4th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST — Hieromartyr Methodius, Bishop of Patar (312). Rt. Blv. Prince Gleb Andreevich (son of St. Andrew Bogoliubsky—1174). Translation of the Relics of St. Gurias, Archbishop of Kazan’ (1630). Martyrs Innas, Pinnas, and Rimmas, disciples of Apostle Andrew in Scythia (1st-2nd c.). Martyrs Aristocleus—Presbyter, Demetrian—Deacon, and Athanasius—Reader, of Cyprus (ca. 306). St. Leucius, Bishop of Brindisi (5th c.). St. Callistus, Patriarch of Constantinople (1363). Icon of the Most-holy Theotokos “HODIGITRIA” (“THE GUIDE”) at the Monastery of Xenophontos on Mt. Athos.
Especially given the events of the 20th century, the rise of Communism, Fascism, world and regional wars and the persecution and slaughter or men, women and children because of religious or ideological differences, the virtue of obedience has–understandably–fallen into disrepute not only among non-Christians but Christians as well. It is as if we have said, personally and collectively, “I have been betrayed by those in authority and so I will no longer trust anyone but myself.” While not universally the case, many of us–again whether Christian or not–live not so much in willful disobedience but in helpless fear. At its core our not wholly unreasonable suspicion of
obedience reflects the scars left by love and trust abused.
The Gospel this morning, however, places obedience at the center of our attention. And it is not simply a generic obedience but the kind of obedience we have come as a culture to dread and fear I think more than any other. It is a soldier’s obedience to his commander; a commander’s expectation of obedience from his troops. “…I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (v. 9).
Hearing this, the Gospel says that Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He Who is God from All-Eternity become Man, the Creator become a Creature, “marvels.” At this moment, it is not a man who stands in awe of God, but God Who stands in awe of a man. Jesus then turns to His disciples, to His friends and those to whom He is closest and says
Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vv. 10-12).
Neither the man’s race–he was a Gentile–nor his profession–he was a Roman solider and so responsible for enforcing the Emperor’s will–keeps him from being an exemplary, an icon if you will, of faith. If anything, a life time of military service had taught him what it means to entrust not only his own life, but the lives of those he loved, to someone else.
When we think about obedience and its place in Christian life, we often unconsciously adopt the narrow and frankly deformed notion of obedience that is current in our culture. As a Christian virtue, obedience is not mechanical, it does not deform or obscure what is unique in the person. Much less does Christian obedience require that we sacrifice our freedom.
What it does require from me, however, is that I sacrifice my willful self-centeredness, my pretense, my myriad affectations and all the little ways in which I pursue the good opinions of others rather than the will of God.
So what do we mean, in a positive sense, by the Christian virtue of obedience?
First and foremost, before it is anything else, obedience is entrusting myself to the care of God. We see this in the Gospel; the centurion has absolute confidence that Christ can heal his servant. He say to Jesus, “only speak a word, and my servant will be healed” (v. 8).
We should linger momentarily on this verse because it contains a second characteristic of Christian obedience. The centurion doesn’t simply trust Jesus in a general sense. Nor is his trust limited to his own life. No, the centurion trusts Jesus on behalf of his servant.
We see this again and again in the Gospels. Jesus heals, for example, the paralytic let down through the roof not because of his faith, but in response to the faith of his friends (Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26). Or, to take another example (John 2:1-11), Jesus changes water into wine not at the request of the steward of the feast or of the bridegroom. No what He does for them He does in response to the faith of His Mother the Most Holy Theotokos who is herself a model of obedience (see Luke 11:28).
Christian obedience to God is always an mutual obedience. It isn’t simply your obedience or my obedience; it is rather always our obedience. We are obedient to God together because Christian obedience is both a personal and a communal virtue.
Intuitively we know this. Think how easily someone’s bad example can infect us. My obedience is never simply mine alone. It is dependent on yours, even as yours depends upon mine.
So what do we see? While ultimately, obedience is always obedience to God, somewhat closer to our everyday life my obedience to God embraces the willingness of those around me to entrust themselves to God as well. Again, we see this in the Gospel.
We also see something else in today’s Gospel and in the other passages to which I alluded. The obedient Christian is sensitive not only to God’s will for his own life but also to the will of God for his neighbor. Especially in an American context, this is one of the most neglected aspects of obedience.
Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov’s in The Arena (p. 45) we are reminded that it is only “Faith in the truth saves.” But faith in what is untrue, faith “in a lie” is the fruit of “diabolic delusion” and “is ruinous, according to the teaching of the Apostle” (see, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). We need to be discerning about how we live out obedience on a day to day basis. Precisely because obedience is always shared, we ought not to be obedient to those who do not demonstrate by their own lives that (1) they are themselves obedient to God and (2) that they are obedient to God’s will for our lives.
This is not meant to be a writ for self-will. Rather it is to remind us that to “At the heart of leadership within the Church is the care of souls.” For this reason, those to whom we are asked to be obedient must themselves be willing to be held “accountable for the lives and faith of those with whom [they have] been entrusted.” A leader–a bishop, a priest, a spiritual father or a husband, a wife or parent–cannot expect obedience from others unless he or she unless “the model” of their “own life” is a clear example of “integrity of … faith and conduct” and their “oversight of others” gives to them an ever greater share of “responsibility to … fulfill” their own vocation (see, Metropolitan Jonah, “Episcopacy, Primacy, and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective“).
While this is a lofty standard, it is not one alien to common sense. We are free in Christ and real obedience in Christ is therefore freeing. True obedience doesn’t cripple us, but liberates us from anxiety and worry and all the myriad little and great sins that hold us captive to sin and death. But obedience is not magic but is the right exercise of my freedom in relationship to both God and my neighbor. That I must grow in freedom, that my understanding and acceptance of freedom will (hopefully) grow and mature over time doesn’t change this. If anything, it highlights that Christian obedience is only possible where divine grace and human freedom converge.
This brings us back, in a positive way I think, to our culture’s suspicion of obedience. The recent history I outlined a moment ago, to say nothing our own own personal histories, provide us with ample evidence for while a mechanical and undiscerning submission to the will of another human being is unwise. And this is just as true, maybe even more true, when the other person’s claims to speak for God.
Just as a solider must disobey an unlawful order, we must disobey those who counsel or command immorality or rebellion against God. But, and again like the solider, when we do this we must also be willing to bear the consequences for our disobedience. As I said a moment ago, authority and accountability travel together and I ought not to imagine that I can resist immorality without cost.
Thank God at least within the Church these situations are relatively rare (though even one instance is one too many). In the main when conflict arises in the Church it does because we disagree on the practical, everyday details of life. The first to realize when this happens is that honest disagreement is not the same as disobedience. A difference of vision shouldn’t be equated with rebellion or a lack of faith.
All this being true, I think it is important that when I find myself in these kinds of practical conflicts I defer to authority. Deference is I think the everyday form that Christian obedience takes. In a funny way, it is easier for me to practice obedience in “big things.” Much harder is deference in the little things of life. And yet, what does Jesus tell us? “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).
What makes Christian obedience so difficult is that it almost always demands of me fidelity in what is least. This is hard because what I want from God is the grand vision, the master plan. And I want this because, to be honest, it makes me feel important.
But what I get from God is typically only the next step or two down the road. My willingness to take that step or two is, in the final analysis, the true test of my obedience.