John 16:13-15 | 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Two weeks ago I spoke on the words from the book of Proverbs about the gaining of wisdom wisdom; about waiting, watching, listening, daily, for the voice of wisdom to be heard.
And alongside those words we reflected on Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd; the one whose voice the sheep would recognise, the one they would follow because they knew who he was.
The week before that, we explored the way that even Jesus; even the incarnate son of God, felt the need to pray, and especially at those key moments of decision at which his ministry, and indeed, his life, would take shape, take direction.
And I suggested – not, I think, very subtly – that these are words that St. John’s needs especially to hear, as this community moves into a time of change, time of uncertainty, and time of opportunity, of discernment of God’s call for the next stage of the journey.
And it is to that idea of discernment that we now move. How does a community of faith come to an understanding of what it is that God is calling them to.
And for this, as for anything in the faith, we begin with the words of Jesus. In the farewell discourse which runs for several chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to his friends about what is going to happen when he is taken from them. Now as we’ve noted before, John’s gospel, written as it was a couple of generations after the events, is not, and doesn’t set out to be, a historical, biographical account: to think of it in those terms is simply to misunderstand the literary genre into which is fits.
John’s gospel is a commentary, a theological interpretation of the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in the light of the experience of the Church.
The farewell discourse almost certainly therefore doesn’t represent a long speech made by Jesus to his uncomprehending friends, that they didn’t understand but yet remembered word for word for seventy years before John wrote it down. Instead, it is the distilled wisdom and understanding of a community that has lived in the post-Jesus era. Which is why John’s words on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit are of particular interest.
For these words – the Spirit of Truth will guide you, will make known to you the things that are mine – represent the lived experience of the early Christian Church. Not a promise for the future, so much as the day to day experience of the present for the people of God.
The Spirit takes what is God’s and makes it known. That wasn’t a theological idea, it was the very life of the early believers.
And it is in that context, that understanding, that we turn Paul’s words in his letter to the Church in Corinth.
The Church in Corinth was, of course, famously dysfunctional. It was riven with dissent, internal arguments, and competing spiritual hierarchies. It was a Church with huge potential, with many believers of great faith and deep gifts, but one in which that faith and those gifts were being used in internal conflict and self-aggrandisement.
Paul, writing to the Church, takes great care working through these arguments, in what is effectively a long plea for unity amongst the people of God, a plea which culminates in the great poem of love in chapter 13, and the trinity of Christian virtues: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
But then, in the final couple of chapters, Paul moves on to give the people of Corinth a way forwards; a way of being the spiritually dynamic people of God that was clearly their potential; indeed, their calling; a way in which the diversity of their faith and spirituality could be a gift, not a source of conflict. In doing so he laid out a set of expectations for how the Church, the gathered congregation, might operate; a set of expectations that we hear today.
A set of expectations, principles, that I would suggest ought to shape the way that we, as Christian community, seek to discern the will of God for the future.
How do we, as a community, seek to discern God’s way for us?
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.
Even in these opening words, two thoughts emerge. “When you come together”. God’s guidance for a community is not something handed down from on high to a designated authority or leader in his or her private reflections; it is “when you come together”.
And more – when you come together “each one has” something to contribute. It is the very nature of the Christian community that every voice is important, every thought, reflection, insight, doubt, confusion, prayer, hymn; all are needed.
So let them all be done. When we gather in discernment of God’s will for us as a community, everyone has something to contribute, and all are needed.
But there will be those to whom God seems to be giving special insight or wisdom; so let them speak. But not, notice, ever just one. “Let two or three prophets speak,” Paul writes, “and the others weigh what has been said”.
There is no place here for the speaker who believes that they have all the answers; there is an absolute expectation that there will need to be more than one voice heard, and that no voice is accepted uncritically. Two or three speak, and all listen. And all weigh what they hear.
And I’m pretty sure that “weigh what they hear” is supposed to mean what we normally do: “work out how to argue against” or “dismiss because of who the speaker was”. Or, for that matter, “take automatically as gospel truth because it happens to reflect our point of view”.
No. Listen. And weigh.
And if someone else wants to speak, the first person should be silent! Now there’s a radical idea. Instead of holding onto the floor, Paul describes a style of discerning together in which a speaker can graciously allow another voice to be heard; even a voice that might be raised in disagreement, because the speaker believes that all those present are part of the same team, the same body, working together to hear the voice of God.
Because – back to the words of Jesus – we believe that the Spirit of God is guiding us into truth. Us. Together.
So can you imagine a way of meeting, of planning, of discerning that looks more like this vision than like Q&A?
Can you imagine a way of discerning God’s will which assumes that everyone is actually part of the process, essential, gifted with their share of the spirit of God?
And better still, can you make it happen?