Obedience: Making God’s Will Our Own
Proper 24: Isaiah 53: 4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
21 October 2018
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the passage from Hebrews we learn that obedience is required for everyone. The letter reads, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Jesus, even as the Son of God, must be obedient to God the Father. As for us, we are saved through our obedience to Christ. The obedience demanded of Jesus was comprehensive and total. It was learned through suffering. And, Jesus was made perfect as a result of this obedience and suffering.
But “having been made perfect” does not simply mean that Jesus was “without sin.” Jesus was always without sin, so there is no sense that Jesus became more sinless as a consequence of his obedience. Rather, the phrase, “having been made perfect” is better understood to mean that Jesus’ life was brought to its final goal, to its completion, because he was obedient all the way to the end. The Greek word for perfection is “telos”, which means goal or final purpose. The purpose and final goal of Jesus’ life is to be the source of salvation for humanity, to be God’s suffering servant. If Jesus had not been obedient all the way to the cross, God’s reconciliation of humanity would not have taken place.
It is also important to notice that this phrase, “having been made perfect” is written in the perfect past tense, which tells us that this perfection was something that God accomplished in him once and for all. It is not a state that Jesus achieved for himself. Hence, neither can we bring our own lives to their final goal by ourselves.
The obedience demanded of us is no less comprehensive or total than what was demanded of Jesus. Like Jesus, we too are called to be servants. By suffering, whether it be in body, mind or spirit, we also learn obedience. The difference between us and Jesus, however, is that his vocation was to be the suffering Son of God, which we read about in the prophecy of Isaiah. Our vocation is to witness to the fulfillment of this prophecy.
But obedience is hard for us, especially those of us in the 21st century, where we prize personal autonomy as the ultimate goal worth pursuing. To be autonomous literally means, “self-rule” or “to be a law unto one’s self.” To be autonomous is not to have to obey anything except that which issues from our own wills. Immanuel Kant, the very influential and famous 18th century German philosopher, grounded human dignity in autonomy. In contrast, as Christians, we ground our dignity in being made in the image and likeness of God, not on autonomy. The extent to which we resent our loss of autonomy, especially, our physical autonomy, as an affront to our dignity, shows just how pervasive this secular philosophical viewpoint has become in our modern world and how antithetical it is to the Christian life.
Hence, as Christians we cannot seek autonomy as the final goal and purpose of our life. This is 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what God requires of us. If the truth of the matter is that we are fundamentally ignorant, sinful, and broken human beings, then the laws and rules that we construct for ourselves on those foundations will produce a life of ignorance, sinfulness, and brokenness. The evidence for this, I daresay, is indisputable.
But why is obedience so hard for us? It’s hard for us because in order to be obedient to someone willingly, we have to trust them. It is hard to perfectly trust another person because they are human. We’ve probably all been let down, disappointed, and betrayed by someone we’ve trusted. It makes us cautious, and harder to trust in the future. We risk being harmed if our trust is misplaced. Obedience can only be exercised properly when we trust that the power and authority a person has over us won’t be used to harm us. When we trust people we make ourselves vulnerable to them.
Obedience and trust are not to be avoided, however, because they are natural conditions of the human life. They exist because we live in unequal moral relationships, both to God and to each other. Classic examples of unequal moral relationships are that of ruler to subjects, parents to children, physicians to patients, and teachers to students. With respect to Christ we are not equal to him. He is our ruler, our physician, our teacher, and our high priest. There is only one respect in which we are equal to him. When we are united to him, we stand with him before God the Father as sons and daughters, too.
Obedience, then, only makes sense in hierarchies. Hierarchies, especially natural ones, are not bad in and of themselves. Indeed, a hierarchy is simply an organized set of relationships which rest on higher degrees of authority. Since we all have different gifts, areas of expertise, and occupy different stations in life, it doesn’t make sense that there would be no hierarchical relations at all. These kinds of ordered relations only become problematic when those in authority use their power to oppress and abuse, and increase their own status. This is not how power and authority are to be used. The exercise of authority and power should be used to serve and secure the well-being of others.
This is essentially what Jesus is trying to get across to the disciples. When James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you,” the disciples are asking to invert the natural relationship between teacher and student. That is their first mistake, trying to usurp the authority and role of their teacher. Worse yet, the disciples ask Jesus to use his power to “Grant [them] to sit one at [his] right hand and one at [his] left.” So not only are James and John asking Jesus to be obedient to their wishes, like some genie rubbed out of a bottle, but they ask to share in Jesus’ power to rule in the kingdom of heaven. James and John think Jesus is great and they want to be great like him. But they mistake Jesus’ power and authority for his greatness and not because of his role as the suffering servant Son of God.
Jesus, of course, says to them that they have no idea what they are asking, to include not understanding the depth of the suffering that Jesus will undergo to fulfill his vocation. But even though Jesus acknowledges that the disciples, too, will suffer on account of him, Jesus points out that he does not have the authority to grant them any position of power in the kingdom of heaven.
After hearing their request, Jesus calls the disciples together and explains to them that their motivation to acquire power and status is confused. Greatness is achieved through servanthood, he tells them. There is no heavenly reward for being a tyrant. Servanthood is produced through obedience. It is the perfection, the final goal and purpose, to which God calls all of us, in our various roles and vocations.
When we are obedient, we stop being a law unto ourselves. When we are obedient we leave behind our own egos, opinions, and desires and do what the one in authority over us commands us to do. When we are obedient to God, we substitute God’s will for our own, aligning our will with his. When we knit our hearts to Christ in this way, his will becomes our will. We, like Christ, become living examples of God’s love and grace and peace to all we serve. This is how God’s grace is on display every day, how it is given and received, through us, when we are obedient to him.
Obedience, to be sure, never comes easy. We have to trust that what God asks of us is for our good and for the good of those we serve. Jesus had to trust that his suffering had a purpose and meaning. That through his vulnerability, by surrendering himself totally to the will of God, that he would accomplish God’s will to reconcile all of humanity to him. We, too, have to trust that what God asks of us, and whatever we might suffer as a result, has a purpose and meaning beyond our own self-centered purposes for our lives. We have to trust that when we obey Christ and become vulnerable to him, we open up ourselves and allow God’s grace and reconciling love to act through us. That is how God’s power is made perfect through our weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
This is why Jesus calls us to follow him and obey him and why our salvation is achieved in this way. The point of obedience is not a trial to see how well we can endure suffering for the sake of proving ourselves worthy of God’s love, or to make ourselves perfect. The point of obedience is not to achieve any status or to receive a reward. The point of obedience is to substitute God’s will for our own, and by so doing to make ourselves instruments of God’s love and grace to a broken world. This is how we serve God and our neighbors. This is how God will bring our lives to their final purpose and goal, and to their Christ-like perfection.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen