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All In Good Time

. Posted in Sermons

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says to his disciples just before his arrest and death. The way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in The Message version of the Bible is “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now.”

This verse brings to mind that well-known and intense courtroom scene in the movie “A Few Good Men.” The prosecuting attorney, played by Tom Cruise, presses the Marine Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson, for the truth about an incident that led to the death of one of the men under his command.

“I want the truth!” the character played by Cruise shouts at the Marine Colonel who is on the witness stand. The Colonel shouts back, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Was that what Jesus was saying to his disciples shortly before his arrest and death on the cross, shortly before he was to leave them? You can’t handle the truth. I still have a lot to tell you. I still have much to teach you. But you can’t handle it right now.

Most of us understand this from our own personal experience. We have tried to say all sorts of things to our children when they were growing up. But they couldn’t bear what we had to say. They couldn’t handle the truth we were trying to convey. Many of us can remember our parents and other adults trying to share things—important things—with us. But we couldn’t hear them. We couldn’t bear what they had to say. We couldn’t handle their truth. Maybe now, many years later, we understand what they were trying to tell us. Maybe now, many years later, we have come to understand the truth of what they were saying. Sometimes we may find ourselves wondering accusingly, Why didn’t I listen? Why was I so stubborn? Why did I think what they were trying to say to me was so stupid? Maybe because we could not bear the truth when we were younger. Maybe because there was a time in our lives when we could not handle the truth. It happens to all of us, I think.

My friend Michael, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, recently sent me information about a book by Mark Achtemeier. The title of the book is The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage. One of the interesting facts about this book is that it was written by someone who at one time would have been very opposed to same-sex marriage on Biblical grounds. He was an activist and even a keynote speaker in efforts against LGBT ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). But somewhere along the way he changed. And he changed because of his faith. He changed because of his reading of the Bible. A truth he couldn’t handle at one time he later came to embrace.

One of the challenges I have had in the ministry over the years is how to confront people with the truth as I see it when so often they are clearly not able to handle the truth. Many years ago a young man had come to see me here in my study at the church. His marriage was over. He had lost his job. Things were headed south in his life because he so obviously to me and to many who knew him had a problem with alcohol. He was an alcoholic.

So, as he sat across from me in my study and he was sharing with me the things in his life that were going wrong, I took the risk and shared what I was seeing and experiencing. “I think you have a problem with alcohol,” I said to him. “I think you need help with that.”

As soon as these words came out of my mouth, I vividly remember the look on his face. It was the look that someone might give a child who said something really outlandish. It was the look that someone might give someone who had fallen utterly in the pits of foolishness. It was the look of utter skepticism. Later he would come to the truth about his alcoholism that would lead to his transformation and make of him someone who many people, including myself, greatly respect. But at that point he couldn’t handle the truth.

I suppose one of our greatest temptations is that we want to hit people over the head with the truth as we see it—about religion, about politics, about their lives, about the truth that they are oh-so-slow to accept. And it can get us in a lot of trouble in our relationships with others—not least of all in our marriages. People, including ourselves, don’t like to be set straight. We don’t like to have the truth, as other people understand it, forced on us. Or shoved down our throats.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. You can’t handle them now,” Jesus said to his disciples. And who of us doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about? We can remember truths that at one time we could not bear, truths that at one time we could not handle. Many of us who are over the age of 60 and grew up in Memphis or some other southern city remember the separate restrooms and separate water fountains marked “Colored” and “Whites Only” in department stores and other public places. It was the way the world was. We didn’t question it. We went along. We were only children.

But, as we have gotten older, we have come to know the truth that many of us failed to see in those days.

All of us have our personal struggles. Like the struggles that young man in my study years ago was facing, they can be things that are blaring and ruinous and even life threatening. But often they are ways of relating that are hurtful to others. Often they are what we label as our personality, our quirks, our particular way of being. Maybe we have become too judgmental or too quick to find fault in a way that others find difficult to bear. Maybe we have trouble expressing our true feelings and being honest in a way that could be helpful and healing in our relationships with others. Maybe we are too quick to take for granted the efforts and sacrifices of others. Maybe the values and politics of our day, that maybe we were taught growing up, take precedence over truths our faith seeks to teach us.

But, for many of us, as the years have passed we have been more able to confront the truth about ourselves. As time has passed we have been more able and willing to see ourselves as we really are and change. So that the way we were is not the way we are now. So that we can look back at who we were and smile now because we were able to accept the truth about ourselves and move on to a better place, realizing that we will always be imperfect.

Sometimes a truth we are not able to bear is good news about who we are. Maybe we are so used to putting ourselves down or accepting the judgments of bullies that we find it hard to believe that we are both loveable and loved. Maybe we have learned to put so much pressure on ourselves and demand perfection from ourselves so much that we don’t know how to accept grace, that we find it hard to believe that we are forgiven and loved in spite of our mistakes and failures. But, as time has passed, we have learned the truth we could not handle at first: that we are forgiven, that the proclamation that grace is for everyone means us too, that in relationship with our God we know that we are loved. In spite of everything, we are loved. And so is everyone else.

“There is so much I want to tell you. There is so much I want you to know,” Jesus said to his disciples. “But you can’t handle it now. You can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

In the gospel of John, the Spirit is often called the Paraclete, or paraklētos (in the Greek). In our Bibles this is translated as Counselor, Comforter, Helper, or Advocate. The Paraclete is the One who comes beside us—our Counselor, Comforter, Helper, and Advocate. Yes, Jesus is no longer here in the flesh. He can no longer be seen or heard as we see and hear other human beings. He tried to tell his disciples that is what was going to happen just before his arrest and death. They could see him then. But there would come a time very soon when they could not see him. And, as we are told and can imagine, that made them sad. They loved Jesus, and loved having him with them so.

But Jesus said that when he left he would send the Paraclete, the Advocate. He would send the Spirit. That Spirit participates in the presence of God and Jesus. That Spirit makes Jesus real in the lives of Jesus’ followers. And that is what we celebrate today, on Pentecost. Jesus is not here as he was with the first disciples before his death, resurrection, and ascension. We cannot see him in the flesh. We cannot hear his human voice.

But he is here with us nonetheless. He comes to us in the Spirit. He comes to us as our Advocate, our Counselor, our Comforter, our Helper. He comes to us, as we hear Jesus say in the gospel of John, as the Spirit of truth. And what that means is the truth that we cannot bear, the truth we cannot handle, the Spirit reveals.

Yes, it’s a little hard to hit someone over the head with the truth and it doesn’t do much for our relationships. But nevertheless here we are about truth, the truth of Jesus. And, over time, as we worship and pray, as we share our insights with one another about scripture and our faith, as we seek to serve our living Lord and live out our faith together, something happens. We begin to discover the truth. We begin to see the truth. And the truth we found so hard to bear becomes easier to bear. The truth we couldn’t handle becomes the truth that saves us.

This is perhaps the greatest good news of Pentecost. The truth we found hard to bear is not so hard anymore and the truth we couldn’t handle becomes bearable, because the Spirit of truth has come. And that Spirit is with us now. Our calling is simply to be open over time to that Spirit—our Counselor, Comforter, Helper, and Advocate—that we may be led in the way of truth revealed in Jesus, to whom we give honor and glory forever and ever.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, May 20, 2018

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