The human voice is almost as expressive as the human face. Depending on its tone, pitch and strength, a voice tells us as much as the words it conveys. Someone’s voice can by itself bring comfort and reassurance or fear and upset. The voice is the instrument of our mind and heart to intimate our deepest and most complex views. By our voice we reveal who we are and who we are not. Jesus once said that it is from the abundance of the heart that the voice speaks.
But the voice would have none of these qualities and roles if we did not also have hearing. If the voice is the active part of communication, hearing is the passive part. Hearing is as complex as the voice. It registers in our minds and hearts the identity of the speaker. We hear many things at the same time, some of them of more interest or concern than others. There is a difference between hearing and listening as there is one between speaking and moaning. Listening signals an effort of the will to understand. At times, it signals the acceptance of what’s said.
Jesus declares that those who listen to his voice belong to him. So, not just hearing his voice, but listening to it, accepting his teaching, is the measure of our belonging to him. It is clear that Jesus means by listening that those who do listen accept and obey what he teaches, for he goes on to say “I know them and they follow me.” Because we listen and follow, Jesus knows us. By knowing us, he means that the bond of belonging between him and us is one of love. One thing is to know a person’s name; another is to know that person. Jesus knows the names of all who hear him; but he only knows the persons of those who listen to him, that is, who follow and obey him.
The fruit of obedient discipleship is that Jesus gives us eternal life. Obedient discipleship draws us more and more into the heart and life of Jesus. It’s not just a matter of external conformity to this or that teaching, but being conformed inwardly in our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of Jesus. Growing in the image and likeness of Jesus means growing in eternal life. It means all we are and do becomes more Christ-like.
And because of that, the likelihood that we will wander away from Christ and get lost becomes lesser and lesser until it can never happen. Jesus says, “they will never be lost.” We only get lost when we follow our own will in opposition to the will of Christ. But if we grow in the bond of belonging to Jesus by obeying his voice, the attraction and distraction of self-will will diminish to the point of disappearing altogether.
By the same token, the strength of that bond with the Lord will mean that “no one will ever steal us from him.” The stronger our personal bond with the Lord is, sealed by living in obedience to his will for us, the less others will be able to break that bond. Who are the others who might do that? Well, anyone who wants us to abandon Christ, his truth and his love, whether it be an individual, a group of people or the devil himself.
But there is an even greater barrier to anyone being able to steal from Jesus those who listen to him and obey him. It is contained in these magnificent and mysterious words of Jesus: “The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father. The Father and I are one.” The barrier is the omnipotent power of the Father which protects us from the poaching of any enemy to our salvation. What Jesus says in these words is very deep and very consoling.
First, Jesus is telling us that our willingness to listen to him in the first place, and not just to hear him, is a gift to us from the Father. It is a gift offered to every human being. That’s what Jesus means when he says that the Father has given us to Jesus. It is a gift we could refuse, of course, because we are free and God is the first, yes, the first, to respect our freedom. But if we accept the gift of grace willingly to listen to Jesus, to obey and follow him, then we belong to Jesus because the Father has given us to him. You may recall that in the third Eucharistic prayer, we pray to the Father that Jesus may “make us an everlasting gift to you.” In other words, we are the Father’s gift to Jesus and Jesus in turn makes of us an everlasting gift back to the Father. The human being who listens to Christ becomes the object of the exchange of gifts between Father and Son.
What is even more astounding is that Jesus associates us in this way with his own eternal relationship of unity with the Father. When he says, “the Father and I are one”, he is saying that, united in that bond of belonging to him which is formed by our practical obedience to his voice, we ourselves are inserted into the union of God the Father and God the Son. Obedience leads to our graced sharing in the innermost life of God.
Hence it is that we need to hear and heed the voice of Jesus as much as we can. We will probably not hear his physical voice in this life, but we do hear the voices of those he has sent to preach his Word and to teach us his truth. When I first became a priest in 1981 there were over 70 priests active in this diocese. There are now barely over 20. This statistic is not merely about logistics and numbers. It is about your access, as the sheep of Christ’s flock, to the truth and sacraments of salvation. It is true that there are bound to be fewer priests if there are fewer children, but it’s also true that it is more difficult for young men today to hear and listen to the call of Christ in the face of so many powerful and attractive voices outside the Church and so many off-putting scandals within the Church.
Yet the voice of Christ still calls, as it still calls young couples to matrimony. The fall in the numbers of marriages even in this parish over the last 25 years or so is precipitous. As regards baptism, the longer it is postponed after birth, the less likelihood there is that it will happen. And yet, the Lord Jesus still calls to baptism as he called us into existence and as he will call us to himself at the end of our earthly pilgrimage.
I call upon you, and upon myself, to make the call to God ever more insistent that his grace penetrate powerfully and deeply into potential candidates for baptism, marriage and holy orders. Make your prayer for these vocations as permanent a feature as you can of your daily spiritual exercises. Despite all the obstacles, we must not lie down and die, but work and pray ardently for the Word and Sacraments of eternal life to be available in abundance in our place and time. Lord of the harvest, send labourers into your harvest, draw your children to the baptismal font and consecrate the love of our young men and women in the marvellous and beautiful sacrament of holy matrimony!