Commentary on John 16:12-15
During this extended farewell discourse, Jesus has now for the fifth time tried to explain to the disciples the benefits of both his departure and the coming of the paraclete (John 14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-11, 16:12-15).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus centralizes the work of the Spirit in ways that are unique to his account, offering an abiding and enlightening presence for the disciples meant to replace the very tangible presence of Jesus the disciples had experienced. There are no spiritual gift lists for churches to later put into organized inventories like we find in Paul’s letters, nor is their direction for specific actions attributed to the Spirt as we might see in Acts. Instead, the Spirit is described as a sage-like presence that will care for and guide the entire community after Jesus departs, offering exactly what these disciples need in a moment of grand anxiety. We would do well to remember this as we prepare our sermons for a day as wrought with the temptation to heady exhortation, Trinity Sunday.
The Trinity through tears
In our passage for this Sunday, Jesus continues his work of trying to convince the disciples that his imminent departure is a positive both for them and for the entire community. But frankly, the disciples don’t seem to believe it. Though this discourse is offered primarily from the perspective of Jesus, we can sense the confusion and fear of the disciples. What were the facial expressions of the disciples as they were listening? What was their body language like as Jesus repeatedly tells them that he’s leaving? What tone did Jesus take as he offered these words? Even without those details, we know from Jesus’ repeated calls to find joy that Jesus is speaking with sad and fearful disciples who are not sure just what they can bear. Jesus is offering a soul-salve for these disciples that were about to lose their teacher, leader, and friend.
Though we have language about the Father, Son, and Spirit together in a tight package, offering an adequate pericope to drown in the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus seems to be doing anything but dealing with theological abstraction. Maybe through tears of his own, and possibly to weeping disciples, Jesus offers hope to those that he loves. In a world where loss, anxiety, and fear are legion, there will be no shortage of disciples in our midst who are in need of reassurance. Our mission seems to be to offer ways that the relationship Jesus describes in this passage, between Himself, the Father, and the Spirit, brings hope to an anxious people instead of wrestling with the particulars of the Trinity.
Vouching for the One to come
The disciples knew Jesus — they could see, touch, smell, hear Jesus. Their lived relationship with Jesus required faith, but not the kind of faith that would be required to believe in this paraclete that was coming at some undetermined time. Jesus finds himself in a role familiar to the one that John the Baptist played for him, as one preparing the way for another who is to come. Differently though, Jesus can vouch for the work of the Spirit with a different kind of authority than John the Baptist could ever vouch for him because of the relationship that Jesus had established with the disciples and the power and peace that He has already demonstrated to them. They know for themselves the power and presence of Jesus, and here Jesus is using that shared experience as a means of grounding his promise of the one to come.
Though Jesus has to repeat these instructions over and over, the connections that he makes between Himself and the Spirit, birthed from their testimony of life together, must offer comfort for the disciples gathered there. How can we help our people remember what God has already done, as a way of undergirding a hope for what is to come? What can we say about what Jesus has already done for our communities that will lay the groundwork for a hope and reassurance in current crisis or future dilemmas?
A prophetic particularity
I have to be honest, I smirked at Jesus’ words in verse 12 when I first read them, thinking to myself, “more things to say that they can’t bear, how do you think they’ve borne everything you’ve said up to this point?!” Over the course of Jesus’ goodbye speech, they’ve had to bear quite of bit of Jesus’ teaching. In this elongated teaching moment that if not for the emphasis on the Spirit would feel more at home in Matthew’s Gospel than John’s, Jesus has been downloading quite a bit of information about love, future events, new commandments, and this mysterious paraclete that isn’t mentioned anywhere else.
This word about what the disciples can bear then must not be about capacity, because if that were the case Jesus could’ve stopped speaking a long time ago! But maybe this isn’t about capacity, at least not in the immediate sense. A chapter ago, in John 15:15, Jesus noted that he has already made known to the them everything that he received from the Father. This observation about what they can bear is not about capacity in terms of the sheer amount of information that they can understand, but instead it seems to be about time and context. They can’t bear the many words, now, because there are words that they need to hear in the future that would not make sense now.
The Spirit will guide them to truth in the future, for a word that they need to hear in that moment. The word will still be from the one that they trust and have a relationship with, “he will speak whatever he hears,” but the word will fit the needs of the community at that time. You can’t bear it now, but then is a different story. The assurance here is not of some intellectual truth but a reassurance of a presence, of the same kind of comforting words that Jesus offered the disciples along their journey together.
This is not only a word of comfort, but something that should excite us, as we marvel at the fact that Jesus’ word, that the Word, will be with us in the ways that we need, when we need it! Whether we deal with the particulars of the Trinity or not, our preaching today should reassure our community that the abiding presence of the Word will speak to us how we need it, when we need it! On a day that offers so many temptations to teeter towards the head, Jesus’ words remind us of the need to reassure and calm our community’s heart.