Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was 48 years old when he was told he had 3-6 months of good health remaining before pancreatic cancer took its toll. Not long after that, Pausch gave a speech at the university, whose hypothetical premise was to give a lecture as if it were the last you could give before you died, now all too true for him. After the speech got posted on the internet and went “viral,” with more than 10 million downloads, Pausch wrote a book expanding upon it called The Last Lecture. He reveals that his primary audience wasn’t really the packed house sitting before him, but his three small children, ages 6 and younger. He writes, “When the kids are older, they’re going to go through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to know, ‘Who was my dad? What was he like?’ This lecture could help give them an answer to that.”[i]
When we encounter Jesus in John’s gospel today, he is giving the disciples his “Last Lecture.” It is the eve of the Last Supper. Jesus has washed their feet, and Judas Iscariot has gone out to betray him to the religious authorities. The hour nears when Jesus will be arrested, handed over to Pilate, and crucified. So Jesus begins what scholars call “The Farewell Discourse,” seeking to prepare his disciples for the time when he will no longer be within arm’s reach, to teach and encourage them in the ways of God.
Today’s snippet of scripture occurs about three chapters into the lecture as John records it. Jesus has already given the disciples quite a lot to take in. So when Jesus tells the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” we might imagine he is simply reading his audience well. Not only have the disciples probably reached insight-overload, but until they witness his death and resurrection, until they confront the trials he’s predicting they will encounter, much of Jesus’ teaching will not sink in. I wonder if they felt relief that the lecture was almost over!
But we here and now, also disciples seeking to follow Jesus, might have a different reaction. More than two thousand years later, we are painfully aware how the Church could still use further instruction. In our globalized, technological reality, we encounter situations all the time in which we wish we had clear insight from Jesus. “I still have many things to say to you…” he says, and we want to cry out, “What are they? Tell us. Don’t leave us hanging. We want to know. We can take it.”[ii] Why couldn’t he have just laid it all out, then and there, given us a complete theological guide or maybe a roadmap for the life of faith, the workings of the church, and a society of justice and peace!
We have so many questions, and there seem to be few clear answers. One of the hardest we wrestle with is the existence of suffering in a world God created and pronounced to be “good.” We are spectators to the others’ lives in ways that people in earlier ages could never imagine. Confronted by images of suffering caused by Oklahoma tornadoes and school shootings, facing the news of a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, or a divorce, we cry out “Why, God?”
But I’m afraid this “why” is a question we will carry with us until we are seated at the heavenly banquet and the tears are finally wiped away. Until then, we can only honestly say, “It’s a mystery,” knowing just how unsatisfying that is. We don’t much like mystery, do we?Mystery doesn’t fit well into the modern worldview of scientific cause-and-effect, whether it’s the mystery of suffering or the mystery of the Trinity. One God in three persons, distinct from one another yet of the same essential substance? Our minds cannot truly fathom how this works!
Yet to trust in God in Jesus Christ is to bear the mystery. What does it mean “to bear” something? Among its many meanings, “to bear” can mean “to endure” or “to accept” something, like a hardship or a difficulty; it can also mean “to hold,” in one’s hands or as part of one’s person, as in bearing a load, bearing an identity, bearing emotions. It can also mean “to carry” something, to bring it with or through us in various ways, as we do when we “bear witness,” “bear fruit,” or even “bear children.”[iii]
And when Jesus tells the disciples “I still have much to say, but you cannot now bear it,” I think all of these meanings are there. The disciples cannot yet bear the fullness of God’s Word in Christ Jesus, not just because they cannot take in more words in the moment, but also because they have yet to be fully shaped as vessels sufficient to bear the mystery.
But I think the “good news” today is in that little word “now.” You cannot bear any more of my Word now, Jesus is saying, but you will be able in the future. As you take the long and winding journey of discipleship, the spiral path of prayer and study, action and reflection, as you journey through your own life and the life of this community, you will be shaped as bearers of the mystery of God’s love. And you will not go this journey alone. For when Jesus goes to be with the Father, the “Spirit of truth” comes to guide Christ’s community “into all truth.”
Now, what does that word, “truth,” mean? In our culture, we usually think of “truth” as “facts”, something that can be proved with evidence. But in John’s gospel, “the truth” is something very different, as Jesus tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth is Jesus Christ, who he is, what he does and says; Truth is that God’s glory is revealed in and embodied in this One who lays down his life for his friends.[iv] So the Spirit comes and guides us to this truth that is a person, the truth that is Jesus Christ, in every new situation we encounter, shaping us to bear forth Christ’s truth as we go.
There is a prayer I read once many years ago, and I’ve never been able to find it again—maybe one of you knows who wrote it and where to find it! Paraphrasing from memory, it goes like this: “O Lord, shatter the bowl that is my heart, putting the pieces back together in such a way that I may be fashioned to bear more of you.”
At first glance, it’s kind of a terrifying prayer, don’t you think? It reminds me of some advice I was once given: “Don’t pray for patience,” my friend told me, “because you know what you’ll get, don’t you? Trials!” My friend was joking, but I think her advice is just the sort of thing we cynically tell ourselves when it’s too difficult to bear the mystery, when instead of bearing it in trust and hope, we sink into our deepest fears.
Looking beyond those knee-jerk fears, we might see how that prayer gives us lovely imagery for the mysterious truth of Spirit’s ways of shaping us, what the Apostle Paul talks about when he suggests that in the Spirit, we are able to boast, not only in our hope of sharing God’s glory but also in the sufferings we encounter in life. “For suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”
Now, let’s be clear: Paul is not offering some predictable formula for spiritual growth. No, Paul is countering the idea current in his time, and often still in ours, that a person’s sufferings are punishments for wrongdoing. But let’s be crystal clear. If you hear nothing else today, hear this now: God does not desire or intentionally cause our suffering. God does not give us suffering in order to discipline us or produce spiritual growth in us.
We don’ know why, but simply suffering and trials, are part of human reality. But there is hope for us, hope worth boasting about, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit, and though we will never understand the “whys” of suffering on this side of eternity, we can take a different relationship to it. Since we know that God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit will be with us in our suffering and can use it, can transform it into something good, our suffering need never be wasted.[v] By the grace of God, our sufferings can reshape our character, such that we become those who can bear more and more of the mystery of Christ’s hope, faith, and love.
I don’t know how his children will see it, but to me, one of the most important moments in Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture comes at the very beginning, when he is “introducing the elephant in the room,” explaining to his audience that he is dying of cancer. He says, “That is what it is; we can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’re going to respond to it. We can’t change the cards we are dealt; just how we play the hand.”
Pausch’s lecture and book were one way he displayed the truth of Christ, in whom no suffering is wasted. Pausch used the last months he had remaining to give himself as fully as possible to his loved ones, and through them, to the world. Millions have been inspired by his final work, and no doubt it will bless his children as they grow.
Friends, the good news of the Triune God, God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, is that we are never alone as we play the cards we are dealt. The Holy Spirit will always guide us into the truth of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Bearing that love with us into every situation life can bring, we will experience peace that passes understanding, endurance exceeding expectations, hope which never disappoints, and grace surpassing all measure.
Today we will celebrate the memory of many others who have died, reading a list of the loved ones of our community. As those names are read, I invite you to remember someone in whom you experienced the Holy Spirit and bearing the mysterious truth of Christ into your life, someone in whom suffering produced endurance and endurance produced character, and character produced hope. Let that memory bear you up and carry you forward into the future, come what may.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture,New York: Hyperion, 2008, x; 8.
[ii] Lucy Lind Hogan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1697