On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Merle Marie and Tom sat alone on the couch at the end of the day paging through their wedding album. Looking at the beautiful young couple they were, they smiled remembering how naïve they had been about the whole journey at its beginning. Merle Marie remembered feeling like a princess walking down the aisle on her dad’s arm. Tom remembered seeing her coming toward him, her face half-hidden behind the veil, and that was all he could recall, her face, her lovely face; the rest of the ceremony was a blur.
As they came to the final picture, he jokingly asked, “Should we tell them what we know now?”
“No,” she replied. “They’ll find out soon enough.”
We all know that it’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Every child knows this and every parent. Every friend knows this and every teacher – everybody, I suspect. When I was little I often watched when my mom was ironing the laundry. I was intrigued by the quickness of her motions and the magic of that shining thing she handled so skillfully; it looked like a silver boat plowing through water, turning choppy seas of wrinkles into fragrant smoothness. “Don’t touch it, it’s hot,” she had told me, I don’t know how many times, but one day I touched it anyway. I already knew hot from sitting in the tub and from playing in the sun and from sipping soup from my spoon, but I learned a whole new dimension of hot when I touched that shiny iron. It’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Words are very good for sorting through and processing experience, but we can’t use them to prepare one another for any and all circumstances we might encounter down the road. And so we tell our youngsters that there’s a difference between love and a crush, but they will still have to make their own way through the adolescent awkwardness and turmoil and find out how that is true.
Jesus said to the disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Some of the things he had to say to them had a weight they weren’t prepared yet to support with their lives, and he wouldn’t give them a word they couldn’t bear. Beginning with chapter 13, John tells the story of Jesus’ last night with his friends. They didn’t know it would be their last hours together. They didn’t know that the very next day he would be arrested, convicted, and crucified. They didn’t know what was coming next, but Jesus did. And so he spent that last night with them preparing them for what they couldn’t even begin to imagine: how to follow him without seeing him in front of them; how to do his works without him there to teach and admonish them; and how to hear his voice in the noise of the world.
They were eating together, and during the meal, Jesus got up from the table, got a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash their feet, without saying much. When he was done, he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you?” Then he began to talk, and he talked for a long time – it’s more than three chapters, the longest conversation we know of between Jesus and his friends. It’s actually not much of a conversation, because he did all the talking; they listened the whole time, only occasionally did one or the other throw in a comment or a question.
And after he was done talking, Jesus prayed. He gathered up the life they had lived together and the life the disciples would continue to live without him. He prayed his life and work and their life and work together into one – one life, one mission, one movement of God’s love to the world and in the world.
That is how he prepared them for the difficult transition. That is how he helped them move from seeing in his life who God is to letting their own lives embody the love they had encountered in him. He washed their feet, down on his knees before each of them, teaching them to do to each other what he had done to them. And he prayed to the Father that their mission and his would be one. He served and he prayed, as he had for as long as they had known him, and between those two poles of service and prayer he wove a tapestry of images, promises, and commandments.
Two things he said over and over again. The first was, “I am with you only a little longer” (13:33). Fifteen times he told them, in one way or another, that he would be leaving them. And the other thing he said, and this also over and over again, was that he would not leave them comfortless, but send them another advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth (14:16; 16:7). Two things he said over and over again, “I am leaving, I am sending; I am leaving, I am sending.” He would leave, but he wouldn’t abandon them. He would no longer be with them, but the Holy Spirit would be in them and among them and continue to connect their life and work with his.
Our calling is to become and proclaim the good news in a very messy and complicated world, and it’s a lot easier to imagine Jesus standing in a corner of the room listening to what we are saying to each other, than to know him standing among us and speaking the very word we all need to hear right now, in this messy moment of the world’s confusion.
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he told them. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
We are not left to our own strength and imagination, and we don’t have to make our own way into all the truth. Jesus is sending the Spirit to inspire, empower, and guide us, and the Spirit will not speak on his own authority but as one forever connecting our life and work with the life and work of Jesus. The Spirit allows all generations of disciples to receive the word of Jesus in the changing circumstances of our lives, and not just to recall the life of Jesus, but continue to live it.
There are words of Jesus that we need to hear in order to understand our mission in the current messiness of the world, and the Spirit helps us to remember faithfully what Jesus has said and receive obediently what Jesus is saying. What aspect of the mess we’re in should I mention? There is still some debate over whether or not we crossed the threshold of 400 ppm carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere a couple of weeks ago, but an adjustment down to 399.89 really doesn’t change much. Atmospheric CO2 levels are rising at unprecedented rates, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries, and today’s levels have not been seen since 3 million years ago, when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than current levels. Many scientists have warned that carbon dioxide readings must be brought down to 350 ppm to avoid severe climate impacts and stall feedback loops that will exacerbate the rise. This mess is unlike any humanity has ever had to face, but our response so far has been remarkably familiar. It’s like we don’t want to be told, we want to find out for ourselves – only in this case, a lot more is at stake than a burned finger or a few bumps in the early years of a marriage.
Don’t you wish Jesus were here? Don’t you wish he were here to tell us what to do? When he said, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he wasn’t being secretive but preparing us for this very moment. The Spirit of truth is here to guide us. The Spirit whom Jesus sends allows us to hear the things we couldn’t bear before. And the Spirit, the church declared with the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh – men and women, young and old, poor and wealthy. The Risen One is speaking, and we who long to hear the word of God for this day must be attentive to all flesh – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.
We must listen for the word of God in the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the churches, but not only there. We must listen for the word of the Lord in every word spoken, whispered, sung or censored among us. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and we must listen very carefully lest we miss the word the church can bear and must bear today to glorify the Lord.
The Lord said, “I am leaving…; I am sending…” and when he left he didn’t send a final word that would set the world straight once and for all. He poured out the Spirit of truth that draws us all into communion. He poured out the Spirit of truth who guides us to embrace the humble service of listening to each other, expecting to hear the Lord’s voice through the noise of the world.
 I'm following Eugene Peterson, The Story Behind the Story, Journal for Preachers Vol. 26, No. 4, Pentecost 2003, pp. 4-8