Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Words to Bear


Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." That's how the gospel lesson for Trinity Sunday (John 16:12-15) begins. It's a teaser. It's unfair. It's like a friend who says, "I've got something really exciting to tell you, but I can't tell you now." What do you mean you can't tell us? What do you mean we cannot bear it? Why don't you just say it and let us figure out whether we can handle it or not?

When parents ask me how to explain something like death to their children, I tell them not to hold back. I also remind them that I've only been a parent for eight years, so maybe they should ask someone else for advice, but, when it comes to my children, I don't pull punches. Death, sex, war, cancer, child abduction--it they want to ask about it, I'll tell them. No, I don't bring it up, but I'm ready to answer their questions honestly and openly. I trust that they will pick up what they can handle and leave behind what they can't. I don't make up false images that distract them from the truth because I am worried that they will have nightmares. Better that they have nightmares today than need intensive therapy in a decade because their father lied to them about sex.

Jesus, however, has another plan. There is something about his truth that cannot be received yet. He tells the disciples that they cannot bear what he would say to them. The word "bear" interests me. In this gospel account, John only uses that word "βαστάζω" or forms of it a few times. In John 10:31, the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus. In John 12:6, Judas is described as having pilfered what was put into the money box. In John 20:15, Mary Magdalene says to the risen Jesus, presuming him to be the gardener, "If you have carried him away, tell me." But there's one other use of that word in John that really sticks out. In John 19:17, Jesus went out bearing his own cross. (Thanks to Strong's Concordance for those references.)

In the synoptic gospel accounts, this sense of bearing one's cross is depicted as a requirement of discipleship: "And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me'" (Mark 8:34 ESV). In John, however, the only one who bears the cross is Jesus. There is no Simon of Cyrene who is compelled to carry it. There is no demand that those who would be his disciples must do the same. Only Jesus. And maybe it's because they aren't ready yet. They can't be ready yet.

Ultimately, the invitation to Christians is to participate in the divine life--to share in God's glory, as Paul puts it in Romans 5:1-5. And, like it or not, we cannot do that until we are able to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is in turn enabled by the Holy Spirit. In that sense, we cannot take up our own cross until Good Friday becomes Easter and Easter becomes Ascension and Ascension becomes Pentecost. Without the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, we cannot bear the fullness of God's will for us. But now we can. Maybe that's what Trinity Sunday is about after all.

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