This sermon was given by the Revd. Luther Zeigler at our last evening service of the semester this past Sunday, May 11. We look forward to worshiping together again at the resumption of our services in the fall!
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” John 10:3-4
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42
“The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” John 10:3-4. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites us to listen for his voice, and seems to assure us that we will know it when we hear it, and that we will be able to distinguish his voice from all the other voices competing for our attention – the voices of strangers, thieves, bandits, and others who may not have our best interests at heart. And so, with this invitation in mind, in our opening collect today we prayed for the grace to “hear Jesus’ voice,” so that we might “follow where he leads.”
And yet, if we have learned anything during the Easter season, it is that listening for Jesus’ voice is not quite so simple, as the first disciples prove time and again. Last week, for example, we heard Luke’s story of the two disciples who are passionately in conversation with a stranger on the road to Emmaus without even knowing it is the risen Christ himself. Buried in their own grief and sense of disappointed expectations, Cleopas and his friend walk with Jesus for miles, engaging him in animated discussion, all the while failing to recognize either the face or the voice of Jesus even as he teaches them during their journey. Not until Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of the bread do these disciples see and hear their great Teacher.
And a few weeks before that, on Easter morning, we heard John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb. Panicked and confused by the disappearance of Jesus’ body, Mary encounters a stranger outside the tomb. Believing the stranger to be a gardener, Mary interrogates him concerning the whereabouts of Jesus’ body. It is, of course, the risen Jesus to whom she is speaking. But she is so engulfed by her own grief that she recognizes neither his voice nor his face, until Jesus calls out her name: “Mary!”
These scenes would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so true to our own experience, so illustrative of our own deafness to God’s voice. What these resurrection narratives teach is that the voice of Jesus often comes to us in unexpected ways, that he can sneak up on us unaware, that he speaks to us through the seemingly ordinary people in our lives, and that all too often we are so preoccupied with our own stuff that we end up being deaf to his presence in our very midst.
So, if the first disciples were so consistently unable to recognize Jesus’ voice when he was literally whispering in their ears, what gives us any confidence that we will hear him? What hope do we have of hearing Jesus’ voice amidst all the noise in our lives?
I want to suggest that this very question lies at the heart of our first lesson today from the Book of Acts. We are so accustomed to the institutional presence of the Church in our lives that it is difficult to imagine a time when there was no church. Yet, after the disciples’ initial pattern of desertion, doubt, despair, confusion, and enough raw fear to hide behind locked doors – and after their eyewitness encounters with the risen Christ – it is only then that Jesus’ first followers begin to develop a growing awareness of the enormity of what has happened. Its only then that they ask themselves: now what?
To be sure, they are not left entirely to their own devices, thank God. They are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experience the Spirit’s guidance and power directing them in new and fresh ways. And they know enough from what Jesus has taught them to go out into the world, led by Peter, preaching the gospel and baptizing all who are willing to listen. But what then? How are these newly converted souls to relate to one another, what practices will hold them together in community, what will they do to ensure that Christ remains at the center of their lives so that they will continue to hear and follow his voice?
Our lesson today from Acts seeks to answer this question by articulating the four foundations of a distinctively Christian life: namely, a community devoted to (1) the apostles’ teaching, (2) to fellowship, (3) to the breaking of the bread, and (4) to the prayers. Acts 2:42. By adhering faithfully to these principles of Christian community, the apostles teach us, we are given a framework for “holy listening,” one that makes room for Jesus to speak amidst the cacophony of all that surrounds us. Let us briefly reflect on each:
First, the discernment of Jesus’ voice requires careful attention to the teaching of the apostles, as handed down by tradition; what we now know as the study of Scripture. The regular and careful reading of the Bible, in light of the challenges and opportunities of our daily life, provides the appropriate framework for discerning Christ’s call to us at any particular moment. Rather than obsessing about our own individual stories, we immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative so as to understand how we are a part of God’s story. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when we dig deeply into a tradition that lives outside of ourselves, that is bigger than we are, and that brings fresh truth and light to our role in God’s life.
Second, as Christians we practice fellowship, or what the early church called koinonia – we stay in community with one another as a guard against the vicissitudes of self-interest, self-deception, and individualism. Left to our own devices, we too often see things the way we want to, rather than the way God wants us to. By remaining in community, we keep one another honest. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is searching for meaning in community, where other people might call us on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with us. Communal discernment turns I-questions into God-questions. We ask not what will fulfill me or satisfy my wants and desires, but rather, where does God want me, want us to be?
Third, we draw close to Jesus’ voice by breaking and sharing bread together. This is, after all, what Jesus instructed us to do at the Last Supper, and what the Emmaus story from last week showed us is the true touchstone for discerning Christ’s presence in our lives. In the mystery of the Eucharist, the offering of our lives meets the offering of Christ’s life for us at the altar. In communion, we invite Jesus into the depths of our hearts, and ask him to do whatever he needs to do to transform us. In these moments, we know ourselves to be, not discrete individual egos, as we normally imagine ourselves, but rather, and as we’ll sing in our Offertory Hymn, one in the Body of Christ.
And finally, we pray. Prayer is that central act of relationship with God in which we intentionally and attentively make room for him in our lives. Through private prayer, corporate prayer, and praying for each other, we open our ears to Jesus’ voice by pushing to the periphery all the clutter that we normally let fill our heads and our hearts.
When I was at seminary in Virginia, I learned much about becoming a priest from my professors in the classroom, I gained practical experience in leading worship in field education, I grew in my pastoral caregiving skills by doing the required hospital ministry, and I was profoundly formed by daily corporate worship as well. But what stands out most in my memory from those days was Virginia’s practice of “small group worship on Friday mornings.”
Each entering class at the beginning of the year was organized into small groups of about 8-12 students and paired with one faculty advisor. Then, every Friday morning during term, we met together in the advisor’s home for several hours. During this time, we did Bible study, each taking turns leading the discussion; we also took time just to “check in,” listening deeply to each other’s lives, and our personal and professional struggles; we prayed together, in silence, out loud, in song, sometimes scripted, sometimes not; we committed to stay in relationship with one another throughout the year, and to pray for each other every day; and we ended our time on Friday mornings by breaking bread together, either Eucharistically, if our faculty priest was available to celebrate the sacrament, or sometimes just over Blueberry scones and coffee.
It was in that intimate gathering – anchored by the four practices described by the Acts of the Apostles – that I truly learned for the first time in my life what authentic, intentional, Christian community and worship looks and feels like.
My hope is that our Chaplaincy community this year has at least approximated this apostolic ideal for each of you. While part of me wishes that our numbers were even greater than they are, one of the great advantages of who we are as a small community is that we have an intimacy, a depth of relationship and care, that is often lost in larger congregations. And for that I am deeply grateful. I hope it has served you well. And I pray that whatever the future may hold for you – whether you are returning to us next fall or are moving on to a new place of opportunity – that you will find a community of faith that gently and lovingly holds you in its palm just as we have sought to do so here. God bless you all.