This is the third week of Advent. This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”. It has a counterpart in Lent called “Laetare Sunday”. In both instances the purpose is the same: both come just past the midpoint of the penitential season and serve as brief reprieves from the rigors of the fast so that the Church might be encouraged in the feast which is to come.
On Gaudete Sunday the dominant theme is rejoicing. The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments. If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.
Last week we looked at Jesus’ promise to his disciples to send the Holy Spirit, which does not rank very high as a text which we would associate with Christmas. Yet in this promise we find hope that the Holy Spirit inside of us will speak to us as he hears from God, reminding us of what is true–that no matter what happens we are baptized children of God for whom Christ died and all the benefits of his death and resurrection are ours, and reminding us of what is yet to come–that Christ is coming again at the end of the age to launch His new kingdom and put all things right, and we get to be part of that.
But there is another side to this promise. For though all these things are true of individual believers, it is not just on the level of the individual believer that this promise applies. You see, the twelve disciples who were with Jesus that night were at the very core of what would ultimately become the Church.
On the level of the Church, what Jesus was saying was that the Holy Spirit would be with and in the Church, that he would guide the Church into all truth, and remind the Church of what is yet to come.
The record of history bears this out. The Jesus movement should never in a million years have made it out of first century Jerusalem, yet it has grown to a worldwide movement with millions if not billions of adherents. The Church has survived, endured, and even prospered despite threats from without and within. Despite persecution, corruption, false teaching, treacherous leaders, divisions, scandals, and our general attempts to run it into the ground, the Church is still going strong. Any organization run in the way the Church has been run would not even make it to the initial public offering, yet the Church has endured for two thousand plus years. Clearly Jesus has kept His promise that the Holy Spirit would be with and in the Church.
The Holy Spirit is guiding the Church into all truth and reminding the Church of what is to come. The Catholic church has a special take on this, one which involves infallibility and the Magisterium. Some evangelical movements hold a similarly narrow view, in which it is only their particular movement that is the true Church and everyone else is apostate. The reality is that the boundaries of the Church are not concurrent with the boundaries of any human institution or movement; instead the Church consists of all bodies which faithfully preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (What does it mean to faithfully preach the Word? What are the sacraments and how are they properly administered? That is another diatribe for another day.)
As Protestants, we believe that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore it is perfectly OK to discuss things and even to raise ideas that are completely and totally out there. As we talk through things, there is a sifting process which takes place. This can take a long time–decades and even centuries–and can get excruciatingly messy at times. This leads to the charge by our Catholic and Orthodox brethren that we are always dividing and it is a slander upon the Body of Christ. This is understandable; while some issues and questions may be resolved in our lifetimes, others will not be. And still others that we thought were resolved will turn out to not be resolved after all. All we will see is the messiness and the rancor going back and forth on these issues. But we trust that a sifting process is happening and that the Holy Spirit is using it to guide us into the truth.
Sure it would be nice to have a centralized, Magisterial teaching authority that could step up and shut down the Rob Bells and the Joel Osteens and the Ken Hams and the [insert name of your least favorite evangelical teacher] of the world. But who corrects the Magisterium when they get it wrong (and they do get it wrong sometimes, the whole infallibility thing notwithstanding)? NO ONE!!!!!!!!!!
So we trust the process. As Protestants, we are willing to live with the Rob Bells, Joel Osteens, Mark Driscolls, Ken Hams, etc. of the world, knowing full well that that is the price we must pay, because we believe it is significantly better than the alternative.
And the Holy Spirit is reminding us of what is to come. Jesus is coming back, and all that is wrong in the world will be made right. His kingdom will be established in the world, and we get to be a part of it.
This week we rejoice because the day of the Lord is near. In just a couple of weeks we will celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world at Christmas, and we look forward in faith to the day when He will return for real.