Those who use the “historic” lectionary preach on John 16 about 2-3 Sundays in a row. One of the interpretive challenges is understanding Jesus’ words to His disciples before His Passion, particularly these: “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). This was the text last week for Jubilate Sunday. Strangely enough the text for this Sunday is the pericope before this one. So, how are we to take these words? Is Jesus speaking about His ascension and return in glory? Is that what He means by “in a little while you will see me no longer (Ascension); and again a little while and you will see me (Second Coming)”? Or, does He mean that in a little while they will see Him no longer because He is dead and buried, and then a little while (three days) and they will see Him because He appears to them alive? Is this a promise of His return, or His resurrection appearance in John 20, in which they were glad to see their Lord?
I took it last week as a reference to their sorrow over not being able to see Him after He ascends. I understand this was also Augustine’s take (ala Fr. Benjamin Mayes). Mayes had me convinced for a little bit that Augustine was wrong, and that it is a reference to the sadness they will have at his death. But I’m not so sure after reading this week’s pericope: John 16:5-15. Jesus begins chapter 16 predicting things that will take place after His resurrection and ascension: “They will put you out of synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Then, in v. 5 come these words: “But now I am going to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” (6) But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.” Then, in v. 7, He speaks about the advantage of His return to the Father, namely, that He can send the Holy Spirit.
How can “going to Him who sent Me” mean anything else but His ascension to the right hand of the Father? I am having a hard time understanding how it could. Consider also last week’s pericope (16-22). The disciples had a hard time figuring this out too. What is meant by “a little while”? Is it the time between His ascension and His return in glory? Or is it the time between His death and resurrection? Perhaps the metaphor of the woman in labor is informative. “(21) When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. (22) So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The sorrow of the disciples is compared to a woman’s labor pains. There is talk of deliverance. Could this not also be a reference to the deliverance that Christ will bring when he returns? I’m open to suggestions on this. It is a confounded pericope to be sure. So much for the clarity of Scripture.