Every Good and Perfect Gift

THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17)

Christianity is movement. First and foremost, a Divine movement of mercy, grace, and love. We find this illustrated in the season of Eastertide, and more completely when we add the prelude of Holy Week": which recapitulates the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Together, they reveal the grace-filled movement of the Triune God. The eternal Son willfully and joyfully exits heaven and comes down to His creation. On Good Friday, he is momentarily lifted up on a cross, signaling a greater upward movement to come. But first, in death, Jesus continues His descent into the depths of Hades; into the realm of the dead. And, after three days His descent turns upward. For from the grip of death the Son arises, bursting forth from the tomb as the sun bursts forth at the dawning of a new day. And after a fifty day sojourn on earth, completes his glorious exodus by ascending up into the heights of heaven, where he sits in the place of honor at the right hand of His Father. But the movement of God doesn’t end with the Ascension and seating of the Son. Divine Love moves again. For from Heaven, the Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit down on the day of Pentecost to birth a new people, and to be present with his Church through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes down that we, the Temple of God, might be filled with the Divine presence. The condescension of the Son; His descent into hell; the resurrection; Ascension and sending the Holy Spirit… Divine movement is always a movement of Love.

Not only will you find in Eastertide the pattern of Divine movement, you will also discover an inherent reason and logic. Week by week, the lessons and propers, the readings appointed for the Sundays leading up to Pentecost, are all about gaining a deeper understanding of how it is that in the Cross- in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his ascension into heaven- God has fully displayed his love towards us. The first Sunday after Easter, presents Jesus as the Overcomer of the world and bringer of peace. By his victory over death He has made peace between God and man, thereby, killing the hostility in his body. Peace with God and peace with neighbor is realized in Him. Next comes the Good Shepherd who nurtures and protects the sheep, leaving the ninety-nine to rescue that one lost and vulnerable sheep. This Shepherd promises to bring every one of the flock into the rich and fertile fields of blessing and beatitude. Last week we found the Good Shepherd to also be the bringer of joy: the One who, through the sending of the Holy Spirit, turns the sorrows of this world into occasions for joy; who promises a day when we will see him face to face; that happy day of perfect union with our Lord. And today, the Epistle and Gospel reveal Jesus to be the giver of every good and perfect gift from heaven.

Similar to last week’s Gospel we once again hear of Jesus’ departing. “Jesus said unto his disciples, Now I go my way to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” (Jn 16:5) Yes, the Lord has left, (for a time), his bodily presence is absent from the Church. But we must not misunderstand his intentions. Christ’s exodus is not malicious or done out of self-interest, rather, it is an important aspect of his great love towards us; for by his exit comes the sending of the gift of the Holy Spirit, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (v. 17). The Holy Spirit is given out of love. The presence of the Paraclete is more than adequate compensation for the temporary loss of the Lord’s visible presence. And furthermore, the giving of his Spirit equips the church with every divine resource needed for every disciple to walk in the new way of the resurrected life.  is the good and perfect gift of the Father given by the risen Christ. And in this we understand what St. Paul had in mind when writing to the church at Ephesus, “When he (Jesus Christ) ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph4:8). The upward movement of Christ in the ascension results in the downward giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. Love comes down from on high: the Spirit which regenerates sinners is also the One who daily guides us into the way of Christ. And there is much to say this morning about the blessing of God’s people in the giving of the Spirit. But, first, let us not overlook the breadth of God’s love in sending the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is not only given to the church but as a ministry to an unbelieving world.

The sending of the Holy Spirit is a gift of God’s love to unbelievers as well. What do I mean? Well, Jesus says, when the Spirit comes “He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” How can exposing the sin of error be loving? To the godless the Holy Spirit acts as ‘counsel for the prosecution’: He exposes error, refuting false claims made by the world, convicting and convincing sinners of unbelief. This is the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit that leads to repentance. Hear the Apostle Paul,

do you disregard the riches of His kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? (Rom 2:4).

Divine kindness is the impotence for the Spirit’s ministry to the world: it is a ministry of revelation; in particular the revelation of error. The gift of the very presence of the Spirit demonstrates to a world which condemned Jesus that Messiah was in the right and they were in the wrong! And thereby, the presence and witness of the Spirit serves as an indictment of those who close their minds to the Gospel, hardening their hearts towards Jesus Christ who is the only way unto salvation. Through the worship and witness of the church the Spirit proclaims to the world that which our Lord preached so many years ago, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (Jn 1:10). In the final analysis: the world still doesn’t know Him. It is this great sin of the world of which the Spirit convicts: they “have not believed in the One who has been sent.” The world rejected, unjustly condemned and put Jesus to death; this refusal of the Savior is summed up as ‘unbelief’ and unbelief is exposed by the Holy Spirit to be sin.

Not only does the Spirit prove the world to have misjudged the God-Man Jesus, but confirms the great defeat of the world and the dominion of evil. For the gift of the Holy Spirit given is a validation of Christ’s victory over Satan, over the Ruler of this world, the Adversary in chief. This we may be assured of by the presence of the Holy Spirit which is given as a token of Christ’s victory: judgment in the highest and most supreme court has been given for the Son of Man and against the world; and the world’s Ruler, who in consequence of this adverse judgment, has been deposed and conquered. Our great foe has been baffled by the Divine wisdom and love of God. The verdict is in: the world was and is wrong, for the sending of the Paraclete validates Christ’s resurrection and ascension into the heights of Glory: Jesus is the living Messiah who showers humanity (even the entire cosmos) with the good and perfect gift of the Holy Spirit. And by this God’s love is given to an unbelieving world by convicting it of its supreme error. And this is nothing other than the merciful and loving movement of God that all might repent and believe, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45).

Jesus says, “Howbeit, when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come.” The Father through the Son has given an “Advocate” to the church: the Paraclete. Parakletos, meaning one who "advocates", "intercedes", "teaches”, "helps" and "comforts." This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit being worked in the lives of the faithful. First, the Comforter was immediately given to the disciples after Jesus had withdrawn His visible presence from them, inaugurating the promise to be with them “even until the end of the age.” In the same way, the Holy Spirit is given to us in baptism. In baptism, an exorcism takes place in renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil; Satan is ‘kicked out’ to make room for Christ to enter through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. And thereby, the Lord is always near to us, abiding in and with the sons and daughters of God who have been incorporated into his body the church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

You see, baptism is more than going public with your faith; more than a mere profession of belief. Baptism is our entrance into the living body of Christ, our incorporation into Him, our “putting on Christ” as St. Paul says (Gal 3:27), employing artful imagery evoking the idea of being inside the clothing… we are underneath or in Christ who is the baptismal garment adorned in the font. Baptism is the mystical door into union with Christ; our abiding with him as a child reborn into the family of God; engrafted into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church on earth. And it is in “The School of the Lord’s Service”, in the church, where we receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The church guides and nurtures us in truth. Here, the Spirit brings to bear inwardly on the soul the teaching externally given by Christ. Here, in the church, we are equipped to stand as witnesses to the doctrine and work of our Savior. The truth of Christ has been revealed and deposited to the Church, and it as at her table of understanding that we are fed. God feeds us in the church because God is hospitable. And He always reveals himself in understandable ways: through words; in deeds; manifesting himself through signs and in common created things.

This is the hospitality of God; engaging us in understandable ways. Think of the worship and sacrifices He gave for the people of Israel; that they might understand his nature, his character, his intentions, purposes and love towards them: given so they could worship and commune with their God; given as visible and tangible signs of His forgiveness. Circumcision, worship, sacrifice, wisdom, commandments, all given in love. All intelligible and tangible. And He is no less hospitable to the Church. Through the incarnation, Christ intelligibly manifested to the world the fullness of the Father. He became familiar…. one of us...as we are... that we might see and know God. And yet, his earthly ministry was but for a short time. And this is why the promised Spirit was sent: to continue Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s love to the world after his departure. For The Holy Spirit is given as the ‘discloser’ of truth, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (Jn 16:13).

But what Truth does he guide into? Modernity is infatuated with data, information, and content: all of this open to various interpretations which are mostly determined and finally held based upon an experience, or worse yet, determined to be true simply because “I say it is.” We live in a time mired in a prevailing philosophy of  “truths” plural. Where I have my truth and you have yours. The underlying problem is abstraction: truth has been abstracted and severed from reality. Abstracted truths float in this philosophical milieu of fractured pluralism, disembodied from Truth itself. What is truth? is the wrong question. The right question is Who is Truth? Truth is not found in the pseudo-enlightened path of the gnostics, nor in the land of hypothesis and theorem. Jesus himself is the very embodiment of Truth: true Truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6).

The truth disclosed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit is not truth additional to the truth that is in Jesus Christ himself; a sound warning in these times! As St Paul reminded the Ephesians: the truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21). The truth is in Jesus because Jesus himself is the truth, revealed and disclosed through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the continual unfolding of truth which has already been made known by the incarnation. It is this truth which the Holy Spirit leads Christ’s church further and further into: further into Jesus Christ. Friends, Christ has been revealed and you have believed. The Father has hospitably introduced us into the way of truth by Jesus, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us further along this path. It is not a journey into new and innovative revelation, for Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, when he comes, “he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak” (Jn 16;13). The Spirit reveals and speaks of the truth revealed in the Son of God. Beloved, The Love of God is beautifully demonstrated in the Giving of the Spirit because the Spirit leads us into the Divine life of God, into union with Christ who is Truth. The Spirit enables an ascent of the mind, will, and soul up to God: into deeper and deeper participation in the Divine life of the Triune God. And He does this through intelligible means, chiefly by the Scriptures, Liturgies, and preaching of the church. By these we lift our hearts up to God we ascend unto him in the singing of hymns and psalms; in our common prayer; in the reading and hearing of his Holy Word. It is in the church that we worship in Spirit and in Truth and offer ourselves as a pleasing sacrifice unto God.

The Holy Spirit leads us into the Divine life by unintelligible means as well. Mainly, through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Though creatures of Bread and wine, both intelligible to us, we somehow experience an indescribable union with God. That which occurs in the mind, in the soul and in the body in the reception of the Eucharist is beyond words: it is mystical, transcendent, far surpassing reasonableness and comprehension. The love experienced in the gift of the Holy Eucharist, is beyond our finite understanding, as indescribable as the deep passionate love experienced between a husband and wife; between a mother and her child. Words, in the end, escape even the most discerning and perceptive of the poets. The Lord’s Supper is both the intelligible and unintelligible means by which God, by the Holy Spirit, engulfs us in his loving presence. In this sacred meal we enter into Christ and he enters into us: it is the closest possible intimacy imperfect and corruptible beings can enjoy in this world. In the Holy Communion God fills us with grace and heavenly benediction. We are somehow made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him.

It is the good gift because the very goodness of God is given to our whole being: “our sinful bodies are made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood.” The sacrament of Holy Communion is not merely a sign or memory of God’s love... but is his active and present love towards us; the goodness of God given to all who eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation. It is the perfect gift because as it is the perfect Savior himself we feast upon, from whom comes every perfect blessing in this life and the promise of our future resurrection and ascension into his eternal presence. The Perfect Lord gives perfect food for the perfecting of the soul so that we may one day enter into the fullness of joy. All of this- these many gifts given to the people of God- are made present and effectual by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He draws the bride to her Heavenly Groom that she may enjoy every true, good, and perfect blessing of the marriage covenant. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Js 1:17). Praise be to the Father who is the giver of gifts, and to the Son given for the life of the world, and to the Holy Ghost who reveals and make effectual the grace and love of God! Amen.