ST. JOHN xvi.7.
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.
This is a deep and strange saying. How can it be expedient, useful, or profitable, for any human being that Christ should go away from them? To be in Christ's presence; to see his face; to hear his voice; -- would not this be the most expedient and profitable, yea, the most blessed and blissful of things which could befall us? Is it not that which saints hope to attain for ever in heaven -- the beatific vision of Christ?
My dear friends, one thing is certain, that Christ loves us far better than we can love ourselves, and knows how to show that love. He would have stayed with the apostles, instead of ascending into heaven, if it had been expedient for them. Yea, if it had been expedient for him to have stayed on earth among mankind unto this very day, he would have stayed.
Because it was not expedient, not good for the apostles, not good for mankind, that he should stay among them, therefore he ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God, all authority and power being given to him in heaven and in earth.
And he gives us a reason for so doing -- only a hint; but still a hint, by which we may see to-day it was expedient for us that he should go away.
Unless he went away, the Comforter would not come. Now the true and exact meaning of the Comforter is the Strengthener, the Encourager -- one who gives a man strength of mind, and courage of spirit, to do his work. Without that Comforter, the apostles would be weak and spiritless. Without being encouraged and inspirited by him, they would never get through the work which they had to do, of preaching the Gospel to the whole world.
We may surely see, if we think, some of the cause of this. The apostles, till our Lord's ascension, had been following him about like scholars following a master -- almost like children holding by their father's hand. They had had no will of their own; no opinion of their own; they had never had to judge for themselves, or act for themselves; and, when they had tried to do so, they had always been in the wrong, and Christ had rebuked them. They had been like scholars, I say, with a teacher, or children with a parent. Yea rather, when one remembers who they were, poor fishermen, and who he was -- God made man -- they had been (I speak with all reverence) as dogs at their master's side -- faithful and intelligent truly; but with no will of their own, looking for ever up to his hand and his eye, to see what he would have them do. But that could not last. It ought not to last. God does not wish us to be always as animals, not even always as children; he wishes us to become men; perfect men, who have their senses exercised by experience to discern good and evil.
And so it was to be with the apostles. They had to learn, as we all have to learn, self-help, self-government, self-determination. They were to think for themselves, and act for themselves; and yet not by themselves. For he would put into them a spirit, even his Spirit; and so, when they were thinking for themselves, they would be thinking as he would have them think; when they were acting for themselves, they would be acting as he would have them act. They would live; but not their own life, for Christ would live in them. They would speak: but not their own words; the Spirit of their Father would speak in them; that so they might come in the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, to be perfect men, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.
My dear friends, this may seem deep and a mystery: but so are all things in this wondrous life of ours. And surely we see a pattern of all this in our own lives. Each child is educated -- or ought to be -- as Christ educated his apostles.
Have we not had, some of us, in early life some parent, friend, teacher, spiritual pastor, or master, to whom we looked up with unbounded respect? His word to us was law. His counsel was as the oracles of God. We did not dream of thinking for ourselves, acting for ourselves, while we had him to tell us how to think, how to act; and we were happy in our devotion. We felt what a blessed thing, not merely protecting and guiding, but elevating and ennobling, was reverence and obedience to one wiser and better than ourselves. But that did not last. It could not last. Our teacher was taken from us; perhaps by mere change of place, and the chances of this mortal life; perhaps by death, which sunders all fair bonds upon this side the grave. Perhaps, most painful of all, we began to differ from our teacher; to find that, though we respected and loved him still, though we felt a deep debt of thanks to him for what he had taught us, we could not quite agree in all; we had begun to think for ourselves, and we found that we must think for ourselves; and the new responsibility was very heavy. We felt like young birds thrust out of the nest to shift for themselves in the wide world.
But, after a while, we found that we could think, could act for ourselves, as we never expected to do. We found that we were no more children; that we were improving in manly virtues by having to bear our own burdens; and to acquire,
'The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill.'
And we found, too, that though our old teachers were parted from us, yet they were with us still; that (to compare small things with great, and Christ's servants with their Lord) a spirit came to us from them, and brought all things to our remembrance, whatsoever they had said to us; that we remembered their words more vividly, we understood their meaning more fully and deeply, now that they were parted, than we did when they were with us. We loved them as well, ay, better, than of old, for we saw more clearly what a debt we owed to them; and so it was, after all, expedient for us that they should have gone away. That parting with them, which seemed so dangerous to us, as well as painful, really comforted us -- strengthened and encouraged us to become stronger and braver souls, full of self-help, self-government, self-determination.
And so we shall find it, I believe, in our religion.
We may say with a sigh, 'Ah, that I could see my Lord and Saviour. I should be safe then. I dare not sin then.'
It may be so. I am the last to deny that our Lord Jesus Christ has (as he certainly could, if he chose) shown himself bodily to certain of his saints (as he showed himself to St. Paul and to St. Stephen) in order to strengthen their faith in some great trial. But if it had been good for us in general to see the Lord in this life, doubt not that we should have seen him. And because we do not see him, be sure that it is not good.
We may say, again, 'Ah that the Lord Jesus had but remained on earth, what just laws, what peace and prosperity would the world have enjoyed! Wars would have ceased long ago; oppression and injustice would be unknown.'
It may be so. And yet again it may not. Perhaps our Lord's staying on earth would have had some quite different effect, of which we cannot even dream; and done, not good, but harm. Let us have faith in him. Let us believe in his perfect wisdom, and in his perfect love. Let us believe that he is educating us, as he educated the apostles, by going away. That he is by his absence helping men to help themselves, teaching men to teach themselves, guiding and governing men to guide and govern themselves by that law of liberty which is the law of his Spirit; to love the right, and to do the right, not from fear of punishment, but of their own heart and will.
For remember, he has not left us comfortless. He has not merely given us commands; he has given us the power of understanding, valuing, obeying these commands. For his Spirit is with us; the Spirit of Whitsuntide; the Comforter, the Encourager, the Strengthener, by whom we may both perceive and know what we ought to do, and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same.
Come to yonder holy table this day, and there claim your share in Christ, who is absent from you in the body, but ever present in the spirit. Come to that table, that you may live by Christ's life, and learn to love what he commandeth, and desire what he doth promise, that so your hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; namely, in the gracious motions and heavenly inspirations of the Holy Ghost the Comforter, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.