Reading(s): John 16:12-15. This sermon was given by Vanessa Lawrence at St Mark’s and All Saints.
Today in the church’s calendar it is Trinity Sunday. It’s unusual to have a feast that celebrates a doctrine, as opposed to an event, but that is I think mainly because the church had so many arguments about what the Trinity actually was! What we are simply doing is reminding ourselves that God is one God, in three persons.
I say… simply!! But it is important to remember that we never know anyone’s identity fully – it is only contingent on what that person reveals to us at any one time. The same is absolutely true of God. God reveals Godself to us in different times, in different places and in different ways. And having some understanding of the person of God is central to who we are as Christians.
God is a creator, giving life from the very beginning of eternity. Giving life and creating community, because why else would such variety of life be needed if it wasn’t for community. And why community? Because essentially God is about love. God creates, because God loves. And God show us that God loves by sending Jesus to demonstrate that fundamental state of community. And after Jesus we have the Holy spirit to guide us and lead us into all truth.
So how does our Gospel reading today help us with our understanding of the Trinity? John 16:12-15 begins with Jesus telling his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).
What Jesus says here seems to contradict what he had just told the disciples in 15:15: “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” How can Jesus have made known “everything” to the disciples and yet “still have many things to say” to them?
Within the framework of the Fourth Gospel’s theology, Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God. To see him is in fact to the see God (John 14:9; cf. 1:18). This is why Jesus can say in earnest that he has revealed everything from God (15:15). This is also why Jesus’s words in 16:12 cannot mean that there is new content to his revelation. Something else must be going on.
John 16:13 adds some clarity. It won’t be Jesus doing the talking but the Spirit. So we learn something more about the Trinity – that God is the creator, God is Jesus, incarnate on earth, but that God is also spirit, remaining with us now. The disciples “cannot bear” certain things now (v. 12) but will — through the Spirit — be guided “into all the truth” (v. 13). This will take place at a future time, as can be seen in the future tense of the verbs used to describe the Spirit’s actions (the Spirit “will guide,” “will speak,” and “will declare”).
As we can see in John 16:12-15, the Fourth Gospel’s particular understanding of the Spirit recognizes two realities about how Christianity relates to its past and future. The first is that the revelation that took place in and through Jesus is fundamental for Christian identity. The second is that, as fundamental and eternal as Jesus' revelation is for Christians, the world will keep turning from the time that revelation first made itself known. The church in John’s day, today, and always finds itself trying to understand and live its faith in the midst of social, cultural, and global circumstances that change rapidly.
It might have been tempting for John — whose theology gave central importance to the incarnation (John 1:14) — to devalue any new understanding of the Christian message that emerges when Jesus is no longer visible in-the-flesh to deliver it himself. Instead, John places firm confidence in the Spirit as continuing the ongoing presence and revelation of Jesus within the Christian community after Jesus' return to God.
For John, then, the church need not fear learning and practicing its faith in Jesus in the midst of a changing world marked by Jesus' physical absence. This is because the Spirit “will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In other words, the Spirit makes possible a “deep understanding of what Jesus means for one’s own time” without betraying the core truth of Jesus' original revelation.
The question we are left with is whether we will listen to the Spirit and be open to newer and deeper understandings of our faith and to the implications of Jesus’s revelation for us today. The internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle now give us a more immediate awareness of local, national, and global crises that challenge us for a Christian response, such as immigration -particulalry in the light of the deportations to Rwanda that are threatened in the coming weeks. Or, how would we feel about flying the Pride flag in our churches as many churches do? What is the Christian response to such realities? What response is more true and faithful to Jesus' revelation? Can we, like John, trust the Spirit to guide us in discerning what it means to live out Christian faith today?