Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’” John 16:12
Jack Nicholson is one of my very favorite actors, and among his many memorable performances on screen, the scene I want to recall for you this morning is from the 1992 film, A Few Good Men. A suspenseful military courtroom drama, the movie revolves around the court-martial proceeding of two Marines who are accused of accidentally killing a fellow Marine at Guantanamo Bay during a ‘training’ exercise gone awry. Tom Cruise plays the young, inexperienced JAG lawyer assigned to defend the two Marines, and Nicholson plays the surly, ‘old school’ Base Commander who, we ultimately learn, had secretly ordered the two Marines to engage in the brutal training episode that resulted in the accidental death.
The climactic scene of the movie, as you might remember, is the cross-examination of Nicholson by Cruise. Cruise knows that the best defense his two clients have is to prove that they were ordered to torture their fellow Marine by Nicholson, and that the only way to prove this is to get the Commander to admit as much on the stand. After painting Nicholson into a corner with some carefully crafted leading questions about the chain of command, Cruise zeroes in on his target, needling the Commander with disrespectful and irritating questions designed to provoke him, with the ultimate aim of getting Nicholson to lose his cool in the witness box.
“Did you issue the order or not, Commander?,” Cruise finally challenges Nicholson. “All I want from you is the truth.” And then with the veins in his forehead bulging, and his eyes ablaze with anger, Nicholson erupts at the impudence of Cruise’s question: “You can’t handle the truth!,” he yells. Defiantly admitting that he issued the order, the Commander then proceeds to defend his conduct by lecturing Cruise on how the horrors of war sometimes requires a willingness to be brutal that goes beyond ordinary moral standards, something Cruise would never understand.
The Commander’s attempt to morally justify the torture of his own soldiers as a legitimate training effort is, of course, the misguided rant of someone who has enjoyed too much power for too long. But there is something right about Nicholson’s insistence that our ability to “handle the truth” does indeed depend crucially upon our experience. Someone who has never seen combat cannot fairly and fully assess all the factors that relate to the intense pressures a human being is under in the extreme circumstances of war.
The fact is that our ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, truth from falsehood, is not a capacity that we are born with, but instead it emerges from the rough and tumble of our actual, lived experience. Truth is revealed to us, over time, through the rich particularities of our lives. Truth is what stands the test of experience, and the depths of life’s truths are only slowly revealed as we gain more and more experience.
Think about love, for example. When I was a little boy, I felt the warmth and affection of my parents, a love that gave me an overwhelming sense of security. I knew that they would keep me safe from the dangers of the world, and be by my side no matter what. For a child, the truth of love is the reliable protection of a parent.
But then of course we become young men and women, filled with passion and romance, and love takes on a whole new dimension that was hidden from view when we were children. We learn what desire is about, the longing for an intimate relationship with another person that goes well beyond the protective care of a parent. This romantic love of our youth is rich and complex and mysterious in all the ways that only the poetry of Shakespeare can begin to disclose. For a young man or woman, the truth of love is primarily eros, the romantic union with another.
And then, if we’re blessed, we become parents ourselves, and experience yet another dimension of love as we participate in the holy creation of life, and for the first time feel the intense blessing and sacred responsibility of bringing forth a human being into the world. There is a fierce intensity to a parent’s love for a child that is hard to describe until you experience it. For a parent, the truth of love is agape, an unconditional love that includes the willingness to sacrifice everything for the well-being of another life that is too vulnerable and innocent to fend for herself.
And then finally, we lose someone we love, and through the tears of grief, we come to know the precious fleetingness of our love for others. Death brings into painful focus all of the rich complexity of human love. We often times don’t know the beautiful things we have until we lose them. For the grieving, the truth of love is the excruciating hole in our hearts of love lost, a hole that only God can fill.
Such are just some of the complex layers of love that gradually emerge to us, if we’re lucky, over the course of a human life. No philosophy book can teach us these things. Such truth comes to us slowly, over time, and only in the grace-filled texture of our experience as embodied, contingent creatures.
In a sense, this is what John’s Gospel is all about. We have been reading from John now for several weeks, and one of John’s primary themes is how Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the gradual, unfolding revelation of God’s Truth about humanity in history. This theme comes to a great climax, of course, in John’s account of the Passion Narrative, where Pilate famously cross-examines Jesus at his trial by asking, “what is truth?” And do you remember how Jesus responds? Jesus does not preach to Pilate about truth. He does not engage in a philosophical debate with Pilate. He does not defend himself with mere words. Instead, Jesus just stands there in silence.
Had Pilate bothered to pay attention to Jesus’s life, he would have known of course what Jesus had been telling his disciples all along. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus told them. The truth Jesus teaches is not a set of maxims, or a moral code, or even, in the end, a collection of his famous parables. The truth Jesus teaches is his whole person, his embodied self, in which God reveals what it looks like to be perfectly and fully and wonderfully human.
The philosophers, it turns out, have it wrong. Truth is not a doctrine; but a person. Truth is not an abstraction, but the particular story of God’s flesh-and-blood Son sharing his life with us. And truth is not discovered in the flash of an idea, but is revealed gradually, in God’s time, over the course of the life we are given to walk hand in hand with Christ.
Which perhaps helps to explain why in today’s excerpt from John, Jesus somewhat mysteriously says to his disciples on the day before his crucifixion: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” Jesus tells them.
On the eve of his passion, Jesus knows that he cannot possibly put into words what is about to happen to him. Jesus knows that death and resurrection must first be experienced by his disciples, and that nothing he can say beforehand can prepare them for what God is about to do on the Cross and in the empty tomb. Very much like love, the Truth of Christ’s resurrected life is not something to be understood so much as encountered; it is not something to be explained, so much as shared.
Kallistos Ware is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, and he puts it this way: “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively more and more aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
So, if there is a message in Christ’s words for us this morning, it is that we shouldn’t be surprised if we “can’t handle” God’s truth all at once, in one fell swoop. Like the painting of a master, we are invited to stand patiently before the canvas of God’s life in Christ, and gaze at it slowly, studying its subtle and radiant complexity, allowing all of its beautiful detail to wash over us. The full richness of God’s truth in Christ comes to us not immediately, but rather over the course of a life faithfully lived, in all the small but holy moments of human connection, natural beauty, playful creativity, meaningful work, devoted service, sacrificial love, and prayerful attention to this magical world of ours.
Listen to the wise words of the French Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when he writes this:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are all, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new; and yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that it may take a very long time. And so it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what only God’s grace will make you tomorrow. Only God can say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give God the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in wondrous suspense and incomplete, trusting that God is guiding you where you need to go.”