Celebrating women who have heard the voice of Jesus | Jeff Nowers | May 12, 2019
Have you ever heard the voice of Jesus? In the passage from the Gospel of John that was just read, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I think this raises a big question for us in 2019: What does it mean to hear Jesus’ voice?
In Jesus’ own day, there were those who weren’t listening to him at all. John’s Gospel identifies many of these people as religious elites operating in and around Jerusalem. They can’t bring themselves to entertain the idea that Jesus might actually be the Messiah for whom they’ve long been awaiting. How could a blue-collar tradesperson who hails from the north, from a town as unimpressive as Nazareth, be the Messiah, especially when he was making the audacious claim to be one with God? They write off Jesus and even consider him a threat, looking for ways to end his life.
By contrast, others heard Jesus’ voice. For the last 2,000 years people have continued to hear his voice. How so? What does it mean to hear the voice of Jesus? At a most fundamental level, it means acknowledging Jesus as Messiah. And this isn’t paying mere lip service to a title that we might think is applicable to Jesus. It’s rather a deep conviction that who Jesus is, the Good News that he proclaimed, and the pattern of his life—all of that is hope for the transformation of our world. Hearing the voice of Jesus means following Jesus, which is exactly what we hear him say in John’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If we hear his voice, if we strive to follow him, we are committing ourselves and our lives to extending his message of Good News and embodying that for all around us to witness.
That saddles us with a fair bit of responsibility. In the first place, we need to absorb what Jesus’ Good News is. We’ve now entered an era where quick, short sound bites are often preferred over long-form big ideas. Jesus’ Good News isn’t reducible to a simple sound bite or short slogan. We need to study his whole life and everything he was about. When we do that, I think we find that his Good News is directed first toward the poor, the outcasts, the suffering and dying, and those in need, whether physical, emotional or existential. For those who are comfortable, those who benefit from power, Jesus’ Good News is a tough word because it demands a new way of living in the world. Jesus’ message is one of radical love, but we need to remember that he embodied it in a way that landed him in trouble with the religious and governing elites. Jesus continues to be something of a polarizing figure. If we’re going to follow him with integrity, then we need to be all-in, not just half-in.
Many women throughout Christian history stand out for doing just that—following Jesus without equivocation. One example is Dorcas, the figure that we heard about in the first reading from the Book of Acts. We don’t have many details about Dorcas; she’s mentioned in Scripture only once. What we do know is that she lived in modern-day Tel Aviv, on the central coast of Israel. She’s specifically called a “disciple,” and she’s described as being “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Was she a woman who had somehow amassed a bit of wealth that allowed her to minister so tirelessly to the poor? Possibly, but we’re not told. For the writer of Acts, that question wasn’t important. What really mattered was that Dorcas devoted her whole life to those struggling on the margins. She made clothing for those in need. She was also greatly loved by widows, perhaps because she was a widow herself.
It must have been a crushing blow to all those who encountered her when they learned that she had fallen ill and died. Dorcas was a pillar in the Christian community where she lived. She embodied Jesus’ Good News. So when word got out that Peter was passing through the area, several Christians sought him out and brought him to the house where Dorcas had just died. What did they want from Peter? Comfort? More than that; they believed that Peter possessed the faith and authority to bring her back to life. That is exactly what happened. Praying and then speaking directly to her lifeless body, he said, “Get up.” Dorcas opened her eyes and responded. Was she really dead, or just deeply unconscious? We don’t have any medical knowledge of the situation. But we can at least say this: her resuscitation had a profound impact on the whole region, especially on those who knew Dorcas but were not followers of Jesus. We’re told that many of them became Christians. The Good News that she embodied could not be stopped by the threat of death. She was back to life, continuing her work for the poor. Dorcas is an inspiration to us, today. She’s a demonstration of what it means to listen to Jesus’ voice, to follow him, to give her entire life over to the Good News.
Another example is Florence Nightingale, whom we commemorate today in the church calendar. She is credited as founding the modern profession of nursing. During the Crimean War in the 1850s—a conflict that put Russian against Britain and other allies—Nightingale organized nursing services in the British field hospitals and was tireless in her care for wounded and dying soldiers. A few short years after returning home to Britain, her own health began to deteriorate, but she never let up in her work. She was a major influence on public policy and, until her death at age 90, inspired middle-class women to rise above their traditionally submissive and passive social roles.
People like Dorcas and Florence Nightingale became famous Jesus-followers. But there’s a multitude of other unheralded followers of Jesus. Today is Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking of all those mothers who pray for their children, read Scripture to them when they’re young, ensure that their children are well fed, cared for and loved. There’s a large company of mothers, unrecognized, who lead by example, showing their children that Jesus came to bring Good News to the poor.
So today as we consider what it means to hear the voice of Jesus and to follow him, we can recall the examples of Dorcas, Florence Nightingale, and all those faithful mothers who embody the Good News. They’re an inspiration to all of us as we strive, by the grace of God, to do the same for our hurting world.