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Reflecting on Jesus’ last words and unspoken truths

What are we supposed to do about climate change? Reproductive rights? Gun violence? Jesus addresses none of these pressing issues in his last words to the disciples, but that doesn't mean we're left to find solutions on our own, writes Ron Byers.

Photo by Samuel Lopes on Unsplash

Katie Roiphe wrote a piece for The New York Times in 2016 called “Dying, With Nothing to Say” which has stuck with me. Most everyone “has a fantasy of a ‘last conversation’ with someone they love,” she writes. But “very few people actually have that conversation.” One woman described her experience of being with her mother as she lay dying in a hospital. Her mother said, “There are some things I need to tell you.” The daughter brushed her off, not wanting her mother to feel stressed. “Maybe later.” As it turned out, there was no “later.”

When Jesus sensed that he was nearing the end of his mortal life, he spoke to his disciples in what’s become known as his farewell discourse. John’s Gospel lets us listen in as Jesus offered something like “last words” to his disciples before his final crisis. Nevertheless, much is left unsaid because Jesus cautions the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

Has anyone ever told you, “You’ll understand when you’re older”? One can’t know how the disciples took it, but Jesus told them that there were some things he just couldn’t explain to them at the moment because they couldn’t bear it.

What do you suppose he might have said, were they able to bear it? Probably he was thinking of the near future. Maybe that, at his moment of crisis, they would desert him. Or maybe he could have previewed the trials and joys they would experience when they stood up for him after the resurrection. But they surely weren’t ready for that. Or, maybe Jesus thought of how the Romans would soon ransack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple, and the new center of the Jesus movement would shift from Jewish to Gentile territory: Rome, Alexandria.

I wish Jesus spelled out what to do about exponential population growth or reflected on the downside of burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon dioxide into the air.

Or – and this is pure speculation – he was thinking about things that would happen in the far distant future, things the disciples couldn’t begin to wrap their minds around. All the same, it would be nice for us, living in times of bewildering conflict, if Jesus offered explicit instructions that would answer all our 21st-century questions. I wish he spelled out what to do about exponential population growth or reflected on the downside of burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon dioxide into the air. These are crucial issues but not on the disciples’ radar screen in the first century. He could have said something helpful about gender confusion or clarified the right stance for reproductive rights or calmed down folks who are all worked up over who can marry whom. But these statements would have made those first-century disciples crazy.

One Sunday in a PC(USA) congregation, a young woman from the Christian education committee was distributing Bibles to third-graders. She told them it was the “answer book.” Some cringed. Yes, of course, the Bible has some answers. But the Bible is not like one’s old algebra book where the answers to all the questions can be found in the back. Scripture wasn’t written to answer questions that haven’t been asked yet, or that are just being asked for the first time.

Does that mean that God has already said everything that’s going to be said, and has nothing at all to add as new situations present themselves? Are we really left completely on our own then? It seems not to be the case. Jesus promised the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit, he promises, is going to work with us as new occasions arise, teaching new duties. But how? How does the Holy Spirit work with us?

How does the Holy Spirit work with us?

The Mormons believe that the Almighty told Joseph Smith to marry more women, no matter their age or whether they were already married, and to deny any African Americans from joining his new priesthood. In other words, the Holy One supposedly provided direct, unambiguous directions. But later, God supposedly had a change of mind, and directly reported the about-face to Smith’s successors.

And, in 1870, the first Vatican Council decided that the pope, when he speaks officially in his capacity as Vicar of Christ on earth, can deliver a direct revelation that the faithful have to receive as infallible.

Receiving a direct revelation like a news bulletin from on high would be helpful, wouldn’t it? Seems like a good idea. But I don’t for a minute believe that’s the way it works. The Holy Spirit is more likely to speak to the church organically. In other words, not necessarily from the top down, but just as often percolating from the bottom up. Or even sideways, from outside. Not directly or unambiguously, either, but usually hesitantly, supported by prayer, discernment, debate, conflict that confuses and clarifies, and very often, the kind of anxiety and disruption that precedes a new consensus.

The Holy Spirit speaks to the church; and we find ourselves rejecting customs highly valued for centuries. The divine right of kings: trashed. Slavery: discarded. Race-based privilege: no longer credible. Male domination: rejected. Caste systems: overruled. Disdain for those who don’t fit the prevailing patterns of masculinity or femininity: getting over it. The Holy Spirit speaks, pushing against our resistance, shaking us up, and leading us to consent to what’s new to us but not new to God.

Of course, we have to be careful. It’s easy to be misled. So in his first letter, John counsels: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). It’s not hard to find new trends that are basically obnoxious, and worse, actually spiritual poison.

So, how can we “test the spirits”? How do we recognize the Holy Spirit’s work, and turn a deaf ear to other voices? Jesus told the disciples that the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). In other words, the Spirit is always unfolding more of what we’ve already seen in Jesus Christ: “take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Spirit is always unfolding more of what we’ve already seen in Jesus Christ…

A lot of what we know about Jesus is derived from what he did and who he was, not depending on his words alone. Jesus Christ, the boundary-breaker. Jesus Christ, table-mate of sinners; the one who stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth to point out how the God of Israel had sometimes favored strangers of other tribes and other religions. Jesus Christ, who pulled in outcasts, who healed the broken in spirit, body or mind. Jesus Christ, who embraced those whom culture and religion shunned as a source of contamination. In him, God reveals God’s character and disposition towards us. “All that the Father has is mine,” Jesus said (John 16:15). What Jesus did, God does. So whatever the Holy Spirit has to show us will always be entirely consistent with the character of the God already made known in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is still speaking to the church. Typically, only a few hear the Spirit’s voice at first. Somebody takes notice of an injustice and calls attention to it. But few others pay attention. Then, other voices join in, and the volume rises, and some minds begin to change — then comes the push-back. There are outcries, there’s anguish, there are counter-arguments, but, when the Spirit is speaking, sooner or later the greater number start to see injustice where they used to see a comfortable status quo. And when a tipping point is reached, the whole church experiences a change of mind. Sometimes the Spirit speaks through Christians first; sometimes the church follows where others lead. But the Spirit cannot be locked up or locked out.

The Spirit cannot be locked up or locked out.

Jesus said, “[The Holy Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.” What the Holy Spirit does, I think, is less like sending out a news bulletin and more like giving us a heart transplant. Fleming Rutledge, the Episcopal preacher, writes in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, “It takes effort to care when one is not directly involved.” And so it does. She quotes Luis Segundo, a Jesuit from Uruguay. He said, “The world that is satisfying to us [i.e., the affluent] is utterly devastating to [the poor and powerless].”

For those of us who are financially secure, who have support systems in place, who know where to go for help when we have a problem, we have to make an effort to understand people who have none of those things. We are tempted to judge them as though they are propped up by all the same supports that are propping us up. But for them, the same world is experienced as “utterly devastating.” I guess it might make us feel less vulnerable to presume that anybody who tries can stand on their own two feet. It’s at this point that we need the heart transplant. The Holy Spirit can strengthen us so that we learn to care even when we’re not directly involved.

A heart transplant. The Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you.” So, things that may not be issues for me or my family, but may be issues for you and yours, matter to both of us. The holy God who is above and beyond us has expressed the divine self, come to stand beside us in the person of Jesus Christ. The self-same God who is both above us and standing beside us is also at work within us and among us, before us and behind us in the mystery of the Holy Spirit, exchanging warm hearts for hard hearts. One God, above, beside, within and among, all at the same time: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the faith of the holy catholic church. This is the faith of the churches of the Reformation. And this is my faith.

The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here