Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 16, 2019
John 16:12-15 Commentary
Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus talk as much about the Holy Spirit as here in John 16. Indeed, as Frederick Dale Bruner notes, the Spirit receives, at best, modest treatment and attention in the Synoptic Gospels. But then, that seems to be true of the New Testament generally. It seems that the people who are the most filled with the Spirit are the same people who seem to be the least conscious of that fact. The spotlight remains on Christ, and it is the Spirit’s “job” in the economy of salvation to make sure that that spotlight remains on Jesus alone.
But because Jesus is talking so much about the Spirit in John 16, it’s not surprising that this becomes one of those texts in which the Doctrine of the Trinity seems to get a boost. As any Jehovah’s Witness can tell you, the word “Trinity” appears nowhere in the Bible. What’s more, nowhere in the New Testament do we get anything approaching a systematic presentation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as it has come down to us from the tradition of the Church via Nicea and Chalcedon.
John 16 certainly is not very systematic in this way, either. However, what can escape no one’s notice is that the Son is here talking about both his Father and the Spirit as discrete persons who can be distinguished from himself. What’s more, the unity of these three persons—and the tighter than tight bonds that exist particularly between Father and Son but also among Father, Son, and Spirit—is vividly on display. These are, to invoke language reminiscent of Trinitarian theology, three persons who can be distinguished but not separated. What each person does first and foremost is to bring to the world the things collectively shared by the three.
After all, what Jesus says here is that the Father has given everything to the Son in terms of power and knowledge. The Son, in turn, has given as much of all that to the disciples as they could take up to that point. However, when the Spirit comes, the process of giving to others what the Father and Son collectively share will continue and deepen.
So as Dale Bruner once pointed out, the Spirit will give to the world not just the content of revelation but also will reveal the relevance of that revelation. A question that could be raised in this regard has to do with what it means that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth.” Was that process of truth-revealing limited to the era of the disciples turned apostles or is this something we are to envision as going on and on throughout the entire era of the church? To get more concrete, a little over a 100 years ago the church in the United States determined in the 19th century that despite its centuries’ long acceptance of (and even biblical warranting of) human slavery, this practice could not, as a matter of fact, be accepted on biblical grounds. Indeed, on biblical grounds it had to be rejected and even repudiated. Was this about-face the result of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of leading us into all truth? A case for that could well be made.
Safeguards are needed, of course. We should not expect the Holy Spirit to lead us into a truth that will contradict core Christian teachings such as the identity of Christ or the trustworthiness of revealed Scripture. But that our understanding of those things will deepen—or the idea that how we apply those things will change over time—could certainly be validated by John 16.
But for Trinity Sunday, all of that may be somewhat tangential. The key here is the utter unity of the three persons in God and how each so freely contributes to the further glory of the other two persons. The Spirit seeks no glory for itself—indeed, by doing ongoing revelation on behalf of the Son (and by extension of the Father), we are told that this brings glory to the Son. We have here the ultimate deferential community of sharing. Glory comes when each person promotes the other two.
In contrast to the Western tradition that has often depicted the Trinity by way of a triangle, the Eastern tradition has usually opted for a circle to convey the idea of perichoresis, of the circular dance of the three persons in God. Call it the divine choreography, if you will. It’s a dance of life and love that is never-ending as each person adoringly waltzes with every other person in a divine eagerness to make known to the world the riches of one another. The Father pours out everything onto the Son. The Spirit then takes all that from the Son to pour out these riches on all other people. Each person in God exudes enthusiasm for the other two (and the three together display a zestful enthusiasm for us all).
Some while ago three other drivers and I all arrived at a Four-Way Stop intersection at virtually the same moment. Although altogether too many drivers seem unaware of this fact, the rule at Four-Way Stops is that drivers take turns in a clockwise fashion or according to whoever got to the intersection first. In this case, the four of us arrived simultaneously and so there was no logical starting point for even a clockwise rotation. What happened instead is that each of the four of us was making hand gestures to encourage someone to go first. After being momentarily stuck with no one moving, the next thing you knew, all four of us crept forward a bit at the same moment! Again we all stopped and again we all encouraged each other to go first. After lots of silly grins and even laughter among us four strangers, eventually we managed to get someone to go first. It was the complete opposite of what often characterizes road rage—we were terminally deferential! But it was hilarious and wonderful at the same time.
I think that something of that kind of deferential joy must characterize the interior life of God. There is something wonderful about a shared love and a shared enthusiasm one person for the other that is so intense, it results in a never-ending dance of affirmation and celebration. This Trinity Sunday lection from John 16 is pretty brief. Yet packed into these short verses is the animating energy and verve and effervescence that exists at the bright center of the universe: that holy community that just is God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Some Bible translations (including the NIV) translate Jesus as saying in John 16:13 that the Spirit of truth will lead believers “into all truth.” In the Greek of that verse, however, the preposition is EN, not EIS (though the critical apparatus indicates there are some extant manuscripts that have EIS, but the received and official text uses EN). In that case, the translation of “into” may be a bit misleading as the typical sense of “EN” is simply “in” or “within.” Because there can be a bit of fluidity between these two prepositions, it may be best not to make too big a deal of it one way or the other. But there may be something tantalizing about the idea that for believers filled with the Spirit, “truth” is not outside of us or always just up ahead of us (such that we’d need to be led into it the way you would have to enter into a building that you are currently outside of) but rather truth is where we dwell as believers such that within that truth, the Spirit can give us a guided tour to this and that aspect of the larger truth of Christ. This sense of in-ness when it comes to truth (and the believer’s relationship to it) fits better overall with the larger context of John 13-17 where there is so much talk from Jesus about his being IN the Father and we believers in turn being IN him.
Preachers talk freely about the need to love God, and half the time we make it sound as though everyone already knows what such love would look like. Deep down, though, we all know that loving God is going to be different than loving a best friend or loving a spouse. Still, at the heart of all love is a certain enthusiasm for the beloved one. When you love someone, you do so for lots of reasons you could list: you love how she makes you laugh, you love how thoughtful he is, you love much she enjoys nature. Yet over and above such specifics, there is at the core of it all a fundamental delight that this unique person is there at all, is alive, is undeniably available for you to enjoy.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Gilead”, Marilynne Robinson shows her narrator, 76-year-old Rev. John Ames, pondering the enormous love he feels for his little 7-year-old son. At one point Rev. Ames writes to his son, “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. Your hair is straight and dark and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
Maybe loving God is like that–it begins with the sheer delight we take in the fact that God exists at all. It begins in the wonder we feel when we try to wrap our minds around that Trinitarian mystery of three who are somehow still just one. It begins with having enthusiasm for the God who created such a galaxy of wonders and who then loved us enough to plunk us down smack in the middle of it all. God arranged it so we could enjoy the splendors of a juicy Bartlett pear, taste the oakiness of a sparkling Chardonnay, have our hearts quickened by the lyric, liquid melodies of the Wood Thrush. We begin by loving the sheer existence of God and we go from there.
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