(1 John 5:9-13; John 17: 6-19)
This period in the Church’s year can seem rather strange – our Lord has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father, yet we are waiting for the Spirit to come down at Pentecost and settle upon the disciples; so that the Church can begin to grow and go out into the world. It can seem like a time of hiatus – perhaps somehow similar to that curious passage in Revelation, where we are told that after the Lamb opened the 7th Seal, there was silence in heaven for half an hour. Perhaps this is another time of silence, as though for this week or so until Pentecost, God has absented Himself from the world. Yet if we believe in the God who is Emmanuel, the God who is with us, then we know that cannot be the case.
If we look to today’s readings for guidance on the significance of this time, it doesn’t seem immediately apparent that we have much of an answer. The reading from the letter of John tells us that we have ‘the testimony of God’, and that for those who believe in His Son, this testimony is in our hearts; and that perhaps rather circuitously, this testimony is that ‘God gave us eternal life, and this life is in the Son. Whoever has the Son has life, whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.’ The choice of this passage at this time implies that we are to see this ‘Testimony’ as the Holy Spirit, that we have the Spirit working in our hearts, giving us life. This implication would have been clearer if the compilers of the lectionary had made this passage from the letter of John slightly larger. Because the verses we have had today are preceded by those proclaiming that our ‘testimony’ is Jesus Christ, who ‘came by water and blood, and the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is Truth.’
I was struck by this because quite by chance this week I had been reminded that in earlier times these verses were greatly expanded by a text that had been interpolated here into John’s letter. The verses, which are now considered to be a pious fraud, were used for centuries as a Biblical proof for the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, until the revival of classical learning, together with better understanding of what were the oldest Biblical texts, led scholars, beginning with Erasmus, to come to the uncomfortable realization that this verse didn’t exist in the oldest surviving texts of the New Testament. We can now usually find these expanded verses in the footnotes of modern editions of the Bible, and I may be deluding myself but I couldn’t help but think that perhaps they can help us understand what this apparent time of hiatus for God really means.
What verses 7 and 8 of the 5th chapter of John’s letter formerly said was this – ‘There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word , and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth – the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.’ It is after this that we have the words we heard today about the ‘Testimony of God’ being greater than that that of humankind. These verses may help us understand what this time can mean for the Church, because perhaps not too surprisingly, given when these words most likely begin to appear in the New Testament, they seem to echo what the Fathers of the early Church said about the Ascension. They seem to echo what they understood about the role that our Lord returning to the right hand of the Father had in the economy of our salvation.
For instance, Cyril of Alexandria believed that in the Ascension, the Christ opened for us ‘a new and living way’ into God’s presence – Christ has now gone up not for his own benefit, because ‘He was, and is, and always will be in the Father.’ Instead the significance of the Feast of the Ascension is that on it, the Word, in Cyril’s words, ascended as a human being, revealing himself in a new and unfamiliar way.’ This is so that ‘being like us…and hearing the command to ‘Sit at my right hand’, he might transmit to fellow members of the human race, the glory of being children of God.’ For Cyril, the great mystery here is that the Christ became man, so that it could be ‘as one of us that he sits at the right hand of God the Father, though in truth he is above all creation and is one in being with his Father.’ In Cyril’s scheme of things, Jesus appeared as a human being before the Father at this time, so as ‘to enable those who had been cast out from the Father’s presence because of sin to once again behold the face of God.’
This didn’t mean that for Cyril or the other Fathers that they thought it took God a week or more to sort this out, before he was able to send the Spirit out on his people. But that this was the time when we could again reflect on what God has done for us in Christ, and on this part of his plan of salvation. In the words of another Father, Pope Leo the Great, Cyril’s near contemporary, the significance for us of the Ascension is that the Son of Man is ‘revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he (has) entered into the Father’s glory.’ He has now become in Leo’s words, ‘indescribably more perfect in divinity to those from whom he was further removed in humanity.’ This enables us to have ‘a more mature faith’, whereby we can stretch our minds upward ‘to the Son in his equality with the Father’, as our faith is summoned to the heights where the Son now sits with the Father.
I hope that it is not too much of a stretch to see the glory Leo and Cyril are talking about as being the same as that which we heard Jesus talking about in the passages we heard today from John’s Gospel. As Jesus said there to his Father, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them.’ And we are glorified, because he has given us the Word, because of which ‘the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.’ Here we have one of the paradoxes of John’s Gospel, a paradox which gives this gospel its Gnostic air of despising the world, so seemingly despising the creation that the Bible also tells us is good. In this same discourse, Jesus says that we are not to be taken out of the world, and he asks his Father here and now to sanctify us in the truth, so that just as the Father sent his Son into the world, so Jesus can now send us into the world. This seems to mean that Christ is glorified in us if we are prepared to do what he did – if we are prepared to witness to the Truth, the Truth of God’s Word, which is of course also paradoxically Jesus the Christ.
The truth that there is always something greater than this world, the truth revealed in Jesus that not only sustains and upholds the world, but which loved it enough to send its Word to it, as John’s Gospel also proclaims. The kind of love that led Jesus to the way of the cross, which of course begins in the following chapter of John’s Gospel from the one we have heard today. The way of the cross that finds its completion in Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, so revealing that Jesus’ return to the glory of the Father’s right hand is through the cross, through his suffering love for our world; a love that we are called upon to share and which will glorify us.
Earlier on, I shoehorned into this sermon the old Trinitarian proof text from the 1st letter of John, and I will return to it again, because in its witness to the Trinity, it reminds us of what can sustain us in our discipleship, as we face up to a world indifferent or hostile to Christ, and whose understanding of love can now be very different from ours. It can sustain us, when being willing to suffer in witnessing to God’s love to the world can seem futile or foolish. In the first part of the old 7th verse, we have the heavenly testimony to God, Father, Word and Spirit. The testimony revealed in this Word coming into creation, joining itself to us completely, being willing to suffer and die for our sakes, and to take our humanity and creatureliness back to the Father, so that it can ultimately be what God has always intended it to be when we were created.
As we heard in John’s Gospel, Jesus had said that we are to be in the world, but he prayed to protect us from the evil one, and asked his Father to protect us in his name, so that we may be one in love, as he and his Father are one. To that end, the old 7th verse tells us that we are to look to the three that testify to God on earth – the Holy Spirit moving among us who brings together the testimonies of Heaven and Earth; the waters of repentance which cleanse us from our sins and enable us to hear the Word, and which gives us admittance to Christ’s body. And perhaps most importantly of all for us, as we try to navigate our way through this world, the Blood. The Blood outpoured that witnesses to God’s love for our world, and for each of us – the love and the paradoxical glory revealed in the sacrament that we are about to share. In the Eucharistic mystery, we share as the Body of Christ, we come face to face with the Word, with the Bread of Life, we encounter that Word in the fragility and seeming insignificance of the bread that will be broken, and the wine that would normally be poured out for us in other times, to be the blood that we would share. The Eucharist is the supreme reminder that we can always call upon the Spirit, the water and the blood as we navigate our way through this world, and remember that we are called not just to be one body as the Church, but we are called to be one with Jesus, as he is one with the Father. As we look to Pentecost, may God, Father, Son and Spirit, give us the strength, wisdom and faith to live up to the glory he has called us to, and to show the glory of his love to our suffering world. Amen.