Words on the Word
4. Sunday of Easter
Acts 13:14, 43-52: You do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life.
Revelation 7:9, 14-17: The Lamb will be their shepherd.
John 10:27-30: I know them and they follow me.
‘The sheep that belong to me’, says our Lord in the Gospel, ‘listen to my voice.’ His affirmation points towards one of the great challenges of daily life and the choices it entails. We live within a cacophony of voices, more so than any previous generation. Think of any question you like, trivial or sublime, personal or general: What’s really going on in Ukraine? What will happen to the environment? What will the weather be like tomorrow? Who will win at Wimbledon? Feed your question into Google and you’re faced with diametrically different views — yes, even regarding the weather.
Who can we trust? Whose voice is it prudent, safe to listen to? Sometimes the burden of choice is more than we can bear. It is profoundly destabilising to live constantly with uncertainty. It is tempting, then, to shut oneself within an echo chamber resonating with what we want to hear, and to shut out other voices. It’s a paradox: with so much information at our disposal, our outlook is in fact apt to narrow. We take refuge in self-sufficient mental universes, passing each other like ships in the night, often with little communication short of a fog horn now and again to forestall head-on collision.
Before we listen to someone’s voice, we want to ascertain that that voice can be trusted. Of course, we may do what someone says for more pragmatic reasons: if you work in a bank and a masked robber, holding a gun to your head, tells you to open the safe, you do it, not because you trust him, but because you hope to get away with your life.
To listen is something else; it is to let a voice into your mind. We do well to be cautious. We have the right, even the moral duty, to be critical. This pertains to voices of others reaching us through the media. It also pertains, more intimately, to voices that sound around us in the form of our own thoughts. The Desert Fathers had helpful things to say about the management of thoughts. They likened thoughts to arrows shot from a distance and said: before you grant admission to a thought, before you let the arrow pierce your consciousness, ask where it si from and who sent it. It’ll be easier to explain what they meant if I give an example.
Imagine you’ve a sudden urge to do something, say, to buy a new pair of shoes. Where does that thought come from? Is it inspired by necessity, because your old shoes have holes and you need another pair? Is it inspired by insecurity, because everyone you know wear a certain brand of shoes and you don’t want to stand out? Is it joyfully affirmative: you saw the shoes in a shop, fell in love with them, and have the conviction that the shoes and you will be happy together? Or is it a thought born of anxiety: nothing in your life is working out at the moment and you feel the urge to buy something to prove to yourself that you’re in charge of your life? You see what I mean. One could improvise on this theme indefinitely. Doing so is not time wasted. By developing this habit, we shall learn more about what really motivates us. We shall learn which the voices are that, consciously or subconsciously, have a decisive say in our lives. And that is a prerequisite for inner freedom.
Note that Jesus says, ‘The sheep listen to my voice and follow me’. He doesn’t say, ‘The sheep have analysed the content of my discourses and, duly weighing up pros and cons, have decided to implement my strategy’. By all means, we should think clearly and stringently about things, including the things of faith. We have a head on shoulders for a purpose. However, in decisive moments, analysis is often not what wins us over. We let ourselves be guided, rather, by a trusted presence.
Nothing expresses a person’s presence more immediately than that person’s voice. Think of the encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden. She is desperate, distraught. All her rational faculties are absorbed by the problem: ‘Where can they have put him? Where can I find the remains of the singular person whose presence let me discover who I am?’ The risen Lord neither explains nor explicitly reassures. He simply says, ‘Mary’. And Mary is cut to the quick. No one else speaks her name like that!
In the same way, Jesus speaks to each of us, calling us by name. Remember, he is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the image in which we were made (Gen 1:27). Each of you is a manifestation of an unrepeatably glorious aspect of God’s creative intention, called to embody that aspect gloriously. Christ knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our true identity, our name, even when we ourselves may think we don’t know any more who we are. So listen out for his voice. Listen to it. His is the one voice that leads us infallibly and securely. It does not domineer us. It expresses his love for us: love making an appeal to our freedom. This is what life is about.
Without the illumination of love, freely accepted, even reason, that most noble faculty, may lead us astray. As a great Jewish teacher, Rabbi Joseph Hertz once wrote: ‘in the hour of temptation [reason] often calls light darkness and darkness light’. Reason must be oriented, formed, and awakened to the fact that we human beings are made for more than this lovely but pain-filled world, that our destination, which conditions our life’s journey, is life eternal. The voice of Jesus calls us there. It alerts the ear of our heart to eternal and splendid truths right here and now. We are privileged to hear his voice this evening here at this altar. It tells us: ‘This is my life, given that you may live!’ Let us, then, listen intently and follow trustfully. Amen.