John Webster on the Hearing Church

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.… “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”
Revelation 3:13, 14

One of the most startling things about the book of Revelation is that it is shot through with a conviction that Jesus Christ speaks. The Apocalypse as a whole is filled with voices: shouts of praise and terror; laments; words of warning, condemnation, and promise: almost the whole range of human speech. Yet over and above all the other voices, there is the one great speaker, the first and the last, the one from whose mouth there issues a sharp two-edged sword. And that speaker is Jesus himself. He is the living one; and as he lives he also speaks. His aliveness is eloquent. He presides over the world’s history, he draws all things to their goal, he completes the destruction of all that stands opposed to the purposes of God. And as he does so, he lifts up his voice and speaks to the world in a way which is inescapably real and utterly commanding. He is not mute or absent or inert. On the contrary, he is the faithful and true witness, and his testimony, his Word, intercepts and judges and makes all things new.

This vivid sense that the risen Jesus is speaker astonishes or perplexes us. Where we are tempted to be embarrassed by its fervor, the Apocalypse is not at all embarrassed to talk in very direct terms of the vocal presence of Jesus. Our perplexity, of course, is rooted in the fact that we find ourselves in a culture which functionally and theoretically has ceased to expect divine speech. The conviction on which the Apocalypse is based—that God in Christ is a speaker, and that if we are to interpret human history we have to listen to the voice of God—is to all intents and purposes not an operative one for us. We work on the assumption that God is silent. If true words are to be spoken, we ourselves have to say them.

Figuring out why we work on that assumption is of course an enormously complex business, and getting beyond that assumption is even more difficult for us. How are we to move beyond it? How may we begin to think of the world as the kind of place where God is to be heard? If we are somehow to get back into the world so strikingly set before us in the Apocalypse, it cannot be by theory. That is, the problem we find ourselves in is not something that can be solved by just inventing clever arguments to reassure ourselves of the possibility that God speaks. Much more is it a matter of learning again a certain kind of practice. It’s a matter of relearning the habits of mind and soul in which listening for the voice of the risen Christ is the natural and obvious way of encountering the truth of our lives. Above all, it is a matter of rediscovering what it means to be a community of the Word of God.

The community of the Word of God is the community that is brought into being and sustained by the fact that Jesus Christ speaks. The Word that constitutes the community and governs its life is the good news, the message of salvation at whose center lie the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the hope of his return. Those events are set before us in highly dramatic terms in the Apocalypse as the destruction of sin and death and the vindication of the saints; as such they are a Word. That is, they aren’t just neutral, flat facts that we can consider from afar, as if they were not really our concern, as if they did not really impinge on us. On the contrary, they address us. As Word they accost us, they come to us as divine communication, they seek us out and set themselves in our midst, for Jesus Christ himself is the prophetic voice of his own saving work. And so the Christian community is, at heart, that community which is judged, acquitted, shaken, consoled, and encouraged by the fact that the Spirit—the risen Christ present before us—speaks to the churches. To be the Church is to be spoken to by Jesus in the Spirit. To be faithful is to “keep his word.” To be alive and alert is to hear what the Spirit has to say.

The primary activity of the community of the Word, therefore, is a rather odd sort of activity: the passive activity of hearing. Only once spoken to does the Church itself speak. In the Anglican tradition—seemingly a million miles away from these bizarre charismatic communities of the apocalypse—the primacy of hearing the words of the living Jesus in the Spirit is expressed as the primacy in church of the reading of Holy Scripture. It’s the lectern which is the primary home of the Word of God in church, not the pulpit. It’s Scripture read, not Scripture proclaimed, which is the first great act of speech in church. To be the Church, to be the community of Jesus Christ which is concerned with the gospel, is first and foremost to listen, to strain our attention toward that Word which God himself, present among us as the risen and ascended Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, now addresses to us in the text of Holy Scripture. Here, as always, the fundamental rule: I heard, and so I speak.

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Adapted from John Webster’s Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian.