Rev. Patty Ebner
June 16, 2019
Can We Bear It?
I like to preach from John because it correlates well with Christians and Christianity in the 21st century–people are in different places with their faith. Some hold to their Judaism and remain in the synagogue. Others combine Christianity with Judaism and name themselves as Jewish-Christian; some of them are allowed to worship in the temple while others are either cast out or choose to leave.
In the 21st century, we have Christians of many types—fundamental, evangelical, traditional and progressive. We also have Christians who identify as Jewish-Christian, as Buddhist-Christian, and as Trinitarian Christians. We have Christians who celebrate their Christianity at Christmas and Easter.
I like to preach from John because of the hope it offers to us. John was writing to a community in a certain amount of turmoil. There was tension between Jewish Christians and the synagogue authorities. The book was intended as a source of inspiration for believers in the community and not to be used in changing the beliefs of others.
Today’s scripture not only introduces us to the members of the Trinity, it conveys the need for it as we seek to live into God’s will for our lives. It stresses the role of the Holy Spirit as Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his physical departure from their lives.
Verse 12 opens with a zinger of sorts when Jesus says to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
When I read this verse, I was immediately reminded of the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. After a long period of questioning in which Lieutenant Kaffe is pressuring his witness to admit to wrongdoing which has resulted in the death of a Marine, Colonel Jessup answers Lieutenant Kaffee’s at the top of his lungs. “You Can’t Handle the Truth. I have a greater responsibility than you can imagine. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. Yes, I ordered the Code Red.”
Now, I’m certain that Jesus would not have been shouting at the disciples in the same manner that Jack Nicholson (Colonel) was addressing Tom Cruise (Lawyer). But the meaning behind Colonel Jessup’s words do contain some truth. In that time and place, Jesus held a greater responsibility than the disciples could imagine. Unlike them, he knew his time with them was limited, that soon, they would be on their own. For three years, he had been able to walk and talk with them, to lead them in ministry and service to others. Not unlike a manager, director, or Vice President leaving on a business trip, or a Lead Pastor going on sabbatical, how would the disciples carry on in his absence? Would they remember the lessons? Would they have the courage to carry on in the likeness of Jesus? What would become of Jesus’ Great Commission?
Since Jesus seemed to know that the disciples could not bear everything that they needed to know in order to carry out God’s mission, he had little choice but to continue preparing them for the future—a future without himself. To accomplish this, Jesus attempts to explain what we have come to understand as the Trinity—God (Jesus’ Father), Jesus (God’s Son), Holy Spirit. “The Trinity holds to the idea of one God in three Divine Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The three Persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature”.
While I am not one who struggles with the Trinitarian concept, I am one who struggles with a “reasonable explanation” of it. How do we give words to that which is unseen? I often ask myself, Why aren’t the teachings of Jesus enough? As I read today’s scripture, and how carefully Jesus prepared the disciples for their recognition of the Spirit, I realized I have been asking the incorrect question. Instead of asking “why aren’t the teachings of Jesus enough,” I should be asking, “If Jesus thought his teachings were enough, why would he have introduced us to the Holy Spirit? Why would Jesus have taken the time to prepare the disciples for its entrance into their lives?
Knowing that the concept of the Holy Spirit is a stumbling block for some, I looked for tangible systems which support the idea of the Trinity. The idea of water came to my mind as a good example. It seems fitting in that we have witnessed a baptism today.
Like water, God has been here since the beginning.
In today’s scripture and references to each verse, we are introduced to a “God who sent Jesus, who gave him a commandment about what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)
We meet a God that Jesus speaks to, a God to whom Jesus gives an update on his earthly work. (John 17:7-8) We meet a God who is in Jesus and has all of Jesus. (John 16:15)
Like water which changes its form and moves around, Jesus’ life and ministry does the same. It is comprised of teaching, healing, sacrifice and resurrection.
We learn from Jesus that he has been thorough in his teaching, that he has “made known to the disciples everything that his Father, God has instructed.” (John 15:15, 8:26-28) We learn that Jesus referred to the disciples as friends, friends being the sort of people from which we hold nothing back.
And in the same way that the Sun provides heat, causing the water to evaporate and become gas rising into the air and the water vapor cooling it down to form clouds, we learn that the Holy Spirit will lead the Christian community beyond Jesus’ own teaching, that the Spirit will guide people into the TRUTH, will speak only that which it hears, will declare the things that are to come, and will glorify Jesus. In other words, we can trust where it leads us. (John 14:25-26)
I experience the Holy Spirit as the great communicator, the one who inspires me to notice the presence of God, to hear the spoken word in a new way, to open my heart and mind to new ways of being and believing. The Holy Spirit is the presence who inspires the UCC Theme, “God Is Still Speaking.”
To believe in the Holy Spirit though requires TRUST on our parts. It is easier for us to trust when we receive something or know the outcome of a situation that proves the presence of God, evidence of some sort. To receive Trust, we are called to surrender something, creating room for TRUST. Trust requires us to connect with the unseen. Jesus knew this and told his disciples that the Spirit would guide them into all the truth, would not speak for itself but only that which it hears, that it would declare the things which were to come, and in so doing, would glorify, Jesus. When we glorify something, we lift it up, we dignify it. In order to lift something up, we have to let go.
As each of you knows, at the end of its cycle, Water is returned to land as rain and snow, filling up lakes, streams, rivers which eventually are returned to the oceans. While each member of the Trinity has its own identity and function, each brings us back to the essence of God.
For the disciples, “that which they could not bear” was likely the trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of their friend Jesus. Even if they knew what was to come, they possibly had no idea how difficult it would be to live in a world without Jesus and to carry out his Great Commission. They were spared the misery displayed by Colonel Jessup as he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders. Why? Because Jesus taught them how to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit, what it would bring to any situation and its role in the Trinity.
What is “that which we cannot bear?” Is it the insecurity we face in ourselves, our communities, in our nation and world? Is it the uncertainty we face in our own lives, the lives of our family members, even in our faith community?
Whatever it is, we can claim the words Jesus spoke in Verse 13:
“When the Spirit of Truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth, for it will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come.” Because of this promise, not because we know the outcome or think we know the best outcome of any situation, we will be able to trust, and indeed, bear all that is to come.