Fathers Know Best


The title is not “Father knows Best” but “Fathers Know Best” referring not to a 1950s sitcom but to centuries of church history. It’s not that the Fathers of the church are infallible or are a source for doctrine. On the contrary, we confess: “It will not do to make articles of faith out of the holy Fathers’ words or works. Otherwise what they ate, how they dressed, and what kind of houses they lived in would be have to become articles of faith – as happened in the case of relics. This means that the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel” (SC, II, II, 15). However, our Confessions have an appendix titled the Catalog of Testimonies which is more than 50 pages of quotes from the Fathers to show the Reformed that our way of speaking of the Two Natures of Christ is how the Fathers spoke. So we approach our text examining how some of them used our text. And I think you’ll find that these Fathers do know best.

To begin with Jesus promises another Counselor not a different One. Two native Greek speaking Fathers point this out. Chrysostom says that promising another Counselor “means another like Himself” (ACC, NT, IVb, 137). Gregory of Nazianzus adds that another defines an alter ego. A name of equal lordship, not of inequality. We don’t use ‘another’ for a different kind of thing (Ibid., 138). For that we use ‘other’ not ‘another’. My professor, Harold Buls, certainly a Church Father to me, said the Greek word allon means ‘another, additional’ not heteron ‘of a different kind’ (Gospel Texts, A, 95) . Although the Holy Spirit is rightly called ‘the shy member of the Trinity’, Jesus here teaches that we’re not to think of the Spirit in a eerie, mystical, invisible way. Even on Pentecost the invisible Spirit was accompanied by visible tongues of fire to see and rushing wind to hear. So we are not to think of the Holy Spirit working differently than Jesus works. The Holy Spirit will do for believers what Jesus did for His disciples while He visibly walked the earth. And there will be no ascension of the Spirit, no leaving of them in any sense as Jesus does. The Spirit will be with you forever literally “with you into the ages”.

Another also implies that Jesus still remains. Yes, here Jesus says that another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, will be with us into the aiwna. In Mat. 28:19 Jesus says I am with you until the completion of the aiwnos. Do you try to keep your word when you promise a spouse, a child, a friend that you will be with them no matter what they go through? Even so, sinners can fail, can fall, can be overwhelmed by circumstances. God the Son and God the Holy Spirit keep their promise. They are with you when you feel alone, when you are alone. They are with you unto the end of the age. When you conclude you have been abandoned, alone, forsaken, you’re are going by your feelings, your eyes, your circumstances, rather than the Lord’s promise that He and His Spirit are with you forever.

Just what does Jesus mean by another Counselor? The modern connotations of counselor make it a less than optimal translation for the Greek word paraklete. The Greek word according to Luther means an advocate, a lawyer, or spokesman in court (Ylvisaker, 674). Augustine over a 1,000 years before Luther saw this first. He said the Greek Paraclete is the Latin advocatus, and then your eyes are opened when you realize 1 John 2 calls Jesus an Advocate with the Father (ACC, NT, IVb, 138). 1 Jn 2:1 says, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One.” In English we call lawyers both counselors and advocates. The first speaks with us; the second speaks for us. The Holy Spirit is another Counselor in that He assures us we belong to Jesus; we are not alone. He speaks for us when He takes our side against Sin, Death, and Devil. Rom 8:16 says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.” The unholy three testify adversarially that we aren’t God’s children. They say: look at your sins, your unbelief, your despairing of everything but me, myself, and I. But the Spirit advocates that Jesus carried our sins in His body and had them nailed to the cross rising without them and calling us brothers making us children of the heavenly Father too. 

Boom! There it is. What sheep who stray have been waiting to hear. What children of the Father who feel orphaned come here to hear. We stand before the bar of God’s justice guilty as sin. No excuses. No hope. Yet the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave us alone in our guilt. He is an Advocate for us. He takes from Jesus and gives to us, is how Jesus puts it in Jn 16:14. The Spirit takes the Waters that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side into our Baptismal font and washes your guilt away. The Spirit of Jesus sends your sins away from you by Words of Absolution. And you eat and drink Jesus’ eternal Spirit in His Body and Blood in Communion. Though no one on earth will defend us. Though our own conscience preaches, “Guilty, guilty, guilty.” Paul assures us in Rom 8:26 “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” In the tug of war between fear and faith, sin and grace, guilt and innocence, the Spirit is like the adult who gets on one side of two groups of tug of warring kids. How easily the Spirit drags fear, sin, and guilt into the mudpuddle of loss!

What we have here is a doctrine for those in desperate straits. That’s how 4th century Greek Father, Theodore of Mopsuestia. styled this text. He said it was “a doctrine for those in dire straights” (ACC, NT, IVb, 138). Pressed by the unbelief and misbelief that is all around us and compounded when we’re plugged into anything electronic. Conflicted by doubts from within and fears from without. Feeling at the mercy of seemingly random acts of violence; pouring over the news of the latest shooting, mass murdering, senseless killing to find some way to explain it so we can go on thinking: that can’t happen to me or my loved ones. But when virtually nothing changes and another tragedy happens, fear creeps up on us, and we find ourselves in dire straits. No wonder we need not just one Friend, one Comforter, one Advocate but two.

Don’t let the little boat of Faith rowed by hope and promise that we just launched get swamped by the word “command.” Father Luther stresses entola are not admonitions but commissions to preach the word (WELS, A Series, 199). Jesus’ command is that repentance and forgiveness be preached till the end of the earth, till the end of the ages. Jesus’ command is eat, drink, be baptized, absolved. You find me a passage of Scripture, a Word from God, telling you to despair of God’s grace, mercy, or peace at some point, at any point, then I will concede we’re doomed. It’s all over. The Fat Lady has song and we’re done. Entola emphasizes not the content of the command but the absolute authority of the one giving it. The absolute Ruler of every person, atom, bullet, or motor vehicle says: “You take eat; take drink My Body and Blood for living today and eternal life tomorrow. He commands, “Confess your sins and I will forgive them.” He commands, “Be baptized and wash away your sins, your doubts, your fears. Focus on what I say and give not what you see in the world, fear in your flesh, or hear Satan laughing with delight in your ear about. 

When Jesus promises, “I will not leave you as orphans” we know that is what they are feeling like, and us too. For decades now the wealth of manners, mores, and values that Christians had accrued in this country, have been spent, exhausted. And Christians feel like Martians orphaned on their own planet. Jesus goes from the one thing that an orphan will have, love for his parent, and piles up promises on their knowing that love. That’s the gist of Jesus saying, “If you love Me”. Remember that can and probably should be translated, “Since you love Me, you will (future indicative) keep My commandments.” Father Augustine saw Jesus as piling up the comfort: “We should therefore understand that whoever loves already has the Holy Spirit, and by having Him he becomes worthy of having even more of Him. And the more he has the Spirit the more he loves” (ACC, NT, IVb, 140).

Hear the promises of this text. I’m no Father of the Church, but I know this much. Jesus doesn’t say as the insert has it, “I will come.” No, He says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I come to you.” He came in the Incarnation. He comes today in every Word from God you read, sing, or recite. He is there waiting for you in your Baptism, and He’s at His table to eat and drink with you. And it’s not as the Insert translates that “the world will not see Me anymore, but you will see Me.” No, that’s another present indicative. And ‘see’ is weak. Jesus says that we view (present tense) Him attentively, we enjoy His presence now. “Yes, that’s Me Jesus says. I’m on you in Baptism and in you in Word and Sacrament. The Devil, the World, and you own fallen Flesh make you feel cut off from Me, orphaned from My Father due to your sinfulness, hopelessness, and mortalness. They lie. The commands of My Word and Sacraments assure you otherwise. As the 6th century Mark the Hermit asks us: “Do you see how Jesus has hidden His manifestation [of Himself] in the commandments” (Ibid., 144)?

George Barna, apostle of the church growth movement, "argues that most believers will increasingly abandon local churches and receive their spiritual resources from the Internet" (Horton, Christian Faith, 837, fn. 47). They sure will if it’s all about the invisible Spirit and not tangible Word and Sacrament. Two English words, gregarious and egregious come from the Greek word for flock. The Devil, the World, and our fallen Flesh would seek to make us feel and be egregious which initially meant "standing out from the flock”. The Spirit by Word and Sacrament would make us “gregarious” fond of being in a flock. Luther said it’s the Holy Spirit that calls, gathers, enlighten, sanctifies, and keeps us in the flock. Around 1160 Guy de Montpellier founded The Order of the Holy Spirit. It specialized in gathering up abandoned infants who at that time were being cast into Rome’s Tiber River. (Asimov, Bk of Facts, 226-7). Yes, it’s the Holy Spirit who specializes in gathering outcast babies, kids, adults, and old people around Jesus in Word and Sacrament.  The Fathers knew this best. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Sixth Sunday of Easter (20230514); John 14:15-21