In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. In our Gospel Reading for today, our Lord is with His disciples on Holy Thursday. The words that are contained in John chapter 16 are the final words of teaching which He gave to the disciples prior to His betrayal and arrest later that night. As He speaks to them of His impending Passion, our Lord speaks of the sorrow and joy which the disciples will experience. Sorrow and joy are critical elements of the Christian life. Sorrow will be felt in this world. The question is, are we sorrowful over the right things? Similarly, joy will be felt in this world. The question is, are we joyful over the right things?
2. In his famous work the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas defines sorrow as both having a lack and also knowing it. In this sense, to have sorrow is to feel the pains of hunger because you lack food. Sorrow is to experience physical pain because you lack health. Sorrow is to feel empty after the death of a loved one because you lack their presence. However, the question is, are we sorrowful over the right things? Despite our Lord’s words of warning to His friends, the disciples were not sorrowful for the right things on Holy Thursday and the days that followed. As our Lord speaks of His impending departure, the disciples are sorrowful for the future—they are sorrowful for the lack they will soon feel. When our Lord was arrested and put to death, the disciples were sorrowful for their own lack—their teacher and friend was dead. The kind of sorrow which the disciples experienced during our Lord’s Passion was an inappropriate sorrow—it was sorrow fixated upon oneself.
3. This is the kind of sorrow which we so often experience as well. We are typically so fixated upon ourselves that, like the disciples, we fail to see the bigger picture. We lament over our personal struggles and stresses. We complain about our aches and pains and our unfortunate situations. We fixate upon our ever-growing task lists and our personal losses. This manifests in that many people are so fixated upon themselves that conversation with others becomes difficult because both sides only want to talk about themselves and rarely are ready to listen to the heart of others. Sorrow that is fixated upon oneself and the lack that we experience is both unhelpful and inappropriate for Christians.
4. During our Lord’s Passion, the sorrow of the disciples helps us to see why this is the case. The biggest problem that the disciples have during our Lord’s Passion is an ignorance of how Christ will save them. This ignorance leads them to inappropriate sorrow. Despite our Lord’s continued teaching that He must suffer and die at the hands of His enemies, the disciples will not believe it. When the band of soldiers came with Judas to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter was ready to fight to protect His Lord. When our Lord rebuked Peter, the disciples fled in fear and despair because their inappropriate sorrow had overcome them. They could not see that this was necessary. They could not believe that their Lord must die for them. The disciples were so fixated upon themselves that they could not accept a Lord who would die for them.
5. Now, don’t misunderstand. The disciples should have felt sorrow during our Lord’s Passion. But their sorrow was misplaced and inappropriate. Proper Christian sorrow is repentance—that is to feel sorrow over our sins, which can only be taken away by a Savior who will atone for them on our behalf. This is what the disciples could not understand during our Lord’s Passion. They did not feel proper sorrow over their sins. They felt self-centered sorrow over loss.
6. And so, my friends, we must pursue proper Christian sorrow. If I feel the pains of hunger because I lack food, proper sorrow is not to lament and feel sorry for my own lack. Proper Christian sorrow is to recognize that this hunger is a result of sin—my sins have separated me from God’s life-giving presence, just like Adam and Eve, who were banished from the garden, which was filled with good food, because of sin. If I experience physical pain because I lack health, proper sorrow is not to lament and feel sorry for my own lack. Proper Christian sorrow is to recognize that this pain is a result of sin—my sins bring upon me a life-long struggle with this world, just as the Lord said to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin. If I experience emptiness after the death of a loved one, proper sorrow is not to lament and feel sorry for my own lack. Proper Christian sorrow is to recognize that death is a result of sin—my loved one’s sin led to their death, just as my own sin will one day lead to my death. Proper Christian sorrow must always focus on repentance over sin because only then will we find reprieve in our Savior.
7. In our text for today, our Lord said to the disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20). Weeping, lamentation, and sorrow have their place in this valley of sorrow in which we live. But for Christians, sorrow holds a unique place. Proper sorrow over sin is necessary because this sorrow is what leads us to true joy. After our Lord’s resurrection, the disciples were not immediately glad at the news of their Lord’s resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is not good news unless it delivers the joy of absolution. This is why the disciples could not experience joy at our Lord’s resurrection until He came to speak peace to them. Sorrow turns to joy in the absolution which our resurrected Lord Jesus grants.
8. This joy which our Lord grants to us must not be mistaken for pleasure. Pleasure and joy may exist simultaneously in this life, but they are not the same. In this life, pleasure is fleeting. Pleasure comes and goes on this side of glory. And pleasure which is not held in its proper place will always end in sadness. Joy, however, is not just pleasure. Joy is a characteristic of the joyful. True joy, as our Lord describes it, is to be seen by God and to see Him. This is how our Lord frames today’s Gospel reading: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me . . . So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:16, 22). This is true joy, not just to see Jesus with our eyeballs. True joy is to behold our Lord Jesus with the eyes of faith as He simultaneously sees us as the forgiven children of God. Both aspects of seeing are necessary. We must have faith and we must be forgiven. Only through these two gifts will our sorrow be turned to joy.
9. The Christian life is characterized by repentance—we are sorrowful over our sins and that sorrow is turned into joy through our Lord’s Word and Sacraments. When we experience hunger and so repent of our sins which separate us from our Lord’s abundant presence, He gives us food and drink at the Lord’s Supper as a pledge and guarantee of our place at His eternal banqueting table where there will be no more hunger. When we experience pain and so repent of our sins which bring a life-long struggle with this world, our Lord gives us His Word of absolution to heal our souls and to promise eternal healing to our bodies in the new creation. When we experience emptiness after the death of a loved one, our Lord reminds us of His promise to us in Holy Baptism: “If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him” (1 Timothy 2:11). Our lives are short and eternity is long. As we live in the little while between Pentecost and the last day, we fix our gaze upon our Lord’s tangible promises that He gives to us in Word & Sacrament so that our true sorrow will be turned to joy because our resurrected Lord sees us and we see Him.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.