Bearing the Unbearable – A Sermon on John 16:12-15 for the Feast of the Holy Trinity

Sermon, John 16:12-15, Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev

Icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev – Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain, Wikimedia.

John 16:12-15, Feast of the Holy Trinity

“Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now’” (John 16:12).

When I hear Jesus talking about the unbearable things of life I want to run away. But I can’t. It’s too late. There’s no where to go. As painful as it is to remember and as difficult as it is to talk about I understand what Jesus means when he says, “You cannot bear them now.”

It was a Thursday evening. Cyndy and I had planned to spend a couple days at the river. We were at the grocery store picking up a few things when the phone rang. Our older son Brandon had been involved in an accident. We were’t told any details but it was serious. Thoughts of the unbearable raced through our minds. Fear of the unbearable streamed down our faces. Those thoughts and fears would later give way to an unbearable reality, a reality we are still bearing. Brandon had died.

That story is particular to Cyndy and me but it is not unique to us. Every one of you has thoughts and fears of the unbearable. Every one of you has lived or maybe is living a reality that is more than you can handle, a reality that has left you wondering how or if you will get through it. And somehow you do. Think about what you have already borne that you never asked for, never wanted, and if you had been told of it you would have said, “I cannot bear that.”

The unbearable is that which we do not wish for ourselves or our worst enemy. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, a diagnosis, or in a thousand other ways. It is the most painful experience we can imagine. It is that moment when all we can do is either call God’s name or curse God’s name, and sometimes we do both.

So let me ask you this. What comes to mind when you think of the unbearable? What are your experiences of the unbearable? Most of us, I suspect, focus on circumstances of pain, loss, and suffering, circumstances that break our hearts, shatter our lives, and bring us to tears. That is real. It is our experience of the unbearable but it’s not our only experience of the unbearable. There is an opposite aspect of the unbearable.

Think about a time when love, joy, or beauty was so real, so deep, so full that you could not hold it all. It was more than you could bear and tears poured forth, your heart was enlarged, and all you could say was, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” You stood in awe and amazement of what was happening and silently wondered, “Who am I that God would be mindful of me, that God would seek me out?” (Paraphrase of Psalm 8:5)

When has that been your experience of the unbearable? In what ways have beauty, joy, or love been more than you could bear?

I remember a Wednesday night when a newborn boy was placed in my hands. He was no more than eight pounds but he might as well have weighed eight hundred pounds. It was more than I could bear. He wasn’t crying but I was. I surely thought I would crumble under the weight of the Bishop’s hands the night I was ordained a priest. There’s something about my wife’s love that is unbearable, and I mean that in the very best way! She and her love are more than I can fathom and everything within me cries out yes; yes to her, yes to us, yes to all that we are and all that we might be.

This kind of unbearable reality is beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings. It’s more than the greatest, biggest, and best wish for ourselves. It leaves us in speechless gratitude. It comes to us in the miracle of birth, a life filled with meaning, a love that is eternal, and in a thousand other ways. The unbearable opens us to receive a life we could never create for or give ourselves. It shatters our fears, breaks through our defenses, and brings us to tears.

The unbearable in either aspect can open our heart. It can make us vulnerable, real, and authentic. It creates space for and invites intimacy. That is the beginning of a new life. So there’s a sense in which we need the unbearable. Here’s why I say that. We tend to live unconscious lives. We sleep walk through our days missing life, love, beauty, and each other. If there is a mortal sin it has to be unconscious living. The unbearable can awaken us, offer insights into our life, teach us about ourselves, grow us up, and bring us more fully into ourselves. Ultimately, though, it reveals the presence of God. Those who stand in the paradox of bearing the unbearable are given ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to love.

I can’t help but wonder, what if God is never more present to us than when we bear the unbearable? The death of a loved one. The loss of a job. The breakup of a marriage. The loneliness that cripples. The diagnosis that turns life upside down. The unfathomable love. The beauty that leaves us speechless. The tears of joy. What if those things that ask more of us than we can handle and offer us more than we could ever have imagined are the very places in which God is most present and most real?

Bearing the unbearable places us on the threshold of our lives. It takes us to the limits of who we are and what we have. It’s the place where life is too real, too much, too big. It’s also the place that calls us to be accountable and calls God to be accountable. I’m not talking about blame or guilt. I’m talking about the accountability of showing up.

When we stand at the edge of life, bearing the unbearable, something stunning and beautiful can happen. We are standing at the opening “into all the truth.” That’s a pretty big and bold statement. But that’s exactly what Jesus says will happen. The Spirit will guide us into all the truth. The Spirit will declare, bring, and offer all that Jesus has and all that the Father has. Nothing is withheld. We may not know it, understand it, or believe it but in the midst of unbearable reality we are being guided into all the truth.

Andrei Rublev, Holy Trinity, Sermon, John 16:12-15

Icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev – Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain, Wikimedia.

Let me show you what that looks like. What do you see? Who is this?

This is Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Yes, there are three persons but there is also more. There is an empty place at the table. The circle of communion is not complete until we take our place among the three.

When we bear the unbearable the Holy Trinity becomes a Holy Quaternity. It’s not about only the three. Yes, there are the three but there is also a fourth. You and I are the fourth.

Do you see it? Look at the icon, look at the unbearable things of your life, and see your place at the table. If the Feast of the Holy Trinity means anything at all it means that we never bear the unbearable alone.

We never bear the unbearable alone.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. No, that’s not right. There’s more. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and of you.

12 thoughts on “Bearing the Unbearable – A Sermon on John 16:12-15 for the Feast of the Holy Trinity

  1. Mike, this message is unbearable. Your recollection of the unbearable news you and Cyndy received as Brandon died calls me back to the death of our infant son, Randall, 47 years ago, that was unbearable for a time. Also, your mention of the depth of love between husband and wife sparks the memories and continuing anticipations of unbearable joy for Pansy and me in so many ways for more than 50 years. You have that unbearably beautiful gift for ferreting out dimensions in a Scripture passage that many of us gloss over or completely miss in our preaching and teaching. May God continue to bless that talent.

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  2. Michael, I’m so sorry for your lost of your son Brandon. As parents we expect to out live our children. Life sometimes rears itself in a very harsh way. The death of a child, I know nothing about. I Pray that I will never have to see that in my lifetime. Thank you for sharing this sorrowful experience. “God Bless you and yours in Jesus name.” >

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  3. I am new to his site but wanted to mention that my family and I listened to this sermon in person. In my humble opinion, it was one of the most inspirational 10 or 15 minutes I can recall. It was the best of many great sermons from Fr. Marsh that I have heard. My wife and I were weeping though out the talk being overcome this emotion. The printed word does not do justice to the delivery style which Fr. Marsh has. His words are clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit. His ability to find such truth in the Gospel passages and show this in such a panoramic vision is a precious jewel for us. We are so grateful for this treasure!

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  4. As I re-read these passages, what comes to me is not so much to enormity of the personal tragedy which is so great as to be truly unbearable but instead the statement that “bearing the unbearable places us on the threshold of our lives”. I want to live on the threshold of my life. There is so much more chance for growth here I feel as though I have recognized this somewhat during the dark times in life when only the power of God was enough to save me but I had not seen the unbearable aspect of the rich times in life until hearing this sermon. I usually cannot maintain as much spiritual perspective during the down times as well as the up time. Therefore the lesson I wish to practice and use from this sermon involves using the “unbearably” wonderful times to deepen and grow my relationship with my God so that I will hopefully have something to draw on when the “unbearably” bad comes. By then learning to hold the unbearably good with God, then maybe I will be better at holding the “unbearably” bad when it come. With time, maybe God will grant me my desire to become a deeper more thoughtful person by working with these threshold times if I am diligent and disciplined in my efforts This is the great and wonderful message to me here. For me there is great potential in trying to take these powerful times and using the energy to become closer to God

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    • Ashley, I agree that the threshold places offer more chance for growth and life. They are liminal places, in between, neither here nor there, and I think they can help open us. They are places where our lives become unbalanced so that a rebalancing can happen, two aspects of the unbearable.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  5. A friend sent me the link to this because we endured the unbearable diagnosis and later death of our dear friend. It was brain cancer, and it was unbearable. And yet through Jim’s cancer journey, we laughed every day and we were grateful every day. Plus, this icon is dear to me as it offered me a mystical experience of healing while I was on retreat. I am sorry for the loss of your son, and grateful for your putting into words both the possibility of unbearable sorrow and joy.

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    • Thank you Madeline for your kind words and for sharing your experience. I too have found healing with the Trinity icon and its invitation to take my place at the table. May Jim’s soul, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, and may you be given strength and consultation.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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