Today’s lesson is Jesus’ words to his disciples as part of his “farewell sermon” or what’s called “the long discourse” in the Gospel of John, shared just after the Last Supper. In his parting words, Jesus has been telling the disciples of his imminent departure and about the coming gift of the Holy Spirit. In the section of his discourse which is our scripture reading today, Jesus describes how the Spirit will serve to guide the disciples in the truth.
“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, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Amidst special counsel testimony, ongoing Congressional investigations, and the court of public opinion, many people are having trouble discerning the truth. From questions about the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week to the ultimate conclusions of the Mueller Report, our desire for the truth is perpetually frustrated by cries of “fake news,” flip-flops by politicians, and doctored videos. Amidst foreign influence in elections, and questions about the validity of the U.S. census, there seems to be an unending list of situations where citizens question others’ testimony and constantly struggle to determine the truth.
In light of Joe Biden’s candidacy, his role in the Anita Hill hearings almost thirty years ago has been raised again. And now there’s an even more contemporary version: Last fall Christine Blasey Ford told senators she was “100%” certain that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, while he declared unequivocally “I am innocent.” While we logically think that one of them must have been lying, the prospect that both felt they were telling the truth is possible. Any of us who have suffered sexual abuse in all likelihood found Blasey Ford’s recollections entirely believable, but Kavanaugh was just as strong in his own convictions.
The truth can be elusive.
Our entire world is filled with misinformation and contradictory testimony. In nearly every arena of life, the truth is difficult to determine. This car is better than that one, the ads declare. This candidate is right and the opponent is wrong. This economic policy will work and the other will bring disaster. President Harry Truman once asked his advisors what results could be expected by following a certain economic plan. They told him that on one hand, the plan might do this; on the other hand, it might do the opposite. Truman famously remarked that he wished he could consult a one-armed economist.
Sometimes the truth is hard to grasp because reality is hard to grasp. We may think we want to know the truth, but denial comes into play and makes the world appear better than is really the case. There’s a famous movie scene that captures the mood of denial. In a courtroom scene in the movie A Few Good Men, the military prosecutor played by Tom Cruise loudly demands from the witness, “I want the truth!” The witness, Jack Nicholson, bellows back, “You can’t handle the truth!”
When Jesus meets with his disciples before his crucifixion, he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” He then goes on to say many more things before the end of his “long discourse.” But what are the things he doesn’t say, the things they can’t bear?
For the disciples, the things they can’t bear were most likely Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, as well as his incomprehensible Resurrection.
But maybe the things they can’t bear are the things that none of us can bear. The things we don’t want to hear, or can’t hear, even when they’re said to us directly.
It certainly can’t be cancer, the patient thinks, when going in for exploratory surgery.
Grandma is just getting forgetful, the family thinks at the outset of Alzheimer’s disease. Doesn’t memory loss happen to everyone sooner or later?
She’s gotten awfully thin, but she couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder.
It’s difficult to bear the truth – about others, and about ourselves.
How hard it is to recognize that we’ve failed in some way. How difficult to admit we’ve let someone down, we’ve said something cruel, we’ve acted out of anger. How hard it is to acknowledge our shortcomings, our lack of faith, our failure to be who we know we can be.
And how difficult it is to hear that loss is imminent. Jesus is going to be crucified. The one we love is going to die. How hard to acknowledge that a gaping hole is going to be left in our heart.
Perhaps even harder is bearing the truth, bearing the knowledge, that we will still need to go on, to somehow continue, after our losses and failures. To struggle on. To try again. To keep on living.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Because bearing the truth is hard.
And so, thankfully – by the grace of God – we are met and comforted by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “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 in all truth.”
Jesus was the truth. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he said. Jesus didn’t need to hold someone’s hand to know the truth about them. When he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, he knew immediately how many husbands she had had. When he spotted Nathanael coming toward him, he sized up his character in an instant: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” When Jesus met Zacchaeus, he knew exactly what his sins were and what his potential for transformation was.
Jesus spoke the truth – about life and morality. He answered the difficult questions of the day. He told us how to live.
But today we don’t have Jesus with us in a physical sense, and he can’t speak directly for himself. While we have his words contained in the Bible, they’re open to interpretation, even misinterpretation.
Today, on Trinity Sunday, we celebrate that Jesus didn’t leave us alone. Jesus knew that truth would be difficult to determine after he’d left the scene. He knew of the ongoing need of the disciples, and all of us, to be taught God’s truth, to be touched by God’s ongoing revelation, to be healed and comforted by God’s presence.
So Jesus sent another person, a third part of the personality of God: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Counselor, the Advocate who stands beside us readers of scripture to help us sort out the truth. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, a person without any body – a comfort, a wind, an unseen stirring that moves among us and guides us, like a gentle breeze fills a sail and moves us onward.
We don’t have Jesus in the flesh to tell us what he’s thinking, or what he would do. But we do have the one Jesus sent, the one with the same power and the same knowledge of the truth: God’s Spirit, who speaks in Jesus’ place, who takes up where Jesus left off, who tells us the rest of the unfolding story of how God continues to lead us in truth.
The Holy Spirit is the reassurance of God’s presence, the reassurance of the same kind of comforting words that Jesus offered the disciples along their journey together.
So let us celebrate this gift, that even in the absence of the physical Jesus, we can listen to the Holy Spirit, know its comfort and guidance, and hear the truth that can change our hearts and transform the world. Amen.