“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” – Mark 9:7
When Jesus is at the center of our life as a community, he enters into our midst and serves as our Leader. He sends the Holy Spirit to console and guide us, and through his Light he purifies us and prepares us for our mission as his Body. Through dedicated prayer, we are empowered to keep our eyes on the Lord, not being drawn away by the multitude of things that seek to distract us from the Life.
As we grow deeper in our relationship with God, we will encounter Jesus in a variety of ways. When Christians think about where they meet and learn from Jesus Christ, probably the most common first answer is, “in the Bible.” And indeed, the Scriptures are an important way we learn about Jesus and his ministry of reconciliation. But there are many other ways we come to know Jesus. We come to know who the Lord is through his presence within us, in our hearts; we also encounter Christ in our life as a community; and we meet him in our interactions with the stranger.
In all of the ways that we encounter the Risen Lord, it is crucial that we listen to him. Christ is present with us, ready to guide us in all of our decisions. He is not merely an historical figure, nor a distant Monarch far away in heaven; he still dwells among us through the Holy Spirit. If we choose to open ourselves to how he is speaking today, he will knit us together in unity and empower us to do his work in the world.
Jesus in Scripture
One of the most important ways that we come to recognize the voice of Jesus when he speaks to us today is through study of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. As the author of Hebrews assures us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”(1), and we can trust the words and actions ascribed to Jesus by Scripture as a guide to recognizing his ongoing character today.
A healthy respect for the authority of Scripture is essential to the authenticity of a missional Quaker community. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures are a record of God’s relationship with humanity, told primarily from the perspective of the Hebrew people. Studying the Bible is probably the most important way in which the average Christian maintains a relationship with the hundreds of generations that have come before us in the faith. We learn from their experience, which acts as a counterweight to our own subjectivity. If we believe that Christ is leading us in a way that runs contrary to his character as we know it in Scripture, we should carefully re-examine our experience and consider whether it is our interpretation of Scripture that is faulty, or our perception of our experience itself.
In addition to their role as a check on our discernment, the writings of the Old and New Testaments can serve as vessels for God to speak to us in fresh ways. Just as the disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus, we find that the Lord is present with us as we encounter the Scriptures. He opens them to us, revealing within our hearts the truth that God desires to communicate to us through the text.(2) When we read the Bible, whether alone or in community, we must take care to be open to Christ’s presence within us. He walks alongside us, ready to make clear the texts that, if read without the aid of the Holy Spirit, would either confuse us or lead us to wrong conclusions.
In our reading of Scripture, we must be always turned inward, listening for the Word of God in our hearts. The Bible itself is not the Word of God, and never refers to itself as such; that title is reserved for Christ alone.(3) This is not theological hair-splitting – it is a key point of our faith as Friends: Because we honor Christ as the Word of God, we recognize that all writings about him, no matter how authoritative and inspired, cannot stand in his place. As we read Scripture, we seek the guidance of the Word-become-flesh, which will allow us to make sense of the Scriptures that the Word has inspired.
The way that we receive guidance from the Bible is not primarily through intellectual analysis (though God desires us to use our intellects to glorify God). Instead, when we consult the Scriptures we are reminded of how the Spirit has spoken to Israel in days past, and we hear how we are being called to faithfulness in our own time and circumstances. We trust that, just as Christ was present with ancient Israel and with the first apostles, so he will be faithful in shepherding us, leading us in his Way.
The Lord walked with the first man and woman in the garden, and he spoke to Moses out of the burning bush; he made himself known to his disciples on the day of Pentecost, and he blind-sided Saul on the road to Damascus. God has always been consistent in initiating relationship with those who seek to be made whole; and the Spirit has a proven track record of doggedly pursuing those who resist the Truth. Each of us is given regular opportunities to open ourselves to Christ and his power. He is always standing at the door knocking, waiting for us to let him into our hearts.(4)
Thomas Kelly wrote that, “deep within us all, there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”(5) Each of us is capable of having a personal relationship with Christ, and we are called to open wide the doors of our hearts and be filled by his presence. We are meant to be dwelling places for the Living God, and we are called upon to be transformed into suitable vessels for God’s Spirit.
This process of being in-breathed by the Spirit of Christ involves two things happening simultaneously: First, we are shown our own condition; second, we are shown God’s will for us. The contrast between these two revelations is the impetus for divine transformation. When we allow Christ to shine his Light on us, we see our selfishness, our corrupt motivations, our rebellion against God, and our failure to love our fellow human beings or even ourselves. At the same time, we see the person that God is calling us to be: selflessly devoted to God and our fellow women and men, using the gifts that God has granted us to give joy to others and strengthen them in their own walk with Christ.
As painful as it is to see ourselves as we truly are, we are also empowered to live into God’s vision for who we are meant to be. Step by step, the Refiner’s Fire can remake us, unleashing the power and beauty of God’s original intention for our lives. Many of these steps will be inward changes of heart: We will be called to love instead of hate; bless instead of curse; share instead of hoard. As we submit to the Light, we will find our character being slowly redeemed.
In the midst of this overall reorientation of our character, we will often find that God is calling us to change major aspects of our outward lives. We may be asked to change professions, for example; or move to another city; or take out the garbage without being asked. In big ways and in small ways, God calls us to implement practical changes in our lives that will enable us to better live out our new-found character and purpose as friends of Jesus.
It is essential for our development as disciples that we be obedient in small things, so that we will be ready when God has greater challenges for us. If we are faithful in listening and submitting to the still, small voice within our hearts, Christ will prepare us for the role that we have to play in the wider community.
Jesus in the Midst
The presence of Jesus in our Christian communities is deeply affected by the devotion, prayer and inward transformation of their individual members. But while the faithfulness of individuals is critical to Christ’s work in the Church, the way we experience him when we gather together in his name is more than the sum of the individual prayer lives of those gathered. When two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is indeed in our midst, and we receive his Spirit not merely as individuals, but as a gathered meeting.
When we invite Jesus into our meetings, we do so literally. We invite him in to set the agenda and guide us as a people. In a certain sense, Friends concur with the Roman Catholic teaching about the nature of Christ’s presence in Communion. We also believe in the real presence, that Jesus is literally made flesh and blood when we gather together in his name and open ourselves to his power. Unlike the Roman Church, we do not locate Christ’s presence in wine and bread; instead, we experience Christ’s presence as we ourselves become his flesh and blood and he becomes our spiritual food and drink.
In our gathered meetings where we have laid aside our own priorities and agendas, we abide in him and he abides in us.(6) When this spiritual unity occurs, we literally become the Body of Christ, the real presence of Jesus in the world. Just as Christ lays bare and transforms the individual heart, he also works in the lives of communities that submit themselves to his healing Light. If we open ourselves to him, he is able to energize and empower us as his Church, to do his work in the world.
But, just as in the case of our personal relationships with Jesus, such depths of intimacy and transformation can only come about when we come before God in humility, acknowledgment of our own brokenness, and repentance. This kind of surrender is impossible enough for a single person to accomplish on their own; for groups of dozens, hundreds, and thousands, it is surely inconceivable. But through God’s power, we can indeed triumph over sin and death, not only as atomized individuals, but also as the Church. This is one of the greatest demonstrations of God’s power and mercy: when entire communities are brought to repentance and spurred to lead lives that glorify God, demonstrating God’s love to others.
Jesus in the Stranger
But demonstrating God’s love to others is hard. We are able to love our friends, our family, and people that we generally agree with without too much trouble. These loving relationships are relatively easy, because they do not challenge the underlying assumptions of our lives. We can love those who love us, those who confirm our own worldview, with our own human love. But we need the power of God’s love within us to reach beyond our comfort zone, even embracing those who threaten us.
If we wish to live out Jesus’ mission for us in the wider world, we will need to go further than our own narrow human love and experiment with the risky love of God. This will mean reaching out to people we don’t know, communities we are not comfortable in. With God’s help, we will be called into relationship with a motley assortment of people that we would never have become friends with otherwise. And we will discover that they are the Church of Jesus Christ.
This is perhaps the most difficult lesson for us to learn: We do not have all the answers. Not even most of them. If we approach the Kingdom-life as a matter of bringing others into the glory of our own perfection, we’re going to be disappointed. God has a lot of work yet still to do with each one of us, even those of us who have been serving Jesus for a long time. And God can speak through anyone.
The really sneaky thing about Jesus is that he shows up in the places where common sense least expects him. We find him among the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill. We are confronted by him among religious and cultural minorities. We see his light shining in gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. We see evidence of his power among women and teenagers, old men and infants. The moment we are tempted to write anyone off as outside of Christ’s mercy, we are dumbfounded by the way he is so clearly alive and at work in the most fantastically diverse assortment of people.
If we are to be a missional community of Jesus’ friends, we have to learn that Jesus is friends with all sorts of people that we would never normally hang out with. Just as Jesus had mercy on us while we were still in darkness, Jesus is at work in all people; his Seed is present in every heart, working for our salvation. We do not need to “take Christ” out to the people – he is already among them, teaching them inwardly. Our role as Jesus’ disciples is to answer the Seed of God in all people, encouraging it to grow and blossom into fully transformed, Christ-like lives.
And we will be changed by the encounter. We must recognize that mission is not about imprinting our character onto others; it is about sustaining a space where the character of Jesus Christ can come to full bloom in each of us. By holding this space, and inviting others to hold it with us, we will come away remade in unpredictable, surprising ways. And we may find in the end that those we were sent to minister to were in fact the face of Christ to us. We must be ready to change in response to our encounter with Christ in others. We must be willing to change our course not because it is our natural inclination, but because we have submitted to the Truth as he speaks to us in the life of the stranger.
Jesus: The Head of the Church
To conclude this essay, I would like to make a few observations about how this practice of listening, both on our own and in our meetings, informs the way we operate and make decisions as church communities. Because we believe that Jesus Christ is literally present with us, Friends view the primary role of the Church as being a community that discerns together how Jesus is directing us. And because we believe that Christ is present in every heart, as well as with the group as a whole, we see the responsibility for discernment as falling to the entire Church, not a small group of leaders.
Thus, our way of discerning God’s will for the group is tightly linked with our theology. We must be ready to encounter the presence of Christ in every person, and we must be ready to hear God’s wisdom from the most unlikely of places. This does not mean there is no place for leadership among Friends – on the contrary, our communities do well to empower dynamic, Spirit-led leadership. But ultimately, we are all accountable to our one true Head, Jesus Christ. We wait on him together as a community, laying aside our own opinions of how things should be done and seeking his will for us as the Church.
We have not found voting or parliamentary procedure to be an aid in hearing the voice of the Spirit. Heated debates and procedural maneuvers tend to lead us deeper into self and further away from God. Even when we hold the correct opinion, our anger does not produce God’s righteousness (7), and subduing dissent through majority rule does not assure that we are following Jesus. Often, we have found that the will of God emerges as an alternative that none of the individuals involved had previously considered.
Unlike most other organizations in the world, Friends have found it not only possible but practical to wait together on God until we are drawn into substantial unity as a group. Generally, this results in unanimity – though unanimity is not our goal. We seek to recognize together the will of God and commit to enacting it as a community, even if what we hear is not what we would have chosen ourselves. Old Friends called this, “living in the cross.”
1. Hebrews 13:8
2. See Luke 24:13-32.
3. For a couple of examples, see John 1 and Revelation 19:11-16
4. See Revelation 3:20
5. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992, pg. 3.
6. See John 15:4
7. See James 1:20
Resources for Further Study:
Marshall Massey, Why We Practice Corporate Discernment, http://thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com/2010/10/guest-piece-by-marshall-massey-why-we.html (accessed 10/23/10)
Michael J. Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983.
Paul Lacey, The Authority of our Meetings is the Power of God, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #365, 2003.