ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH May 22, 2016
The Spirit of Truth
When I was in high school, I decided to try rugby. I had no real knowledge of the game, but many of my friends played and enjoyed it, so I thought I should. We started practices early in the spring, and I remember the coaches drilling us and teaching us different aspects of the game. We learned about scrums and rucks, knock-ons, dummy passes, and so on. I had a vague idea what this all meant, but as we were running around practicing passing, hitting, and different plays, I had no clue how the game was actually played. By the time of our first exhibition game, my head was spinning with all the information I had accumulated. Before the game, one of the coaches came over and told me I was going to play fullback. I wasn’t sure what that entailed or even where on the field I should play, so I reluctantly had to clarify where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do. Thankfully, my coach was great and he looked at me and said, “You’re fast and you can kick, all you have to do is stay back in the middle of the field and if you get the ball just kick it back at the other team or run with the ball! You’ll understand more about the game later just use what you’ve learned so far.” His words were comforting, despite my unease.
As I thought about the passage for this morning, my experience with learning rugby appears similar to what the disciples must have experienced as they spent time with Jesus. Throughout the previous chapters (i.e. chapters 13-15), John describes how Jesus was teaching and sharing with his disciples as much as he could, trying to prepare them for what was ahead, knowing that his time on earth was nearing an end. The disciples were eager to listen and learn; however, they really didn’t and couldn’t understand what the future held, despite all that Jesus was sharing with them. However, like my understanding and supportive coach, Jesus continued to teach them, knowing that in the future it would start to come together.
At the beginning of chapter 16, which we didn’t read, Jesus reminds his disciples that he is leaving; however, he promises them that they do not have to fear or let sorrow fill their hearts, because only through his departure can the Advocate, or Holy Spirit come. This promise must have brought some comfort to the disciples, although I’m sure they were overwhelmed because of all Jesus had told them recently. There were still so many unknowns. They had been following Jesus, listening to his teaching and preaching, and watching as he performed countless miracles, but still they could not truly comprehend the magnitude of who Jesus was or what the future held. Jesus himself confirms his disciples’ inability to understand God’s greater plan, as he speaks to them in verse 12 saying, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”
More than they can bear. What exactly does that mean? The previous four chapters in the Gospel of John are dedicated to describing many of Jesus’ teachings as he prepared his disciples for the future, yet despite all that he has said and done, Jesus admits to them that there is even more they don’t know, because they wouldn’t be able to handle it yet. I’m sure the anxiety in the group of disciples rose with that statement! That’s like having a babysitter you know and trust come to your house to look after your children. After, laying out all the rules, expectations, routines, and going through all the emergency contact numbers and procedures, in preparation for your departure, you then tell the babysitter, “Oh yeah, by the way, there’s more you need to know, but you can’t handle that right now.” What kind of parent would do that? Imagine being the babysitter, all that responsibility and all that information floating in your head and then you’re told there’s more but you can’t handle it right then. How comforting! Not surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples in this state of unease. Jesus immediately follows up this comment with the assurance that the Spirit of truth will come to guide them into the truth. So if we go back to the analogy of the babysitter, it would be like the parent saying, “Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, I’m sending someone to help you out as soon as I leave.”
Which leads us to what I believe is the central message of this passage; Jesus’ words of comfort from verse 13, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (NIV) Jesus promises that when he is gone, that the Spirit of truth will come and help us build our relationship with God by guiding us through the truth.
The truth…often when I hear this word I think of the courtroom scene from the movie A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson’s character sits confidently on the witness stand in a court-martial case as Tom Cruise, playing a navy lawyer, seeks answers from the colonel. In this popular scene, the highly charged exchange between the two men culminates in perhaps one of the most popular and most memorable lines in movie history where Cruise emotionally and loudly states, “I want the truth!” Whereby Nicholson barks back the unforgettable line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
We often interpret ‘truth’ as facts, or reference it to wisdom. In society, it is something we seek. The famous tag line for the T.V. show X-Files is “The truth is out there!” Science seeks the truth about how the universe works. Courts of law strive for the truth in determining guilt or innocence. Parents try to determine if their child is telling the truth. As a society and as individuals we are continually looking for the truth. Yet, it is sometimes very difficult to find. When I’m teaching, I am constantly trying to get to the bottom of situations between students to determine the truth. It becomes even more complicated when the students have conflicting stories about what the problem is. Yet, as the teacher, I have to try and come up with a solution based on how I understand the truth.
However, in John’s Gospel, ‘the truth’ is not a fact nor is it wisdom; ‘the truth’ is in reference to Jesus himself. In John 14:6 it states, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (NRSV) Therefore, ‘the truth’ that Jesus refers to in the passage we are examining this morning is in fact himself. The Spirit of truth is here to guide us to Jesus and to understand him. Through the Spirit, we gain clarity about all he said and did while he lived in this world. However, it is not only about understanding Jesus of the Bible, because through the Spirit, we gain a deeper conviction regarding who Jesus is today.
How does this happen? How does the Spirit give us a better understanding of Christ? The translation of the Message says it like this, “But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, ‘He takes from me and delivers to you.’” The Spirit takes what he hears from Jesus and passes it on to us. Just as Jesus took what he heard from God and passed it on to his disciples and those he taught. We can see from this passage that the Spirit and Jesus are both sources of revelation of God. The Spirit of truth is therefore an ongoing presence in this world, revealing God and Jesus to us in this time and place.
This text is about encouraging a community of faith! John wasn’t writing about a ‘new truth’, but about the message and meaning of Jesus. It is about an ongoing interpretation of what Jesus is calling us to do. The Spirit of truth is an ongoing presence and revelation of Jesus in this world and within the community of Jesus, the Church. We need not fear a changing world, because the Spirit makes it possible for us, as believers, to have a deep understanding of what Jesus means to us in our own time and place. We are not locked into the past. The Spirit allows for ongoing interpretations. The Spirit allows for anticipation in changing circumstances, and allows us to ask emerging questions and to seek how Jesus wants us to live. Just as Jesus tells his disciples, “[the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…” (NRSV vs.13) What the Spirit hears is directly from God; therefore, the Spirit serves as our guide as we make decisions. All we need to do is faithfully listen.
As Christians, we are facing many challenges in this ever-changing world. We see shifts in societal beliefs. Advancements in technology and Science are expanding moral and ethical debates. Political conflicts, human rights and environmental issues surround us. In a couple of weeks, the Presbyterian Church in Canada will be having its General Assembly, where many decisions will be made regarding the future of the denomination. We are definitely in a place where, as Christians, we need to seek and hear the truth that is Jesus Christ. Throughout the Gospels Jesus shows us how to live, and in this passage from John we see how the Spirit of truth continues to be with us to guide us and reveal to us what Jesus and our Heavenly Father seek. The question remains whether we listen to the Spirit. Are we open to newer and deeper understandings of our faith? Are we open to the implications that listening to the Spirit may bring? Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, is the truth, so let us seek and trust him, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.