Keep it Between the Ditches


The secret to good driving is the same as the secret to correct theologizing: keep it between the ditches. All Biblical doctrines have ditches on either side of them. We do what my 10-year-old son did the first time I let him drive on a dirt road. We weave between the ditches

The first ditch to avoid in this text is that the Spirit takes the place of Jesus. Once Jesus has ascended into heaven, Jesus has left the building. Now all of our interactions with God are in the Spirit. This is the Reformed who only have a spiritual presence of Jesus in Communion or the Pentecostals with their baptism of the Spirit. And what about Jesus' last promise? "Lo I am with you always even till the end of the ages?"

Look, I'm not saying the Spirit isn't with you. Jesus says, "Another Counselor I will give to you, in order that with you into the ages He should be." The word for "ages" in Matthew 28 and here is the same Greek word. But Jesus doesn't hand you off to the Spirit. He doesn't ascend into heaven to be safely locked away. He promises here, "I won't leave you as orphans; I come to you." Note Jesus doesn't even say as the insert mistranslates: "I will come" but present tense "I do come."

If the Spirit is all you are left with post-Ascension, you had better be sure you have the Spirit. Here the ditch looms large. How do you know you have the Spirit? For that matter how do you know what spirit you have? The Bible mentions spirits of fear, of despair, of lies, and last week I referred to John's warning in 1 John 4: "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."

If the Spirit takes the place of Jesus, then you had best be certain you have Him. And people are: They know they have the Spirit. They feel the Spirit at work doing this, saying that, assuring this. You can run a long away in the ditch of "Hooked on a Feeling" theology, until you run into the ugly, heavy, dark feelings produced by tragedy, sickness, and sadness.

Turn away from the ditch that once Jesus ascended to heaven the Spirit takes His place. But you know what happens when you're heading to one ditch. You almost always oversteer and start heading for the opposite ditch. The ditch opposite the error that the Spirit takes the place of the absent Jesus is the Spirit is not needed at all.

This is really the world talking. Jesus says, "The world cannot accept the Spirit, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him." The world has to recognize that Jesus existed because their historical records testify to this. But the Spirit? What proof is there of Him? But Jesus' statement about the world and the Spirit also says something about us and the Spirit. Christians can accept the Spirit because we do see Him and do know Him. Confessional Lutherans don't focus on the Spirit; that's the first ditch we steered away from, but we are often tempted to ride in the second ditch: the Spirit is not needed.

You know what the Lord says in Zechariah 4 is the alternative to the Spirit? Your own power and might. I think a Spiritless Christianity is always a temptation to confessional Lutheranism. We focus on holding on to the true Faith in a world gone totally insane by our own power and might. And that's exhausting. It's like not having a pully rigged properly so that you rather than the device does all the work. Have you ever tried to push a stalled car and found the person steering was riding the break? In these scenarios, how much easier it becomes when the impediment is removed. Your own power and might are the impediment to relying, using, trusting in the Spirit.

Living day to day in the ditch where the Spirit is not needed is Samson shaved of hair trying to fend off his enemies; it's the apostles trying to preach Pentecost while cowering in the upper room for fear of the Jews; it's trying to make yourself believe something, make yourself do something, make yourself holy.

I think confessional Lutherans steer back and forth between the ditches. In some sense, we have the Spirit and some sense we don't or ignore Him. A totally Spirit-less Christianity would not be Christianity at all. That's what Paul says in 1 Cor. 12. "Therefore, I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, Jesus is accursed'; and no one can say, Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit."

Believing, confessing, trusting in Jesus as the Lord who redeemed you from Sin, from Death, and from the Devil is not a choice you make, a decision you come to, a truth you are argued into. It's a miracle of the Holy Spirit. No one can believe, confess, or trust that the Man Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, is the Yahweh of the Old Testament who walked with Adam in Eden, meant with Moses on Sinai, and spoke in a still small voice to Elijah there. No one on his own can say what Thomas did to Jesus: "My Lord and My God." No one can think his way, reason his way, prove his way to the confession Peter makes to Jesus on the shores of Galilee: "Lord You know all things." No, one but the Spirit can move the sinner dead in his sins to say what the thief on the cross did: "Jesus remember me when You come in Your kingdom."

Already in John 4 Jesus says, "An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth." Worship must be according to the truth God revealed in Scripture, and it must be moved, infused, powered by the Spirit. The Spirit comes to us and lifts up our words, hearts, and minds to the very throne room of God just as John was in Revelation.

You'll be tempted to oversteer here too and head back toward the ditch labeled "Spirit takes Jesus' place." Only the Sprit can in fact keep you rolling on between the ditches. Jesus reveals here that the Spirit is asked for by the Son and given by the Father to keep you on the path of salvation. In order not to float off into the realm of Pentecostalism, the Spirit must be kept tied to the Son and to the Father.

Although True God, the Man Jesus received the Holy Spirit in time as a Man. And living the perfect life that He did, the Holy Spirit never departed from Him. We see at the Baptism of Jesus that the Spirit descended on Him as a dove. You know how skittish doves are. One little sinful deed and the Spirit would have flown from Jesus. One sinful word and the Dove would have flitted away. One of the lusts that we so easily ignore or indulge would have spooked the Holy Spirit leaving the Man Jesus without the Spirit and you and I with no hope of ever having Him.

Since Jesus is sinless, the Spirit never did leave Him, but the Lord had promised He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh, and all flesh still remained sinful and unclean. This is what Jesus went to the cross to pay for. He suffered in place of all fallen flesh thereby paying off the debt they owed. Once ascended to the Father, once the proofs of the payment were before the eyes of the Father, the Father gives His Spirit, and down rushes the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And out He came into the world from the mouth of the Church proclaiming the mighty deeds God had done in Jesus' name to rescue sinners.

When Jesus calls the Spirit "another Counselor" don't think "therapy" think "legal aid". He's another literally "legal Counsel" for guilty people. You don't do yourselves any favors when you try to maintain you're not guilty for this reason or that excuse. The Greek word here, said Luther, means a lawyer in the courts who comforts, strengthens, and aids the guilty (Ylvisaker, 674). It you aren't guilty, the Spirit doesn't aid you.

As my spokesman, He speaks where I can't. What can I, a sinner, say to the Law, the Devil, or Others who declare, "You're guilty of this or that." It's true; I am. But the Spirit can say for Jesus' sake this case must be thrown out of court. The Law he's being accused of breaking Jesus kept from eternity. The fine temporal punishment now and eternal punishment forever has already been paid by Jesus' suffering, damning, and dying. "My client can't be convicted of crimes someone else has confessed to, been convicted of, and was punished for," concludes the Spirit.

Think of all the questions your conscience, the Devil, or others can stir up in you. How deep is your love? Is your faith big enough? Why don't you have more good works? You try to answer these and you will find yourself sputtering, hemming and hawing, and not only steering to a ditch but digging a hole. The Spirit won by Jesus and given by the Father has answers. Any talk of love begins with God who so loved the world that He gave His only beloved Son. Faith in the proper object, Jesus, even as tiny as a mustard seed is more than big enough. And the Spirit credits every good work done by Jesus to your account.

The Spirit doesn't spotlight you but Jesus. And He enables you to see what Moses prayed for but didn't see on Sinai. This word for "show" in the last line of the text is only found here and the next verse. This is the word Moses used when He asked to see God, but all he was allowed to see was the back of God. Not you. Jesus promises that once He's won the Spirit and the Spirit is given by the Father, He will come and show to us Himself literally "in a clear conspicuous form" (Morris, 653).

We're back to where we were last week. Jesus shows Himself to us in the places He promises to meet us. Not in our spiritual feeling but not apart from the Spirit's working either. Jesus' Words are Spirit promises John 6. We're reborn by Water and Spirit in Baptism promises John 3. The Spirit of Jesus must be wherever His Body and Blood are so Communion gives not only forgiveness, life, and salvation but Spirit. And Absolution is the Spirit breathed out by the resurrected Jesus into our ears.

Rather than going through life trying to keep it between the ditches, be kept between them by these gifts of the Spirit. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

The Sixth Sunday of Easter (20170521); John 14: 15-21