Who Are You Listening to?

Portrait of funny young man with awesome hairdo isolated on whit

Fourth Sunday of Easter

A few years ago, when I was relatively new at St. John, as I walked out of church one Sunday after mass, I was strongly reprimanded by an unhappy couple. (In my experience, only unhappy people tend to do that.) They said they would never return to this church because they vehemently disagreed with what I said in the homily. I quickly racked my brain. I was not sure exactly what I had said to offend them. Eventually, they insisted I was telling parishioners to break the law when I preached that we should welcome undocumented aliens in our community. I think it was around the time of the 2008 presidential campaign. I said I was simply preaching the gospel because Jesus Christ said we should welcome the poor, the lost, the sinner, and the stranger; basically, everyone society says has no place among us. I went on to say that message probably also included drug addicts, the mentally ill, illegal immigrants, and homosexuals. Now I’m not saying that drug addicts, the mentally ill, illegal immigrants, or homosexuals, are evil or less than human, only that they have customarily been treated poorly by human society, and that perhaps Jesus was telling us those were exactly the people he came looking for. Besides, if they were already Christian, already baptized, then they already belong to us anyway, and that was enough reason to reach out and welcome them. Oooooh, no, no, no. That was simply unacceptable. So I suggested we sit down and look at the gospel, because if I was preaching the gospel, it was the gospel they were disagreeing with, not me. Needless to say, they walked away. I don’t remember who they were, since I was new, so I can’t say whether they’ve changed their minds, or that I’ve seen them since.

Difficult issues often give us occasion for pause. As a community of Christian disciples, we are not immune from difficult issues. We will sometimes hear contentious and opposing views and voices, even within the church, and eventually we will have to pick sides. I am convinced the outcome will depend on who we listen to. We might genuinely not know what to think sometimes, which argument to side with, which voice resonates with our convictions. And we can also allow our prejudices, our resentments, and our agendas to help form our opinion. But if we know the voice of the Good Shepherd, if we know what the gospel teaches, we will find the right path. It all depends on who we listen to. So who do you listen to?

In the early church when Christianity had not yet differentiated from the Jewish faith, Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Holy Spirit, and sent by the church in Jerusalem to preach the gospel to Jewish communities scattered throughout the region. But they also began attracting listeners who were not Jews. Paul and Barnabas spoke of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, how the people and leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, putting him to death. But God raised him to life and brought about forgiveness for our sins. So our justification does not come from the law of Moses, but from the triumph of Jesus Christ over sin and death. And they began suggesting that coming to faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first. It was an untested idea, and those of Jewish background not only disagreed with them. They were also highly insulted, royally offended, and vehemently opposed to what Paul and Barnabas was suggesting. We read, “they were filled with jealousy, and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.” All that opposition was not enough to deter them. Instead, they were emboldened by the gospel. “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles,” that is, those who were not of Jewish origin. And the reason they give was that the Lord himself had commanded them, “I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” Essentially, they believed it was the Holy Spirit’s plan all along that they bring the gospel to the gentiles. Bold words indeed. But if Paul and Barnabas had truly been listening to the Holy Spirit, it could not have been done any other way. It was a choice between what was popular with a very vocal audience, and what was right according to God’s plan; what the crowd wanted, and what the Holy Spirit wanted.

So from the moment you get up in the morning until you turn out the lights at night, who do you listen to? Hardcore political talk radio? Hateful and inflammatory speech? Inane and irrelevant broadcast news? The rich and famous? Powerful politicians? Television and movie personalities? Musicians? Preachers? Basically anyone with access to a microphone who likes to yell out their prejudices and sometimes their ignorance over the public address system? Ahem … Does listening to these voices feed your passions? Do they give you the incentive to be your best self, and do your best work? Do these voices raise your heartrate? Do they give you ulcers?

“But they make so much sense and are so flawlessly reliable beyond reproach!”

Of course, they are, unlike those other radio shows, those other demagogues, those other broadcast news channels – so full of lies, so blatantly false, so unbelievably absurd.

I know, it’s a free country. No one can tell you who or what to listen to. But I am asking you to stop and seriously think about what you do listen to. Jesus reminds us in the gospel that those who are his own hear his voice. He knows them, they follow him. He gives them eternal life. We cannot seriously claim to belong to Jesus if we refuse to listen to his voice. And the choice to listen to his voice alone is no guarantee his message will find a home in our lives. Plus, there will still be many other voices competing for our attention. (With Paul and Barnabas, they were prominent women worshipers and leading men of the church. They could be people who aren’t happy unless they are complaining about something, people who like to gossip … ) Jesus doesn’t say his followers will not hear them, or that they will have no influence over them. And we still need to take his message to heart, because it can not give us life unless we give it power to transform us. Maybe we should listen to Jesus’ voice more than those other voices. Maybe we should measure those other voices against Jesus’ voice, so that we can weed out those that lure us away from the path that leads to eternal life.

The apostle John saw a vision of a great multitude, a great crowd which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, who stood before the throne of God and the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. They are the ones who have survived the time of great distress, and who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. These are the ones who not only listened to his voice, but who have been transformed by his message. The time of great distress is the present age, a time that will determine who belongs to Jesus and who does not, who will be among that multitude and who will not. Who do you listen to?

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013