Monday, February 22, 2016

Qualities of listening as evidence of Spirit-indwelling

Consider Peter. He’s the outspoken disciple, the one we feel we know best because he talks the most and because he says the things we would say if we had the guts. He talks the most in the gospels, and there we know him as the one crazy for Jesus who always gets it wrong. He talks the most in Acts (leaving the later-come Paul aside), and there he speaks to crowds clearly and effectively, stands courageous before the authorities, and sets out new understandings of the gospel’s reach couched in wisdom gained through prayer and visions.

We marvel at the change. We say, “That’s the difference Pentecost makes, the evidence of the transformation that is possible with the Spirit’s indwelling of believers.” If we are honest, we also wonder: if that is so, why are we not all so changed? But that is a subject for a different conversation.

Spiritual listening, listening as a spiritual discipline, has had my attention lately. Partly because I’ve been doing a lot of it, and have been much in prayer for the grace and practices to do it in a way that brings forth fruit. And partly because, as I read and pray with scripture, things keep coming to mind that I have not noticed much before. Like Peter, and the quality of his listening to Jesus.

Peter in the gospels

Peter is all over the place. He grudgingly agrees to put down his nets at Jesus’ suggestion, then pushes back from Him because Peter knows his sinfulness. He wants to walk on water. He speaks without asking to claim that Jesus, of course, pays the temple tax. Let’s take a quick look at four vignettes.

Peter, in Matthew 16, declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus responds with the enigmatic “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In the very next paragraph, Peter pushes back from Jesus’ talk of suffering, death and resurrection: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

In Matthew 17, Peter is among the three chosen to witness the Transfiguration. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

This fresco makes me think of the Transfiguration somehow

In Matthew 26, Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Peter’s response: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”

Immediately following these words, Jesus asks weary, confused Peter to wait with him and watch for an hour in prayer. Peter doesn’t say anything this time. He just goes to sleep.

What strikes me today in all of these is the quality of Peter’s listening to Jesus. Peter’s words make clear that he loves Jesus, that he is willing to do anything for Jesus. He is there with Jesus. He hears what Jesus says, and what is said about Him. He declares Jesus as Christ, Son of God. But he, in each instance, makes clear by what he says and does that he does not listen to Jesus. Oh, how we identify with Peter in these moments!

Why does Peter respond as he does? He acknowledges Jesus as Lord, but his own sense of self, of how things are supposed to happen, of what he has to contribute to Jesus remains strong. He continues to live in the old paradigm where Messiahs overthrow the Romans, success is marked by fame and power, and the inner circle adds value through advice and action. He hears, he attends to Jesus’ words, but feels free to disagree. Perhaps we could say that Jesus is his lord, but not The Lord.

Peter in Acts

Post-pentecost Peter’s talk has an entirely different flavor. The unschooled, impetuous fisherman speaks bold and wise truth to crowds. He stands unflinching before authorities and calmly refuses to forsake his proclamation of the gospel. He watches, listens, and speaks to Jesus in his roof-top vision of Acts 10. He’s still Peter: in his roof-top prayer he pushes back from God’s repulsive command with the cry, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean!” But he no longer makes his personal revulsion, his heart-resistance, the end of the conversation. Three times the vision is repeated, and afterwards Peter sits in perplexity. But he remains open, it seems, for when confronted with Cornelius’ request, he applies what God has said and walks into a whole new knowledge of God’s heart for all humanity.

We say that the difference in Peter is due to the indwelling of God’s Spirit following Christ’s death and resurrection; that, from Pentecost, believers don’t simply follow Christ, but are indwelt by His transforming presence that enables us to, in the measure of our surrender to it, live out Jesus’ life in our mortal bodies.

What strikes me today about that is that a big mark of Peter’s transformation is the quality of his listening. It has become spiritual listening, listening enabled by the Spirit-life within Peter.

What are the markers of this quality of listening?

·   Peter no longer sees himself or what he might bring to the situation as necessary to Jesus. He is free to listen rather than to jump up and do, as he offered to at the transfiguration.

·   Peter no longer believes he knows his heart better than Jesus knows it. Sweeping assertions of love and loyalty are replaced by matter-of-fact, step-by-step offerings of power and grace through words focused entirely on Jesus’ story and Jesus’ power to accomplish whatever will happen in that moment.

·   Though he has not entirely given up his habit of contradicting Jesus, he now listens to how Jesus responds to his objection, and he remains alert and watchful for how the new paradigm suggested by Jesus might apply to the present moment. I love this, as it speaks to prayer as dialogue, and to our freedom in prayer to be honest about what we find too repulsive, too hard. But it shows this powerful freedom in transformational context, in right conversation with a loving, understanding Lord.

·   He stays with his prayer. He is found on the roof-top praying. However he is proceeding, he is prepared to notice and to listen when God speaks. He stays with the prayer long enough to absorb something of the power of what has been revealed, long enough to prepare himself to act in accordance with what God has shown him as he prayed.

Much on my heart as I consider how Peter was so transformed by the indwelling of the Spirit is what that has to say in our own life and experience. Today I wonder how much of the real transformation comes about in a new ability to lean into, to listen for, what the Spirit of Jesus has to tell, and then to sit with it long enough to let it transform our response, our actions in this world.

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