The Gospel according to St. John has been at the center of many controversies, and they all have something in common.
John chapter three is controversial to some, because Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is ἄνωθεν he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). That’s the Greek word, ἄνωθεν.
Nicodemus takes Jesus to mean “born again,” which is why he asks Jesus about being born a second time, but Jesus means “born from above.”
He means that it’s necessary to be baptized.
From the Augsburg Confession, our churches teach, regarding Holy Baptism, that “It is necessary to salvation, and…through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and…children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. [We] condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism” (AC IX).
Practically speaking, for children and adults, that means if you’re not baptized, you should be.
That means, there’s no reason for you not to be baptized.
That’s scandalous for some, because of all the “what about” exceptions with which we test the Lord.
But think of it this way: St. Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Are the Deaf condemned, then, who speak and sing and confess not with their mouths but with their hands?
Or when St. Paul says that faith comes by hearing, are they excluded again, the Deaf, who do not hear?
Of course they’re not excluded.
The Deaf hear with their eyes and confess with their hands and are received with joy by their Savior.
So to say that Baptism is necessary for salvation isn’t scandalous at all—it simply confesses what is practically true: if you’re not baptized, you should be.
There’s no reason for you not to be.
That’s John chapter three.
John chapter six is controversial for some others, because Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Some say this refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper, therefore, it would be necessary for the Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper. And some say that it refers only to faith, that is, spiritual eating and drinking.
I’m not smarter than the esteemed theologians who’ve argued this point through the years—and—if you ask any well-catechized child what it means to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” he’ll quickly tell you that Jesus means the Lord’s Supper.
But the point here is the same as before: if you hear and believe His words, you’ll do them.
There’s no such thing as a Christian who hates Baptism or a Christian who despises the Lord’s Supper.
That said, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper don’t save because we do them. They save because God, at work in His Word combined with water and bread and wine, saves us through them.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two of the means by which it is necessary to be saved.
There can be saving faith apart from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but there shouldn’t be—meaning, we don’t hope for that to happen.
That’s the point. That’s the rule, not the exception.
And that’s John chapters three and six.
Today, chapter sixteen, the controversy is a bit different.
Jesus says, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” (John 16:5).
In a manner of speaking, that’s just not true.
On two occasions, in the context of Jesus’ death and departure, a disciple asks Jesus where He’s going.
In John chapter thirteen, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’” (John 13:31-33).
That’s just before Jesus gives the mandatum, the mandate of Maundy Thursday, that we are to love one another as He has loved us.
Peter responds to Jesus by saying, “Lord, where are you going?” (John 13:36).
And a few verses later, in chapter fourteen, Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:1-4).
There, Thomas responds with: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5), and that’s just as good as asking, “Where are you going?”
Twice, then, a disciple asks Jesus where He’s going.
And yet Jesus says, “Now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” (John 16:5).
Critical scholars—and I mean professors at universities who will teach your children until they lose their faith and into oblivion—suggest that the chapters are simply out of order. Edited over time, someone just messed up.
But I don’t buy that, and neither should you.
There’s a wonderful similarity in all these supposed controversies that actually clarifies things greatly.
In every case, Jesus is speaking to those who don’t understand who He is and what He’s about.
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, knows that Jesus is a teacher come from God, but in chapter three he balks at everything the Teacher says.
He doesn’t understand who Jesus is.
He doesn’t understand that disciples are made by baptizing the people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching the people to cherish everything that Jesus has said (cf. Matthew 27).
Pastors are teachers for the very same reason.
In chapter six, the Jews “grumble about [Jesus], because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (John 6:41). They seek Jesus “not because [they] saw [His] signs, but because [they] ate their fill of the loaves” (John 6:26).
The Jews in chapter six think Jesus is merely Joseph’s son (cf. John 6:42). They don’t understand who Jesus is, and worse, they hate what He says.
Peter, in chapter thirteen, wants to follow after Jesus, but he doesn’t understand what that would mean.
Thomas, in chapter fourteen, wants to know the way, but he must be taught to cherish Jesus as the Way.
The controversy in these verses is that no one understands who Jesus is or what He’s about.
So today, when Jesus says, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” (John 16:5), when He says that, the controversy’s the same as before.
No one understands who Jesus is or what He’s there to do—and so they must be taught.
Peter and Thomas were asking Jesus where He was going as if He were going to the gas station.
Had they known Jesus was going to His Father by way of the cross, had they known why and what that meant, the sorrow in their hearts would’ve been overcome with joy.
They could not yet fully grasp that Jesus was of the same substance of His Father, truly God—and also truly man, having become man to die for the sin of the world as the most pleasing sacrifice, made on our behalf.
They didn’t understand that He was going back to His Father.
They didn’t understand that He would rise, and ascend, and return to give everlasting life to all who believe in Him.
Without understanding—without faith—sorrow filled their hearts.
“Nevertheless,” Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
Everything that Jesus does is for our benefit.
Today, it’s good to note that even if what Jesus does brings you sorrow, it’s for your benefit.
We have the Holy Spirit rather than the walking, talking Jesus, and, Jesus says, that’s to our benefit.
We don’t have signs or experiences or dreams or visions, and when people claim them, we put zero stock in them, because we have something better: the Holy Spirit—the Counselor, Advocate, and Paraclete that Jesus promised to send us.
The disciples should’ve asked Jesus: How do you become a Christian? How do remain steadfast in the faith? How are we saved?
And Jesus would’ve told them: by the work of the Holy Spirit whom I will send to you.
We confess in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith” (SC, II.3).
It was given to Jesus to earn our salvation.
And it is given to the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all…truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…He will glorify [Jesus], for he will take what [belongs to Jesus] and declare it to you. All that the Father has [belongs to Jesus]; therefore…he will take what [belongs to Jesus] and declare it to you” (cf. John 16:13-15).
Jesus is the “[author] and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, shows you who Jesus is, what He’s done, and what that means for you.
The Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies, and keeps you in the true faith by the Word and the Sacraments, those necessary means of our salvation.
This isn’t done by osmosis, by the way.
It doesn’t just magically happen.
God works by means—Word and Sacrament.
If you absent yourself from those means. If you don’t hear the Word and learn it. If you despise preaching and being taught. If you see the Sacraments as swine to be avoided not pearls to be gathered…
Then I pray God melt your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
“The words that [Jesus speaks] are spirit and life” (cf. John 6:63). Though we poor sinners deny Him, He lays down His life for us (cf. John 13:36-38). Though we would lose our way, Jesus is Himself the Way, and the Holy Spirit, through the Word, finds us (cf. John 14:5-6).
We know who Jesus is and what He’s about, because the Holy Spirit has given us faith that believes.
In Holy Baptism, “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6) we are heirs of eternal life.
In the Lord’s Supper, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus and receive the forgiveness of sins, exactly what Jesus says.
That we know all this, that we believe it—is a gift of the Holy Spirit who creates and sustains faith.
Into all truth, the Holy Spirit has guided us by God’s Word.
And by God’s Word, He convicts us concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment.
He declares Jesus to us.
This isn’t controversial, but rather a clear confession of who Jesus is and what He’s about.
We’re born from above, eating and drinking as Jesus bids us to do, living for this day and the Last Day, for our neighbor and for God.
The cross we bear is not for our salvation but for the love we have for God and neighbor.
And so we bear it gladly, thorns and all!
Jesus has prepared a place for us.
By the work of the Holy Spirit, we call on His name for our salvation, and we believe that He will come again, in a little while, to take us to the room He has prepared.
Jesus isn’t walking with us or talking with us.
We have something better than that, the promised Holy Spirit, at work in the Word proclaimed.
He takes what belongs to Jesus and declares it to us.
All that the Father has [belongs to Jesus]; therefore…[the Holy Spirit] takes what [belongs to Jesus] and declares it to us.
For all the world, that may be a controversy.
But to us who know Jesus and by Him are known, it is the gospel, the power of God unto salvation, for all who believe.
Believe it—dear Christian friends—and rejoice.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Cantate—Easter 5 Sermon, 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt