the congregation that the same Spirit who guided the apostles now is at work in the apostolic proclamation. In this Easter gospel proclamation, the focus (in view of the text) is on the ways that “the world” (Jn 16:8, 20) opposes and hinders and discourages us. The message of Easter is that God’s enemies did not win, and the world will not win. As is always appropriate (and especially in the Easter season), the promise of Christ’s return in glory and our bodily resurrection would be welcome good news. One might even use a bit of homiletical license and stress the nearness of Christ’s return: “In a little while—when our own eyes see Christ return in glory—our joy will be made full, and no one will take our joy away from us.”