4. Bearing Up
“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus continues in John 16:12, “but you are not able to bear [them] at the present time” (my translation). We continue to remember that this verse is part of the Farewell Discourse. Jesus has given the disciples more than enough to manage at this point. He is leaving them, and they cannot follow him. They don’t yet know where he’s going. At some point, opponents will expel them from synagogues and consider their executions as acts of faithfulness to God (see John 16:1-4a). Anything else while you’re at it, Jesus?
Since you asked, he seems to reply, there is quite a bit more. But I’m not going there at the present time. “You are not able to carry that load for now,” he tells them. The word for “to bear” (Greek = bastazein) is worth examining for a bit. The basic meaning is to pick up or lift up something with your hands, like stones in John 10:31. It can also mean “to steal” or “pilfer” and is used to describe the light-fingered fraud of which Judas is accused in John 12:6. It can also describe how a body is carried away, as in John 20:15.
Bearing is also the verb used to describe how Jesus carries the cross in John 19:17. “Then, they took Jesus away,” the gospel writer narrates, “and bearing the cross himself, he went out toward what is called ‘The Place of the Skull,’ which in Hebrew is called ‘Golgotha’” (my translation).
Cross-bearing is a primary mark of discipleship in each and all of the gospel accounts. It is in clear in the Fourth Gospel, however, that Jesus always goes first. Unless he bears the cross himself, we will not have the power to bear it as well. It is not the case, however, that his cross-bearing removes the necessity of cross-bearing for disciples. In fact, we can see in John 21 that crucifixion is precisely what awaits Peter after his restoration and re-commissioning as one of Jesus’ followers. For disciples, the cross may be delayed but cannot be denied.
Buchsel notes that bearing something in this fashion requires both power and choice. Jesus makes clear that the coming Defender will provide the power to bear more of what Jesus needs to tell disciples. And the coming Defender will equip disciples to choose bearing over fleeing (although not until after Jesus is glorified). There is more to hear, more to know, and then more to do. Remember that Jesus has promised the disciples they will do greater works than Jesus did in his earthly ministry (John 14:12).
One of the irritating half-truths of popular spirituality is that God won’t give you more than you can handle. That assertion is loosely based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (NRSV).
Paul writes these words to remind the Corinthian Christians of the dangers of being over-confident in one’s own gifts, powers, and abilities to deal with adversity in the life of faith. It is not addressed to people who are uncertain of their capacity to bear up but rather to people who are far too confident in their own abilities. That over-confidence will lead to a fall from faithfulness (as it has for at least some of the Corinthian Christians). Paul is addressing people who are so arrogantly confident in their own capacities that they are falling into the worship of idols because they believe they are beyond such temptations.
That is not, however, the way the irritating half-truth is used. In addition, the “you’s” in Paul’s letter are “you all’s.” I have been handed any number of things that I could not bear on my own. No amount of happy talk or positive thinking was going to change that. Part of my problem was that I tried with all my might to handle things by myself rather than taking advantage of the resources and support of the community of faith. I think that we do not receive challenges that are beyond the capacity of that community if we can find ways to access that capacity.
Paul reminds the Galatian Christians of this reality as he uses the verb in chapter 6. When we find one another in transgressions (not “if”), we who have the Spirit (that is, all the baptized) are called to restore one another in “the spirit of gentleness” (verse 1). In and of itself, that behavior would revolutionize life in contemporary congregations. “Continue bearing one another’s burdens,” Paul writes in verse 2, “and in this way you will again fulfill the law of Christ” (my translation).
What we are called to bear is the cross of life together. Bearing that cross can only be done with the gentleness that comes from the Spirit who is the Defender, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Counselor, the One who walks alongside us in our journeys of faithfulness. That Spirit of gentleness is sorely needed in American Christian congregations at the present moment. And this connection will be a good reason to sing James Manley’s “Spirit of Gentleness” in worship on Sunday (or whenever).
But that takes us far beyond the folk wisdom of the irritating half-truth.
Jesus addresses the disciple community in John 16 (and throughout the Farewell Discourse) in the second person plural, the “you all’s.” It is clear in the Gospel of John that there is more for us to hear after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. “The Gospel makes explicit that through the community’s later reflection on the life of Jesus and the Scripture, the disciples learned things that they were not able to understand during Jesus’ life,” write O’Day and Hylen. “This promise also extends beyond the limits of the Gospel story, as it points to the power and possibility of ongoing revelation” (Kindle Location 3350).
What new understandings and insights are being given to the Church at the present time? That’s a good Pentecost pondering for congregations, judicatories, denominations, and Christians the world over. It is certainly an opportunity for us ELCA folks coming out of Covid-tide. For example, you might want to read, if you haven’t already, Daubert and Jorgensen’s book called Becoming a Hybrid Church. You can order it directly from Daubert’s business page. In the book, the authors examine and explore what churches have learned about becoming both online and in-person (not just one or the other), during the pandemic experience.
They note that congregations have learned much about their capacity for adaptation, change, and growth during Covid-tide. Changes that were considered unthinkable sixteen months ago were implemented in days and weeks rather than in months and years. The learning curve was very steep but not impossible. Many of us did far more than we thought we could. And many of us know that the doing was not based on our own capacities.
I have learned over and over that I can bear more than I thought I could. That is one of the lessons of grief and loss in this life. I have learned that I can bear exponentially more than I thought I could when I share that burden with the faith community (something I am often, unfortunately, reluctant to do). Being able to bear a burden, being willing to bear that burden, and being willing to share that burden are quite different things.
What burdens are we as Church being called to bear at the present time? While the insights and understandings of antiracism work should not be new to white Christians in America, they appear to be so. It is painful to watch as the “Evangelical” community twists itself in knots and tears itself apart over not only white supremacy in the churches but also the role of women as pastors and in other church leadership positions. In this case, the burden is not the change itself, I think. The burden is rather the unwillingness to take up what is being handed to the church. The power is there, but the choice is not (yet).
I am tempted at times to cluck in sympathy for “Evangelical” white Christians of the “progressive” stripe who seem like fish discovering the water in which some of us have been swimming for a generation or two. Then I am reminded that we ELCA folks have listened to some of the new information from the Spirit and closed our ears to other input from the Spirit. We may talk a good game when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equity in the Church. Our implementation continues to be woefully inadequate in every expression of the ELCA.
Bearing what the Spirit brings is a dual process phenomenon, just like everything else in human experience. For every social statement rejecting white supremacy, we have congregational members who wonder what’s so bad about white supremacy anyway? For every transgender bishop elected in our denomination (well, one so far), we have pastors and congregations preparing to depart for less flexible pastures. For every food pantry operating in and through our churches, we have congregations putting financial survival ahead of community engagement.
There is much for us to hear, but we also are unwilling to bear it all at the present time. Yet, the Defender remains patient, present, and persistent. “In the cosmos, you have tribulation,” Jesus concludes, “but in spite of that, take courage; I have conquered the cosmos” (John 16:33, my translation).
Job security for preachers, eh?
References and Resources
Behm, TDNT V:800-814.
Bennema, Cornelius. “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Forth Gospel.” Biblica 86 (2005), 35-38.
Buchsel, TDNT I:596.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail. “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/21-4_John/21-4_O’Day.pdf.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Rensberger, D. (1984). The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 103(3), 395-411. doi:10.2307/3260780
Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16). https://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/article/download/238/194.
Tops, Thomas. “The Orientation of the Teaching of the Paraclete in the Gospel of John: Retrospective or Prospective?” New Testament Studies (2020) 66, pp. 68-86. doi:10.1017/S002868851900033X.