On Obedience

3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Martyr Julian of Tarsus. June 21, 2015

There is a word in our language, which is so odious to us that when we hear it said aloud, our hackles involuntarily raise. Our teeth grind and our fists clench. It is more disturbing to us than any swear word, or shame word, or any other vile, or uncouth, speech. Its very existence is an offense to the sensibilities of modern humanity with all our ideas of progress, tolerance, and freedom. I daresay that many of us here, when we hear it, may likely think it incompatible with the Gospel—or, certainly our form of the Gospel.

We treat it somewhat like the names of Voldemort, or Hastur, or Beetlejuice. It is the word that we dare not speak, or certainly not more than once so as to avoid any perceived negativity for us. Perhaps, perhaps, it could be applied to other people, but certainly not to us. After all, we are good people. Free. Tolerant. Smart, sexy, funny, and on and on. We’ve no need for such fearful and intolerant speech. And yet, it is at the very heart of the new life in Christ.

The word is “obedience.”

If we are honest with ourselves, the notion of a clergyman standing here giving a homily calling us all to obedience makes us uncomfortable. Already, in some of our minds we are building arguments against this call to obedience. We are telling ourselves that we do not need to submit; that we are free, moral agents, self-determining and all the rest. This priest cannot make me submit. He cannot make me obey. He cannot usurp my agency and will. To this line of reasoning I would say that you are absolutely right. I cannot make you obey. I cannot enforce obedience. I cannot not make you submit to the authority of Christ or His Church. What is more, I have no intention of demanding this obedience. But I will offer a couple thoughts on it just the same.

We cannot serve two masters. We must choose, in other words, whom we will serve, and this choice isn’t about money. It is about the self. Do you choose to follow Christ, to submit to Him, His will, His life, His Church, His commandments, or do you submit to your own selfish ego? Make no mistake, you will obey something, or someone. You will obey God or your own passions. This is the choice set before each of us.

And we will always obey the one whom we love. It is that simple, really. In the Gospel of John, Christ says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” You see, in the very fabric of our thought, we look at obeying Christ as onerous; as a burden. When you’re looking at your schedule, considering your desires, timetables, and so on, how often do you ask yourself the question, Do I have to go to church? Or, Do I have to say this, or think that, or profess this, or wear this, or behave this way, or be respectful, or be considerate, or forgive, be patient, and on, and on. In other words, like children, we ask, “do we really have to obey Christ? Can’t I just do what I want?

These questions come to us because we view authority, any authority except our own ego as an imposition. We see God, or the Church, as some monolithic thing—a giant, impersonal, institution, or the great god in the sky imposing their will upon us and we reject it. We reject them in our self-satisfied sensibilities, and ideas about the world that don’t match up with the Old Testament-type notions of obedience and submission.

If Christ tells us to turn the other cheek, inwardly we recoil in disgust. If Christ’s Church tells us to fast, to confess, to pray, and so on, we immediately feel an infringement upon our person. All this because we do not properly understand obedience.

We obey the one whom we love. Obedience is not a top-down concept. Neither Christ, nor His Church attempts to crush with oppressive demands that we must submit to. Christ does not demand obedience. We, you and I, offer our obedience to Him out of love. When we say that we obey the one whom we love, this is born out in the Scriptures. We sing, “do not put your trust in princes; in sons of men…” and the Apostle Peter tells us, “We must obey God rather than men!” When Christ, the God-man, humbled himself and became obedient unto death on the cross (Philippians 2:8), is it because the decision was forced onto Him? Did he have a choice? He obeyed because He loved. His obedience was not the response of an irrevocable demand placed on Him. Rather, it was His giving of Himself to the One Whom He loved.

So, the question before each of us today is this: whom do I love? To whom do I offer my obedience? What master shall I serve? Is it Christ? Is it my own self? This is not a question we should take lightly, for it is precisely here that we discover whether we are alive or dead. If we love Christ, we submit to Him, and keep His commandments, and in doing so, we will find life. If we love ourselves, we submit to the passions and in doing so we discover an eternal death.