It’s safe to say that it’s finally spring. Or at least I hope it is. Spring is a good time to think about seeds, among other things. The month of May, I’m told, is the best time to plant seeds, at least in the North East Central region of the United States, which includes Michigan. But I’m sure that many of you already know that, especially if you plant a garden each year.
John Calvin said that God has planted a seed of religion in the hearts of all. Elsewhere Calvin calls it a sense of divinity. This faculty in us pricks and prods us. Because of it, we know we should be asking for God, reaching out for God.
But we as human beings do a good job distorting its signal, if we do not try to ignore or muffle it altogether. In fact, Calvin famously said about the seed of religion that “we scarcely find one in a hundred who cherishes what he has received [in his heart], and not one in whom it grows to maturity, or bears fruit in due season.”
Whatever the image we may use, the point is clear: this faculty does not in itself give us a knowledge of the true God.
Listen again to the Apostle Paul: Dear Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. You even have an altar that bears the inscription “to an unknown god.”
Evidently, their search did not lead them to a knowledge of God.
But today the favor of God rests on them, because Paul continues: What you worship as unknown, I am going to make known to you today.
This is how the Apostle Paul begins his address to the Areopagus, the public court where all the most important matters of the state were debated by the leading Athenian citizens.
Let us be careful here. Paul is not a religious genius. It is not because of his brilliance that he managed to discover what no one else before him had. Nor is he claiming for himself extraordinary teaching ability. He does not profess to have the teacher’s art of taking complex ideas and making them understandable to everyone. He is a vessel; he is a conduit. He has been entrusted with the gospel, the Word of God. That is where the power lies.
It is the Word of God that awakens that sense of divinity, that causes the seed of religion in us to sprout, grow and bloom.
God’s Word is addressed to us through the Apostle. Paul trusts that as he preaches, God will work in the hearts and minds of the Athenians, and they will respond to his message by repenting and believing.
What does it mean to repent? Repenting means to change one’s mind. Whatever it was before that I believed about God, about how to live before God, about how to acknowledge and worship God as God, I need to revise or scrap altogether, in light of what I have heard about God in the gospel.
Paul says that God in his mercy let the nations continue in their ignorance before, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Repenting is not instantaneous for most people. It can be a long process. But short time or long, there is change, or else it’s not repentance. But wherever repentance does occur, there God’s power is at work.
Repentance then refers to that divine change that must happen before one can lay hold of, worship and serve the true God.
Here it shows itself to be a twofold movement: there is a before and an after. There is a turning away from the false and a turning to the true, in which one has come to believe.
What then does it mean to believe? Believing means to accept and acknowledge what the gospel says about God and what God has done is true.
Paul gives the Athenians a basic outline: God is the creator. He is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. He has made all the nations, determining the times of their existence and the places of their habitation. He did not make them and then abandon them. He remained near so that people might search for him and perhaps find him. God wants to be known.
Ultimately, that is why he appointed a man, in whom divine truth, God’s truth, is embodied. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” as we heard him declare last Sunday. And he will be the arbiter of truth on the last day, when he will judge the peoples of the earth impartially and with all fairness.
And, as Paul concludes, God confirmed this appointment of this man by raising him from the dead.
Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the gospel that God entrusted to Paul, that God has entrusted to the church today.
When I went to India to visit a mission I support, I traveled to a remote village. It was night, and the people came out of their hovels, because they heard the local guides were bringing a holy man to them that night. I was that holy man.
There were no lights in the village, and so the guides turned on their high beams and pointed them to an area where the people began to gather. One by one, they stepped forward and formed a line in front of me. Each one wanted me to lay hands on the part of their bodies that was damaged or diseased, in the expectation that my hands would transmit healing powers.
Later one man came forward and began speaking to me in his native tongue. The guide interpreted his words to me: “He’s asking you how he can become a Christian.” I replied to the guide: “Tell him this: if he confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead, then he will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
This is the response from the Athenians that Paul is looking for.
But we have to be careful here too. Belief is assent to a truth proposition. It is a form of knowledge. But it is not only this.
God does not want to be known as the conclusion of a logical proof, as a metaphysical postulate. He wants to be known as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Believing “that” must also include believing “in.” And believing in the God revealed in the gospel involves also loving, trusting and obeying him.
Listen again to the first words of our Gospel lesson: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
We are not to construe this statement as a form of emotional blackmail. We are not to hear Jesus’ words as we hear those of a mother: “if you love me, you will clean up your room.” Rather, we are to hear Jesus’ words as a statement of fact. “If you love me, you will as a matter of course keep my commandments.”
It’s as if Jesus is saying: “if you open yourself up to the mystery of my person, if you respond to the love that I have come to reveal, then you will enter a new world. Everything will appear changed. You will see people as I see them. You will not injure, betray, defraud and kill one another, but you will help, receive, bless and build up one another. When you enter into this new world, you will find that you are already keeping my commandments, which can really be summed up in one: You are to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
To keep the commandments, in the words of theologian Silvano Fausti, is to put into action what already flows from the love of a heart that knows that it is loved.
Jesus will sustain his disciples in this life of love. They will not live it under their own steam. He promises to give them the Spirit of truth, who will be with them and in them.
He refers to the Holy Spirit as “another advocate.” It is an intriguing word. And John is the only one who uses it to refer to the Spirit. The meaning of the word translated here as “advocate” is rich and manifold. The word in the original literally means: “the one who has been called to the side of.”
In the court of law, it refers to a legal adviser. The Spirit speaks on behalf of the defense. That is why it has also sometimes been translated as “counselor.” The counselor advises and guides and helps his client in building a defense.
Perhaps Jesus has in mind here the opposition that his disciples will face because of their association with him. “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first” (John 15:18). After all, the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth; it neither sees him nor knows him.
To believe in Jesus is to enter into an arena of conflict, involving fundamental decisions, oppositions, and hatreds, which in fact Jesus will emphasize more and more as these discourses in John unfold (David F. Ford).
That is why these two terms are appropriate to the Holy Spirit, who is certainly “advocate” and “counselor” and more.
But there is a third meaning, which seems even more appropriate here. We refer here to the Spirit as “comforter.” In their trouble and distress in anticipation of Jesus’ absence, as we saw last time, the disciples need comfort. And Jesus promises to give them this comfort in the form of the Spirit.
As comforter, the Spirit encourages us in our struggles, supports us in our sorrows, and helps us in our weaknesses. He enters the deep places of our souls, bringing to us the presence of the risen and exalted Son of God, Jesus Christ, thereby comforting us.
Even though the Spirit is “another” comforter, which implies a distinction between Jesus and the Spirit, the Spirit nevertheless stands proxy for Jesus.
Jesus has already assured the disciples that if he goes, it is only to prepare a place for them. For in his Father’s house are many mansions. He goes to prepare a place for them there, so that they may be where he is.
But that is not immediately in view here. Jesus assures the disciples here that he will be with them in the Holy Spirit.
That is why Jesus can say that he will not leave his disciples as orphans. No one is meant to be alone in the family of God. No one is meant to feel abandoned.
Put differently, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will give them is filled with the very presence of Jesus himself. The Spirit is not an impersonal agency, force or energy, but rather a personal presence. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul refers to the Spirit as the Spirit of the Son, whom God has sent into our hearts, and by whom we call on God as Father (Gal. 4:6).
Is it not into this filial relationship that Jesus is inviting the disciples? Indeed, on the day that the Spirit comes, the disciples will realize that Jesus is in the Father, and that they are in Jesus, and Jesus is in them.
John hints here at a deep mystery. And he hints further that this mystery is disclosed to us only by the Spirit. To say that his disciples are in Jesus and that Jesus is in them implies that they will relate to God as Jesus relates to God—as Father.
In short, Jesus invites his disciples into the intimacy that the Son and the Father enjoy. To put it simply, Jesus promises that their relationship with the Father will be like his own. That God opens up his life and love to us—that is the mystery that Jesus is revealing and communicating to his disciples in the upper room.
In Jesus Christ God makes himself known. And he has given to us the Spirit of truth. Later Jesus will explain that this Spirit will guide us into all truth.
We are not left on our own. We are not left to rely on that faculty that fails to give us knowledge of the true God. We have the Word of God addressed to us and the Spirit of God living in us. This is what enables us to grow in the grace and knowledge of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.