Download or listen to The Sixth Sunday of Easter, “A Glorious Light” (John 14:15-21)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lutherans talk a lot about Law and Gospel. We talk about Law and Gospel so much that the phrase “Law and Gospel” can become a cliché: Law and Gospel, Law and Gospel, Law and Gospel! Until we don’t even know what we’re talking about; until we no longer realize what either is or why we must distinguish between them. We forget what the distinction is for and why we must maintain it at any cost. But as we hear Jesus’ words in John 14 today, we have an opportunity to hear again the distinction between Law and Gospel and practice distinguishing them for the sake of ourselves and the whole world. Jesus’ first words in our Gospel reading for today are, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Now, if you have absorbed “Law and Gospel” talk and if you fail to consider this in the context of Jesus’ entire life, then you’re probably getting a little nervous. I confess, it makes me nervous. I start to consider how well I’ve kept Jesus’ commandments and then I wonder whether I really love Jesus at all. It’s easy to spiral down into spiritual despair, especially if you are in tune with the accusing word of God’s Law. I have not kept Jesus’ commandments, summed up in those two words: Love God with all you are and all you have and all you do; and love your neighbor as yourself; therefore, I must not love Jesus. On the other hand, rather than spiral into despair, we can elevate ourselves into spiritual pride. Rather than despair of ourselves, we think that we really haven’t done all that badly with keeping Jesus’ commandments, and so we think we’re pretty good at loving Jesus also. Spiritual despair or spiritual pride: these are the only two options when we fail to distinguish Law and Gospel.
Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” He also uses a synonym, and says, as we heard last week, “If you love Me, you will keep My words, and My Father will love you, and we will come and make our room/dwelling place with you.” And in the end of Matthew’s Gospel, just before He ascends into heaven, He says: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me; therefore, in that authority, go and make disciples of all nations. Here’s how you do it: you baptize them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and you teach them to observe—that is, keep (same word used here in John 14)—everything that I have commanded you (verb form of the word for command in John 14). And, look! I am with you all the days until the completion of this age.”
But Jesus doesn’t only say words of Law, about what you must do and not do, about what God requires of you and demands from His creatures. He does not only speak commands in that sense. He also speaks words of promise, about what God is doing in His life, death, and resurrection to accomplish salvation for sinners. He speaks of the free gift that He gives, of forgiveness, life, and salvation, without strings, without conditions, without exceptions. He says both what you must do, and what God has done. In other words, Jesus preaches both Law and Gospel. Now, in one sense, all Jesus’ words are commands, because there are no words of Jesus that we are free to discard or disregard. The one who loves Jesus is not free to say, “Well, Jesus, I like these words of Yours; I’m happy with these, and I’ll keep these. But those words make me uncomfortable. I don’t really like those words.” The one who loves Jesus keeps all His words, regardless of how they might make us feel. So in that sense, Jesus simply describes the reality of His disciples: the one who loves Him keeps His words. The one who loves Jesus is like the author of Psalm 119, who goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet with as many synonyms for God’s Word as he can come up with: I love your words, your precepts, your commands, your laws, your ways, your testimonies. I take joy in them; I meditate on them. So we are like Peter when Jesus asks the disciples if they too, like the crowds, will leave Him: “Lord, where else would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. And we have come to know and believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But how is it that anyone can love Jesus and keep His commandments? How can we, who so easily forget His words, who neglect the ones we don’t like, how can we love Him and keep His word? We know that we cannot by our own reason, strength, effort, desire, or will believe in Jesus or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel—not by the Law—and enlightened us with His gifts of baptism and word, made us holy, and kept us by word and Supper in the one true Faith. And the conclusion to the Spirit’s work is that He will raise up all the dead and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ. Because Jesus lives, you will live also. This is most certainly true. Jesus promises to send another Comforter, another Advocate to us, to remind us of everything Jesus has said. Jesus is our Advocate with the Father, who stands between us and the Father and pleads our case based on His blood and righteousness. But it is no coincidence that in Romans 8, both the Son and the Spirit pray for us. The Son intercedes for us and the Spirit prays for the saints, because He knows the mind of the Father. He prays for us with groans too deep for humans words, when we don’t know what to pray for or how to pray as we ought. Jesus sends this Spirit on that great day of Pentecost, but the world does not know this Spirit and cannot receive Him, any more than it recognizes or receives the Son. But still the Spirit calls by the Gospel, and you know the Spirit. You have the Spirit, because you have been baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. He dwells in you and with you. So you trust the Son, and because you trust Him, you love Him, and because you love Him, you hold to all His Words.
The Law that Jesus preaches lays us bare and shows us how little we would love the God who created us and would even go so far as to take on flesh and die. But He does not do that to bring us to spiritual despair, but so that He can preach His free and undeserved Gospel: Jesus is in the Father and you are in Jesus. That is, you are in Him with everything you are: your sin, your death, your bitterness, your anger, your hatred, your lusts; you are in Him when He hangs on the cross; you are buried with Him in His grave; and you are raised with Him by the glorious power of the Father. But He is also in you with everything He is: His holiness, His life, His perfect obedience, all the fruits of the Holy Spirit whom He has sent. This, and not the Law, is your comfort, your assurance, your peace, and joy, and hope. He does not leave you as orphans to dig deep inside yourself for your own assurance and self-reliance. He has made you, through your mother the Church, dear children of the dear Father. He comes to us and dwells with us. He reveals Himself to those who have the Spirit, to those who have ears and eyes that have been opened to His words and work. And only in the distinction between Law and Gospel can we find this glorious light that opens to us the whole Scriptures, that illuminates for us where our true assurance and comfort is. Then we know that Jesus will never let us fall into spiritual despair, nor will we be elevated to the point of spiritual pride where we can rely on our own strength rather than the Son of God and His mercy. May God preserve to all Christians this distinction!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/24/14