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Free Sample for May 26, 2013
By David Howell
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Preaching John 16:12-15
On our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Merle Marie and I sat alone one night paging through our wedding album. Looking at the naïve young couple that marched down the aisle and afterwards cut cake in the church parlor, we wondered if we ever knew them. As we came to the final picture, I jokingly asked:
"Should we tell them what we know now?"
"No. They'll find out soon enough."
Of course, if we had told them what we knew twenty-five years later, it would not have made any sense. When the experience is not there, then words alone cannot convey the reality from which they arise. We confront this truth again and again in life. We tell our child poking a finger around the stove. "No. That's hot." But the painful meaning of "hot" is not known until the first burn. We tell teenagers about the difference between "love" and "infatuation," between "commitment" and "feeling," but all of our words do not take away the awkwardness and adolescent turmoil of coming to understand these matters.
And what is true of individuals is true of communities: there are things they are not yet ready to hear. That was the case for the early church. John puts the principle plainly when he pictures Jesus saying: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" (16: 12).
I like that word "bear" in the text. A bridge can bear only so much weight depending on the strength of the spans and pilings that support it. Likewise, if we lack adequate spans and pilings of experience, then we cannot "bear" the weight of the words that are spoken to us. The most apparent meaning of the verse is that the disciples have not yet been through Christ's crucifixion and resurrection so that they are not ready to "bear" all that Christ signifies.
But there is also another meaning. Since the Gospel of John is written several generations after Jesus' earthly ministry and since the church is now facing many struggles to which Jesus did not speak, the community requires a theology that is not based solely on the past traditions about Jesus. They need to have some way of understanding the things that Jesus never told them. And so they develop a theology of the Spirit that opens them to the on-going revelation of God that extends beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus: "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" (12: 13).
These words present us with a theology that moves us beyond a constricted biblicism. I make a distinction between "biblical" and "biblicist." To be biblical is to be like the multitude of writers who fill the Bible: willing to reinterpret the nature of God and God's relationship to humanity according to their peculiar historical circumstances. "Biblical" implies a dynamic, forever changing theology. To be "biblicist" is to freeze the streams that flow through the Bible and life, to settle for the stagnant air of unbending dogmatism instead of the Wind who blows where the Wind wills (John 3: 8). That Wind is the very Spirit to whom John appeals in today's reading.
I can imagine a sermon that deals with the distinctions between "biblical" and "biblicist," in order to address the misuse of the Bible, the way people often appeal to the limited perspectives of biblical writers rather than to their more important role as witnesses to the continuing work of God. If the church does not begin to understand "biblical" in this more faithful way, it may be saddled with a spirit of oppression, while the living Spirit of God blows outside of the church, through the world community that resides on this tiny little watered stone in the vastness of space.
I have glimpsed what openness to the Spirit might mean for our time. Along with many of my colleagues, I met with the Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel, an ordained Christian minister who has spent her life standing against the brutality that has afflicted her country. During our conversation she acknowledged how she had come to appreciate the riches of wisdom and spirituality that were expressed through the Mayan religion of the native peoples. She now concluded that "In this land God cannot be represented by one religion." She has found great power in Mayan rituals and names for God that have expanded her faith. Some of these names for God include: "Heart of the sky," "Mother and father of life," "Heart of the earth," "Our common material origin," "Most profound of I am, I am," "Includer of everything," and "God who sets the impulse of pulse and breath."
Listening to Julia Esquivel speak and considering the witness of her life, I felt in myself the Wind blowing that blows where the Wind wills. I left Guatemala wondering if the church in North American would ever have the courage to respond to the Wind as courageously and faithfully as this woman. Some Christians may find this much openness to the Spirit too radical, but I believe it would lead to our becoming biblical in the deepest sense of the word: alive to the living Spirit of God who leads us "into all the truth" (John 16: 13).
Thomas H. Troeger
Iliff School of Theology
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