By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 12. 2022
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John 16:12–15 (ESV)
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
There are times where we come to a passage of scripture that seems odd. When we come to those passages, we can do a few things. Usually, and I include myself in this category, we simply overlook it, we skip it and act as if it did not even exist. Other times we take that passage and we look at it as if it is the conduit of some secret knowledge, and we develop a sort of spiritual practice or theology around those weird passages. We have seen this throughout church history. There is this obscure passage about Paul being bitten by a viper and not being harmed, which is attributed to the statement made by Jesus in Mark 16:18 where he says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” It is a strange passage in both the gospel and in the book of Acts. And we are left wondering what it means. Some have taken the words quite literally and will have snake dancing celebrations as part of their worship. I do not attend one of those churches, and I am not saying anything against them, it is just I have never liked snakes. Another example is the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29 where Paul seemingly states that we should baptize the dead. This is something that some religious sects have participated in and still do currently, but it is also something that I have read stories about as happening in the Church of Ireland. I wish I could give a good answer for these weird verses, but we do not have the time right now. And I frankly do not have the energy. But today we do have one of those strange verses as well.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” This statement comes near the end of Jesus’s farewell discourse, which is right before he leaves to pray in the garden. We have been in this discourse for the past few weeks and all the statements are connected but this one has a bit of a mystery to it. It leaves us thinking that maybe there might be more revelation to come, or maybe a deeper understanding of what has already been said. It really depends on our perspective and theological approach.
The word “bear” is what begins the mystery surrounding this passage. The word occurs twenty-seven times in the New Testament and eight of times are in Luke’s gospel, and rarely is it used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. We have relatively little context to know fully what “to bear” means in this spiritual context. Most often it has been used in the context of to lift or to carry away, or in a few cases especially in the Old Testament to pilfer or to steal. This gives us the idea of physical exertion, but then there are times where it refers to bearing a sign or name of God. This takes us away from physical exertion into something else. To bear an image, name, or sign from God means that this sort of bearing speaks to our nature. The core of who we are and how we are supposed to live.
I hope that this speaks to the confusion a bit. I hope that this allows us to realize that there is more to this statement than meets the eye. In one aspect Jesus might be saying that he wants to say more but we are not strong enough to handle the weight of the words, in another might mean that our understanding of who God is has not matured enough to allow us to live into our true nature. This second aspect is important. Often times people say that they are not good enough yet in themselves to be able to come to Christ. We have heard this in many forms. People will say things like, “If I were to enter a church, lightning would strike because I am so sinful.” Lucky for us this does not happen because if it did our Meetinghouse would have burned down long ago. But this statement speaks to the concept of bearing. We may not yet understand what life with God means. We grow into it. And at this moment we live into what we know but as we mature, we will be changed.
This is true even outside the church. A student goes to school, in kindergarten they begin with the alphabet and progress into reading simple words and sentences. We do not expect them to be able to contemplate the deeper meaning found within Shakespeare or Tolstoy, many adults are incapable of bearing that. We encourage them from where they are and walk with them as they progress deeper in knowledge and understanding. We do not expect more than they are able to undertake, and yet we still challenge them to go just one step deeper. It does not matter if it is literature or math, we take things a step at a time. Yet so often people feel as if there is this expectation of perfection when it comes to our spiritual life. This is partly our fault; we as more mature followers of Christ have forgotten where we once were and we fail to recognize that those around us might be struggling. We make assumptions that just because we live in a nation that has had a majority population of Christians that everyone knows what we know. This causes us to be short with those around us, and it also causes us to feel as if we have the right to force those around us to comply with our understanding of life.
We must be careful. We can often regard a lack of understanding as a lack of faith. We can regard a question being raised as an attempt to challenge the authority of scripture or traditional interpretation of scripture. Even the wisest among us can have their understanding of faith challenged. Even the most devout and zealous disciples of Christ can at times be found struggling to live out faith. How do we respond? How do we encourage those we live among to continue walking in faith?
Jesus looked at his disciples, people he had invested three solid years of personal interaction and spiritual investment. He looked at these individuals, and he knew that he had shown them a great deal, he taught them a great deal, he had empowered them to do the very things he was doing and yet they still had room to grow. They even after three years of constant teaching and observation did not grasp the fullness of what was going on around them. Judas was on his way at that very moment to sell out his faith for thirty pieces of silver. Peter before the rising of the sun in just hours, would deny Jesus three times. And all of them would that very evening run for their lives. We regard these men as saints, but in truth they are just like us, amazing characters of devout faith one moment and the next a scourge of humanity.
We give them space. We give them the opportunity to grow in their faith, because we know the end of the story within their lives. We know that they eventually become the foundation of the Church. But we do not give the same grace to each other nor to ourselves. Jesus has much more to teach us, much more to tell us, but even we cannot bear them now. At this moment we may only be capable of understanding that reality that God loves us so much that he sent his unique son to live among us, to teach, and to suffer and die for our salvation. But even that might be too much for us to bear at this point. For some of us we still struggle with the concept that God loves us. For some of us the idea of God loving us is still too much to bear at this moment. We are still struggling to become loveable. We are trying to get our act together to deserve God’s love, but God is already there. God already loves us; we just do not understand why.
I want us to just stop at this place for a moment. I want us to simply rest in the idea, the concept, and the reality that God loves us. Why is this such a difficult thing for us to grasp? We love our children even though they have done nothing to earn that love. We love them just because. I have said on several occasions that James my oldest son is responsible for my salvation on January 15, 1999. It was on the day that he was born that I, even though I had called myself a Christian for many years, began to understand the love of God. The first time I looked at my child, I realized that no matter what or who he became I would love this person. I would give anything, go anywhere, do anything to protect and make sure they had the best opportunity to succeed.
We do this for our own children. We do this for those within our family. Those children may not understand what we are doing exactly. They may not know how much we are sacrificing, how much we are investing and enduring so that they can grow, but later they will see. Later, if we do well, they will understand and love us just as we loved them. Later, they will do the same, but in this moment at this time they cannot bear the knowledge. They must simply abide in the fact that you are there and they are as safe as you can make them.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Again, we are faced with enigmatic words. We cannot bear the words, and then the Spirit of truth will tell us the things to come. Does this mean that God will bring new revelations? Will God change what has always been said and done? Does this mean…
I want us to consider again that these words are being spoken just before the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. This is before the burial and resurrection. This is before the fullness of God’s glory was revealed. Everything that will be happening in their near future is going to be confusing.
Imagine, for your entire life you have been taught that when the Messiah comes the Kingdom of Israel would be restored to its greatest era of history. They would be united under one king, one faith, and in one land. That they would be the light to all the nations and in your mind the entire world, even those currently under the dominion of the Gentiles, would be untied under God the Most High. This has been and is the hope that we still have to this day. But you believe that Messiah is here, but instead of conquering the world, he says that he must suffer. Instead of uniting all the tribes once again, he turns the tables over in the temple dedicated to God. Instead of battling those that oppose your faith, he tells you to love your enemy. They thought they understood what God wanted from them. They thought they understood what Jesus was saying, but at times they just did not understand. At times the words that Jesus spoke and their understanding of scripture seemed at odds. Not necessarily wrong, but odd. They agreed with what Jesus taught, but sometimes it just seemed difficult to live. How exactly can we love our enemies when they are threatening our very existence? How can we love God with everything we have and yet love our neighbor as ourselves, what would be left? How can we bring honor, and live in unity if we cannot agree?
The disciples wrestled with the things of faith just as much as we do. Jesus is telling them to live within their understanding, but to be open to guidance. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. Jesus had told them that He is the way the truth and the life. Jesus had told them that everything that he says is from the Father, and that all that he does he does within the Father’s authority. If Jesus was given the authority to bear that image, the image of the Father with humankind, then the Spirit of Truth can only lead them to Jesus, who is truth.
Does this passage tell us that we should expect a new revelation from the Spirit? Does it tell us to expect some sort of inspiration that we have not noticed before? This is where things get a bit tricky. The answer is yes, and the answer is also no. Truth is always truth. It does not matter where it comes from nor from whom it comes from. All truth comes from God. If a thing is not true its source is outside of God. Those things might work well for a moment but they are not universal. This statement might shock you a bit. It might sound as if I am a unitarian or worse, but that is far from what I am saying. To deny that all people have access to aspect of truth would mean that we do not believe that all humans come from the same creator. If we all have descended from Adam and Eve as scripture says, if those two individuals are a common ancestor to all humanity, then at some point in time our ancestors knew the truth of God. It also means that we have all distorted the truth. Each of us in our own self interest and the interests of our community have within us the capacity to distort truth and merge something that is good with something that is of a lie.
We can see this even within scripture. Even God’s chosen people were and are capable of this deception. Jesus said in one of his sermons, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45). The reason Jesus speaks in this manner is because something somewhere along the way had been lost. Somewhere along the pathways of life and faith people began justifying activity that contradicted God’s original message.
We can justify the ill treatment of many people and people groups. Russia justified their invasion of Ukraine by claiming that they were Nazis. The United States justified their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq because we were going in to find terrorist. We might feel justified in our actions and may even have evidence in support of our arguments. This does not mean we are right. When Jesus says that God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust, he is saying that all people are loved by God. Even though they may not be his chosen people, they are still members of his human family. People that He loves to such a degree that while they were still enemies of God, Jesus came to die for them, to offer them the opportunity to have life in his name. I want us to recognize the gravity of that statement. God does not withhold sun and rain, the life sustaining elements of existence from even the vilest people on this earth. Why then would he withhold an opportunity to know the life sustaining truth?
This leaves us in an awkward position. We know things, and yet Christ tells us we have more to learn because we are not able to incorporate all truth. We are still growing, still maturing. And we live among people that are not that unsimilar to us. They too do not have full knowledge of the truth. They may not even know of where the truth comes. What should we do? How should we live? Do we have some secret knowledge that others do not have access too? No. I wish it would be the case. I wish I could say that the Friends have a monopoly on life saving grace. But God is available to all. We do not have access to God only in this Meetinghouse. We can have communion with God wherever we are and with whomever we are with to some degree. But are we seeking God where we are?
This is the truth within this passage. It is not that we can gain something secret. It is that when we seek to deepen that relationship with God, the Spirit of Truth will continually guide us into a greater understanding of life, the universe, and everything. And the deeper we go the more like Christ we become and we are better able to bear the image or name we claim in faith. Seek first the kingdom, Jesus tells us, and all these things will be added unto you. Take on the life and lifestyle of Jesus and we will find that there is a satisfaction in the simplicity of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others.
The spirit does not give us new information or prophecy, but a deeper relationship. A relationship that is open to all who believe. Will we accept that relationship, and will we encourage others to embrace it? Will we encourage the person siting next to us to love God with all that they have and to love their neighbor as they love themselves? Will we life for Christ? The longer I have served in ministry the more I understand that faith is complex and simple. It is complex only because I am so ignorant but once I begin to see, once I can get beyond my own lack of understanding and my own stubborn resistance, I realize that the reality of all that I seek is, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” We can sit here looking for the knowledge Jesus wants to reveal to us, we can seek it every minute of every day. Or we can simply embrace the reality of Jesus’s love and let that love flow from us to others. Let us allow the love to flow and let the Spirit guide us where we need to be.
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