Commencement Sermon for D. Min. Candidates
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Saint Louis, Missouri
Monday evening, 5 June, 1995

John 16: 4b - 11. The Gospel for The Day of Pentecost

"I can understand, Harry, why the death of your wife Eunice depresses you so. The two of you were exceptionally close. Without her, you must be terribly lonesome."

"Thank you," says Harry as politely as he can, "but I don't think you do understand. Loneliness is only the half of it. What's at least as depressing is all the unfinished business Eunice has left behind for me to finish in her absence: not just going through her personal belongings and deciding how to dispose of them but picking up her responsibilities where she left off: answering scores of letters from her friends, having suddenly to become both mother as well as father and grandmother as well as grandfather. I'm even being asked to fill some of the speaking engagements she had agreed to. And already the mayor has asked me to serve out her unexpired term on the city council and, beyond that, to run for the office she was being groomed for. Plus, over the years I have become so closely identified with the causes she advocated that I now am expected to defend those causes in her stead. How I wish I could. But I simply don't have sher gift for persuasion."

"So you see," poor Harry sighs, "it's not just her leaving but also what she's leaving me with. Her death is not just a subtraction but an addition, actually a multiplication -- of impossible assignments. Frankly, it isn't even her death which I find so hard to bear as her life, which had become my life as well and which I now am called to perpetuate It's more than I'm up to, alone."

If that is how a widower might feel at the death of his wife, imagine how the disciples felt at the departure of Jesus their Lord, faced as they now were with carrying out the enormously ambitious program he had started but had not finished, leaving them to finish it without him. What am I saying, imagine how they felt? We are those disciples --today. In this generation it is you and I who who have been left with this mission impossible, left with it where he left off. It is painful for me to remind you how humanly impossible that mission is. But there it is in the Pentecost gospel lesson, in Jesus' parting words to us: his threefold program of unfinished business. The world, he says, will have to be proven wrong "about sin and about righteousness and about judgment." (v. 8) What kind of hopeless assignment is that? It calls for a superhuman prosecuting attorney, a sort of cosmic Marcia Clark, against the whole "world." I would think only masochists would take on a job like that, or people who are embittered and sore at the world. How on earth to prove the world wrong about sin and about righteousness and about judgment, all the while loving that world?

We won't take this, I hope, as an alibi for feeling sorry for ourselves. What a cop-out that would be. Our greater temptation, I suspect, if you are like me, is not to take our Lord's departing words seriously in the first place. Just because they are so humanly impossible they must be an exaggeration. So instead we redefine the job description he has given us down to where it is humanly bearable. In effect we say, our Lord surely could not have meant that literally, that the world has to be proven so completely, so negatively wrong. Surely, being the understanding person he is, he would settle for some more comfortable compromise, some watered down version that won't displease the world so and turn it against us.

Remember how we used to say, Don't send a boy to do a man's job? Well, what we clergy are tempted to say is the reverse, and so are we parishioners. We are tempted to say to Christ, Don't send a man's job for us boys to do. Don't send a grownup's job for us children to do. If you do, O Lord, we will just have to scale the job down to what we juveniles can handle: a minimum of heavy lifting (especially the Cross), a ministry without negatives, preaching without proving anybody wrong -- except maybe the world outside, which won't hear us anyway.

Take the first of Jesus' three impossible assignments, proving the world wrong "about sin." (v. 9) But why sin? we complain. Why, he says, "because they do not believe in me." That's why? That is the world's sin, that it does not believe in you? O Jesus, that I cannot tell them. There are other sins in the world that I might be able to criticize if I have to, and some sins which I am even eager to criticize, especially those sins which the world itself at the moment agrees are sinful: violence or big government, sexism or family breakdown, homosexualism or homophobia, racism or racial quotas, the liberals or the religious right, the Republicans or the Democrats. Worldly sins like those, sins which at the moment fortunately have a bad reputation, I might be able to criticize, at least behind closed doors.

But to confront people who do not believe in you, Jesus, as if that were the root of all the world's wrongs, that is asking too much. The world in which I live, of which I am so much a part, would regard that kind of preaching as the height of intolerance. We are accustomed to say rather that people who do not believe in you may be different from us Christians-- different, yes, but not wrong. And even that, their rejecting of you, they should be entitled to do as their right without being considered sinful because of it. Do you realize, Jesus, if I were to prove wrong those who disbelieve you, whom all that would include? That would include some of the nearest and dearest people in my life. In fact, one of the few persons I know of from recent times who made a public point of doing what you say, proving the world wrong because it does not believe in you, is Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And you know how long he lasted. Not much longer than you did. Sorry.

Or take the second of Jesus' impossible assignments, to prove the world wrong "about righteousness." But why righteousness, we again protest. Why, he explains, "because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer." (v. 10) That is righteousness? That is our righteousness, that you are going to your Father? What's the connection? That is the world's righteousness, that it will see you no longer? Oh Jesus, don't you see why the world regards that sort of talk as utter nonsense -- and so, maybe, do I? It will never sell.

There are people in the world, especially in the church but even raw worldlings, who do want very much to be righteous, at least want to be right. So do I. But we want a righteousness of our own, a righteousness we can point to in our own day's work or in our own family relations, a righteousness we can observe in our own experience and which others can see in us. And we're perfectly willing to accept whatever help you or the Spirit can give us to improve that righteousness, that practical righteousness in our own experience and accomplishments. But a righteousness we can no longer see or feel simply because you have vanished from our sight, a righteousness you have taken with you but which we are still supposed to be able to live off of, that won't preach in Peoria. Nor do I think I can ever preach that. Least of all can I prove the world wrong because it cannot believe in a righteousness so remote and so invisible.

Couldn't we, Jesus, at least arrive at some compromise about righteousness? Might we not say to the world, Be righteous like Jesus? That way it would still be your righteousness. But it would be ours too to the extent that we can imitate you. Of course we could never be as good as you, as forgiving or as courageous or as self-sacrificing. But we could at least try to resemble you, second-hand, copy-cat style. Now that kind of righteousness the world might buy. It always has. And we would still be giving you the credit. What's more, that kind of be-like-Jesus righteousness, I would never have to prove wrong. It is simply too appealing, too practical to be proven wrong. And it sounds so Christian. How about that for a compromise?

On the other hand, Jesus, if you insist on your way, as in this Pentecost gospel, I'm not sure we can guarantee any followers of that way. If you insist that the world's righteousness is something which you alone do and no one can duplicate or even approximate, not even if they have outside help, you had better not expect us to convince the world of that. If we have to tell the world that its only chance for righteousness is that you went back to your Father, something the world obviously cannot do or has little wish to do, then I doubt that anyone will listen to us. If the only way any of us can get to the Father is that you returned to the Father for us, that won't strike the world as good enough.

Suppose it's true that you did return to the Father and that you returned to the Father different from the way you left the Father, no longer just the Son of God but from now on a human being as well. Suppose it's true that, because you rejoined the Trinity human as well as divine, that therefore God has now been human for about 1995 years. Do you seriously think the world will buy that? Suppose it's true that because you are now back with the Father as one of us, that entitles the rest of us humans, us orphans and bastards to enjoy the same godlike childhood. Do you expect the world to take you up on such a wild offer, your sharing your Father with us as our own Parent? More to the point, do you expect me to prove the world wrong for not believing that?

How Jesus answers that question is clear from the gospel. Yes, he says, I do expect you to do that, to prove the world wrong about sin and about righteousness and about judgment -- all that without compromise or without hedging and, above all, without a chip on your shoulder. However, and this is the whole point, I have never expected you to do that alone. I know better than that. In fact, the only reason I trust you at all to pick up where I've left off -- and I do trust you with that -- is that I am sending to you "the Advocate." (v. 7)