Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 for Pentecost, "Concerning Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on Pentecost Sunday we remember the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles as they went forward with the mission to go and testify about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Since the readings all focus on the Holy Spirit, we’ll look at what Christian spirituality is. What genuine spirituality for the Christian is, and what the work of the Holy Spirit is, and how Christ and the cross stand at the center of true spirituality. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

While religious belief isn’t “in vogue” today, the generic idea of spirituality is. As author Gene Veith describes in his book, “The Spirituality of the Cross,” people today say they aren’t interested in doctrines, creeds, or institutions, but they are very interested in “spirituality.” “They are in the market for something that will give them a pleasant mystical experience and a sense of meaning and well-being, without making any uncomfortable demands on their minds, behavior, or social position. They want religious experience, without religious belief” (p. 14-15). Yet for all the types of religions, philosophies, methods and cults that claim to offer religious experience and meaning, there really can be no “spirituality without theology, no religious experience apart from religious belief” (p.15). So this is to say that the way that most people search for God and elusive spiritual experiences, is divorced or disconnected from Christ and His cross. That isn’t where unbelievers are looking to find God, and it’s even not where many professing Christians are looking to find God. The search for spirituality leads people down all sorts of strange paths, and many may even have a veneer of Christianity.

The average selection of so-called “Christian books” at the typical Borders or other bookstore is one example of this. You can read entire books that are about Christianity and spend a lot of time talking about spirituality or Christian life, but don’t have so much as a single mention of Jesus’ death on the cross for our salvation. You could easily get the impression the cross of Jesus really has very little to do with Christian spirituality. It might even cause one to wonder why it was so important for Him to die at all, if Christianity seems to get along quite well without mentioning His cross at all. But nothing could be further from the truth. Genuine Christian spirituality that is the work of the Holy Spirit is always intimately connected with the person of Jesus Christ and His accomplished salvation for us on the cross. It isn’t marginal or just one thing among many, but rather stands at the heart and center of the Christian faith and the Holy Spirit’s testimony.

This becomes obvious from the Bible’s descriptions of the work of the Holy Spirit. The apostles were filled with the Spirit on Pentecost, and what was it that they began to speak about in foreign languages? They were proclaiming the mighty works of God. When Jesus described the Holy Spirit or Helper that He would send, He clearly stated what the Spirit would talk about. The Spirit of Truth would bear witness or testify about Jesus. Remember from last week what the testimony of God is? “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” So the Spirit didn’t come to testify about Himself, or to teach something new or different, or apart from Christ, but the Spirit instead points directly to Christ and His Word. It says that the “Spirit of Truth will guide you into all truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak.”

Here is the heart of genuine Christian spirituality. It’s when the Holy Spirit is at work bringing people to trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and the work of salvation He accomplished for us. The Holy Spirit is the Helper or Comforter because after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the Spirit remains to bring us faith and God’s Word. And while it was deeply saddening to the disciples for Jesus to be leaving them, it was for their good so that the Holy Spirit would come and accomplish His work. When Jesus described the work of the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He told them of three important purposes or results of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. That the Holy Spirit would convict the world first of all concerning sin; second concerning righteousness, and third concerning judgment.
You can already see that this is a very different kind of spirituality than the world thinks of or desires. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit first convicts the world of sin, because they do not believe in Him. A spirituality that is divorced from Christ and the cross can still talk about sin—in just the bare sense of morality, and right and wrong. You don’t even need to have any deep religious beliefs to talk about morality. Every human has a conscience, whether they listen to it or not, and so to talk about morality doesn’t even require Christian belief. There are atheists who can be quite moral, and people of other beliefs as well. But it might surprise us that when Jesus says the Spirit will convict the world concerning sin, that He doesn’t run of a list of moral problems, but instead identifies sin as primarily this: that the world does not believe in Him.

Jesus goes beyond just outward acts of sin, which are the symptoms of the problem. He goes to the root of the problem, which is unbelief. From this sin stems all others. A person can clean up their morality all they want, but apart from faith in Christ, it doesn’t make them right with God. All sin, any disobedience to any of the commandments, is in the first place a lack of faith in God. This is because sin is always an act of self-will and determination, to do our own will rather than God’s, or to seek our good in a different way than God has given. We’d prefer not to hear about our sin, or to have it exposed by God’s Word. But this is the necessary work of the Spirit, and it’s where Christian spirituality begins—in the recognition of our sinful condition and the need to repent and turn from it. This knowledge comes through the conviction of the Holy Spirit by God’s proclaimed Word. And it’s not about us, it’s about belief in Christ.

The second way the Spirit convicts the world is concerning righteousness. What does it mean to be convicted concerning righteousness? Again it’s different from the way the world sees spirituality. A spirituality that’s divorced from Christ and the cross can still talk about righteousness, in the same way that it talks about sin—namely about being an outwardly good person. Plenty of people are law-abiding citizens or upright persons, and could be called righteous, in just a civil or earthly sense. Again we could expect Jesus to explain this righteousness in terms like these. Or to even mention or name some excellent good works that one must do to become righteous. But instead, the righteousness of which Jesus speaks is related to Himself and His departure to the Father, and that they would see Him no more.
What does this mean? Human action, effort, or achievement isn’t even mentioned by Jesus. He describes no pattern of good words or thoughts or some philosophy that makes one righteous, but rather says that righteousness is about Himself. He is talking about the kind of righteousness that God accepts and acknowledges. Not the kind of innocence or good deeds that count for something in human opinion. He’s talking about the true spiritual righteousness, the only righteousness that counts in God’s eyes, and it is concerning His Son. That is to say that righteousness is something entirely outside of ourselves. It has nothing to do with our deeds or actions, but depends on Jesus and His going to the Father. How does this have anything to do with righteousness?

Our creed says that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come to judge both the living and the dead. Jesus’ ascension and being seated at God’s right hand is proof that God accepted His life, His sacrificial death, and His resurrection. God has exalted His Son to the highest place of authority because He is completely satisfied with Jesus, that He perfectly lived and obeyed God’s commands. The spiritual righteousness that Jesus offers to the world is His own innocence. And why the Spirit testifies of this, because we will “see [Him] no longer?” Because this righteousness or innocence is given by faith. We do not see Christ, but we have faith, and trust in the testimony of the Holy Spirit given to us through God’s Word. We hear and believe the message and so receive this righteousness by faith, so that we can stand as innocent and acceptable in God’s eyes, not on our own works, but on Christ.

Third and finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world stands judged. Who’s the ruler of the world that now stands judged? It’s Satan, the devil, our adversary. But a spirituality that’s divorced from Christ and the cross doesn’t acknowledge Satan as the enemy of Christ who has been judged, nor does it acknowledge that sinners stand judged before a holy and righteous God. So it’s ripe for the devil’s attacks. This kind of spirituality not only fails to recognize the danger of the devil, it also fails to see Christ’s life and death as the judgment for sin. However, the Holy Spirit works to convict the world of judgment. Not because Jesus came to judge the world—rather He came to save the world. But a necessary part of His saving us from our sins, was to bring judgment against the ruler of this world, the devil. The devil is the accuser of mankind, and so long as he was able to bring accusations against our sin, none of us could have the righteousness that stands before God. We would remain in our guilt. But since Satan, the ruler of the world stands judged, he can no longer make accusations against us. Now he is judged and his fate is sealed in hell.

But his judgment comes with righteousness for us. With the perfect life and death of Jesus to which the Holy Spirit testifies, we have righteousness that does count before God. The righteousness of faith, the innocence of Jesus is ours. The Holy Spirit brings all of this to us in a genuine Christ-centered, cross-focused spirituality. Just as Jesus said, “the Spirit of truth…will guide you into all the truth…He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” So Christian spirituality flows from and back to Christ and the cross. The Holy Spirit does not speak from Himself, but what Jesus gives Him from the Father. What the Spirit speaks about is sin, righteousness, and judgment—and what He says in every way points back to Christ and the cross. Sin is before all else the absence of faith and trust in Christ—it is not just a moral exercise. Righteousness exists for us only in Christ, and is again received by faith, and not by sight, since Jesus ascended to His Father. Judgment is not about how we were judged, but rather about how the devil stands condemned before God through Christ. Sin, righteousness, and judgment. At the cross these come together as the heart of the Holy Spirit’s work, and therefore the heart of Christian spirituality. The spirituality of the cross—the place where Jesus accomplished salvation and went to forgive us all our sins. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. In what ways is “spirituality” (in general), popular today? What are some examples? How is this different than Christian spirituality, that has a definitely Christ-centered, cross-focused content?
2. Look in the passage from John again. What makes it clear that the Holy Spirit’s work is to direct people to Christ rather than Himself?
3. Why does simple talk about morality fall short of being Christian spirituality? What would such a spirituality without reference to sin look like?
4. What is the spiritual righteousness that counts before God? How do we get this rigtheousness?
5. The judgment that Jesus speaks of in this passage is directed against whom? How do we benefit from this judgment?
6. How can we keep our Christian spirituality Christ-centered and cross-focused?

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