Before you preach on the Gospel reading this week, stop and notice the movement of the Gospel readings during the seven Sundays of Easter (In Homiletics we call this the “diachronic liturgical context”). They come in two sets. On the first three Sundays we read about events which took place immediately after the resurrection. The fourth Sunday marks a break. It is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we back up and read John 10. Then comes the second set. On the fifth, sixth, and seventh Sundays of Easter, the lectionary takes us back to the upper room on Maundy Thursday and recalls Jesus’ words to the disciples just hours before His betrayal, arrest, and death.
This context is important. What Jesus said to the disciples shortly before He died was true, of course. But it was before He died and (more importantly) before He rose. We should not read these texts, therefore, as if Jesus said these things to the apostles during those first weeks after Easter. Much less should we read them as if Jesus said these things directly to baptized believers like you and me two today.
- Consider verse 12, for instance. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” When is “now”? It is not the twenty-first century. It was in the upper room, before He died. The term “bear” (βαστάζω) suggests a burden is involved. The burden of what they would hear from Jesus could only be borne in the light of Easter. They (and we) will be able to bear Jesus’ words later, but only when they (and we) know He is risen.
- Or consider verse 13. There Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” Hallmark stamps this verse on keychains and coffee mugs without any context. But Jesus did not say these words to Christians today. Not directly, at least. He said these things to the disciples, to whom the Spirit did come in a unique way at Pentecost. After the apostles, the Spirit guides us into all truth through the apostolic witness (Notice what this has to say about the apostolic writings as the norm and guide of the Church’s faith and life).
- Or consider verse 16, where Jesus says, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” Jesus said this to the disciples about His imminent death and resurrection. They would see Him three days later. We could apply this verse to Jesus’ ascension and return, but that would require we take several steps beyond what Jesus was saying in this text.
- Or consider Jesus’ comments about joy and sorrow in verse 18: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” This is not sorrow and joy in general, but sorrow over Jesus’ death and joy in His resurrection. It did turn into joy—a joy which compelled the apostles to proclaim the Word of the risen Lord to any and all who would listen. Our sorrow will also be turned to joy. But our sorrow is still an Easter-sorrow, and our joy is already begun in God’s baptismal promises.
Here is the point: these verses have significance for contemporary Christians, but they do not apply directly to us. Somehow your sermon should make this clear.
You might do this by preaching a series of three sermons on these Gospel readings and casting them as pre-Easter “flashbacks.” You could invite your hearers to go back in the light of Easter and reread Jesus’ words to the disciples in light of the resurrection. Verses 20-22 could provide the focus for this week’s sermon (John 16:33 would do well next week, and John 17:21 the following week).
The disciples had good reason to be filled with sorrow at Jesus’ death. Not only did they lose a friend and teacher, but one in whom they had placed their hopes for eternal life (recall John 6:68). We also have reasons to grieve, and it should not be hard to think of causes for sorrow in your congregation. But, because of the Resurrection, we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Our joy is a gift here and now, but it will not be complete until Jesus’ return. The promise of His return, which you can (and should) proclaim clearly and forcefully, will direct your hearers to the coming Kingdom of God. This promise will sustain them and give them reason for humble rejoicing even here and now.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 16:12-22.