a Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
I spent the second half of 2011 interviewing ministers and congregational lay leaders about the role of listening in missional congregational life. Many of my interviewees talked about obstacles to listening. One of those obstacles is the certainty that we already have the answers we need.
In this post, I want to quote extensively from my colleague Christopher R. J. Holmes’s new book, Ethics in the Presence of Christ. (I wrote about his lovely book here and here.) You’ll see the connections between Chris’s ideas and the all too common inner certainty that we already know what we need to know, which makes us stop listening.
On page 30 of the book, Chris quotes from John 5:25: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Then he goes on to say that what Jesus “wants his people to do –- and us, too -– is to hear and to believe him.”
On the next page, Chris continues: “We are used to and often at home in a world wherein we expect to hear nothing because we already ‘know’ what is real and what can be. But the joy of hearing Jesus is that we realize the extent to which our time is encroached upon by his time. Indeed, Jesus does speak and in so doing he calls ‘into question all the criteria by which –- in normal affairs -– I [we] judge what is possible, what is reasonable, what is admirable.’ As late modern people we find it difficult to believe that the reign of God is present to us and impinging upon us. That is why we must linger with this hearing episode. It attests Jesus’ mission, which is basically that of expounding God’s power, truth and love. It teaches us, furthermore, that we are aligned with his mission to the extent that we hear him and obey. . . . ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life’ (John 5:24)” (square brackets in original).
The quotation in the middle of that paragraph comes from Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), page 69. I found it interesting that Chris quoted Newbigin here, because my interviews focused on missional listening, and Newbigin is the patron saint of the concept “missional.” The willingness to listen to God in any moment, a necessary condition for missional reflection and action, requires that we open ourselves to letting God break apart that which we innately consider to be “reasonable” and “admirable.”
Chris continues on page 35: “Nor is the church to be regarded as an extension of a person who is no longer present. The action of Jesus -– the new order of taking away sin, of healing humankind -– is ongoing and presently effective in the Spirit. He lives. The church bears or witnesses to ‘that effective action.’ That his action is effective is indicative of his power to do among us now what he did then. . . . He is present and speaking to us now the words he spoke to his first disciples then. . . . The church’s mission -– which is not additional to its being -– is thus a mission normed by a single event [Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and sending of the Spirit] present in all its power” (square brackets added by me).