"They [the disciples] kept asking 'What does he mean by a little while? We don't understand what he is saying...'" (John 16:17-18)
OK; pop quiz. What did the disciples say more than almost anything (other than "Who remembered to bring lunch?") during their three years of ministry and travel together?
Answer: "Huh?" "Duh?" "Run that by us again..." or "We don't understand what the Master is saying."
That said, we have to give these guys some credit. This was two thousand years ago and the world was very flat - almost two dimensional. Everything they understood was clearly definable in terms of "This is what we see." "This is what we feel." "This is what we have been taught is true." and "This is what we can know experientially."
In developmental psychology - and this played out exactly in my years of classroom experience with developmentally delayed children -there is a concept known as "conservation."
Conservation is a landmark in a child's learning. Put a rattle in front of a baby and the infant will reach for it. Move the rattle within the field of vision and the child will still reach for the toy. Place the rattle under a blanket, though, and it has essentially fallen away from the infant's experience; the child will not reach for the object because the rattle simply does not exist any more. There is no knowing without a direct connection via the five basic senses. Conservation means to conserve the image or the possibility of the desired object even when it has been hidden. At some point in development the child will continue to grope for the rattle even when it is hidden from sight - understanding that it is still there, even though it is beyond the parameters of his or her five senses.
Likewise, it was a real struggle for the twelve disciples to grasp some of Christ's teaching, because he referenced a world that was beyond the scope of their language or their experience. Traditionally, God had performed Mighty Acts - discrete and measurable - in history, in real observable time and space. Jesus, however, was talking about the spiritual world, of going away and of coming back, of sending another Comforter.
I believe it was to the disciples' credit that they didn't just swallow every ounce of this stuff hook line and sinker. They were willing to ask questions.
Jesus is still willing for us to ask questions; hard ones and more basic ones too. Our God is not so small that we cannot sit back and wonder sometimes. In fact, the more tidy and neatly wrapped my God is, the more I have diminished the idea of deity through my small imagination and lack of faith.
I know this much in the realm of conservation. "Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have entrusted to him against that day." (2 Timothy 1:12)
PRAYER: Sometimes your majesty and power and awesome greatness seem beyond our ability to understand. Help us to keep our feet on the ground. Grounded, that is, in the experience of your marvelous grace. Amen