On the Good of Obedience

ascension

Ascension Day—Sunday, May 17, 2015. Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” Psalm 47:8

On occasion I like to try and get away for a personal retreat at Mount Savior Monastery in Pine City, New York. Nestled away in the hills the brothers of Mount Savior follow the Benedictine rule of prayer and work. One of the things that has struck me in my time with the brothers is the monastic virtue of obedience, especially as it is related to the abbot. As superior of the monastery all of the other monks subject themselves in obedience to this man who stands in the place of Christ, as St. Benedict said, and obey him “as if the order came from God himself.”

Likewise, two weeks ago when I was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Colin he asked myself and my fellow ordinands: “Will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” To which we all made our vow in the affirmative.

I want to preach this morning on the good of obedience and how the gift and virtue of Christlike obedience might serve to make us one and thus enable us to faithfully bear the gospel into the world. There is a classic text on this from the early 20th century called Christ the Ideal of the Monk.[1] In it the author describes this virtue of obedience, or mutual subjection, in terms of becoming like Christ. The monk is to follow in the footsteps of Christ himself whose “whole existence is summed up in love for the Father.” And what form does Christ’s love of the Father take? “The form of subjection [obedience]: Lo, I have come to do your will.”

The monk is obedient because Christ is obedient. Remember, for example, how moments before he was arrested Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And then immediately Jesus submits himself to those who have come to arrest him and a little bit later to Pilate and to the religious leaders who would have him killed. Jesus’ love for and obedience to the Father took the form of submission to and obedience to others, deeply trusting the Father, even unto death.

For the monk, it is this exercise of mutual subjection that joins him to Christ in this way. Here then is the point—obedient submission is a figure of Christ. It reveals the gospel in some way.

Today we celebrate the ascension of the risen Jesus. Moments ago we heard the very last words of Luke’s account of the gospel: “Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” This is curious, is it not? Why must Christ ascend? Was the resurrection not enough? Well, we get a glimpse of the answer in Ephesians. God the Father, writes Paul, “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The ascension reminds us that the heart of the gospel is not simply that—contrary to all reasonable expectations—Jesus came back to life after being dead for a few days. But that in doing so he defeated that last great enemy, death, and thus God the Father raised him up, seated him at his right hand, and placed all things under his authority. Paul uses no uncertain terms here: “He has put all things in submission under his feet.” Jesus is Lord over all things. This is not just a personal opinion, for Paul this corresponds to the reality of what God has done in Christ Jesus—the gospel.

The gospel is the truest thing in the world and the sole reason for the Church’s existence is to proclaim and embody this gospel—that God, to use Paul’s language, has adopted us into His family making us sons and daughters, inheritors with all the saints of his glorious riches. That God has given us His very life. And that all of this has happened in Jesus Christ who was obedient to the Father’s will and has now been raised up to have dominion over all things.

Thus, Christianity begins not with what we must do but with what God has done in His Son Jesus Christ. Christianity is the religion of grace. Rejoice! Be glad! This is what the word gospel means, after all—joyful news; glad tidings. This is why the disciples upon witnessing the ascension of their friend and Lord, Jesus, are filled with great joy (Luke 24:52). Hear again the words of the Psalmist: “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth,” (Psalm 47:1-2).

“And [God the Father] has put all things in submission under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Jesus has authority over the whole world, yet this authority and rule begins in the Church from whence he is working to draw all people to himself. That is why the centre of Paul’s prayer for the church is that we will come to realize that the immeasurably great power of God which raised Jesus from the dead is available to us who believe and is in fact at work in us (Ephesians 2:17-19). How different would our life at St. Cuthbert’s be if we daily sought to walk and pray in this power? Where do you see this power at work already? Where might we see it moving forward?

The Church, then, is a community of folks, dampened by the waters of baptism, who are learning what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. We are a people who are living into the kingdom of God. And this life, our common life, has a shape to it.

Let us return now to the monastic virtue of obedience. The monk is obedient to the abbot because Christ lived a life of obedient submission himself and because the abbot is as Christ to the monk. In light of our salvation then, Paul argues that our life of obedient mutual submission is precisely how we faithfully embody the gospel in a broken and divided world. Being the church isn’t about being nicer people, it isn’t even about making the world a better place, it is about becoming like Christ by living lives of obedient submission as he did. As Paul writes towards the end of this same letter: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (5:21). We obey Christ, and are made like Christ, as we submit to one another. So then, our common life of obedient submission, one to another, is a figure of the gospel itself—it reveals something of Christ himself and the way in which God has given Himself to us in Christ. Oh that we daily would open our lives up to his reordering, and there find joy, hope, and true freedom.

But this is a hard thing and if you’re anything like me you don’t like the sound of this. Is this really what we’ve gotten ourselves into? Does my love for Christ really demand that I subject myself to you? Indeed, this is the shape of Christian duty, because as I have said in a few different ways already, mutual subjection offers us the means of our conformance to Christ. A conformance that is given especially when we suffer the burdens of these relations unjustly. Jesus suffered patiently and our submission one to another provides fertile ground for us to suffer patiently as well and in-so-doing to be conformed to Christ by joyfully sharing in his suffering. For faith discovers Christ hidden beneath the imperfections and weaknesses of the human creature, to whom we offer ourselves in self-giving love.

This is why division in the church is so tragic, because our refusal to humbly, gently, and patiently bear with one another in love, distorts the unity of the gospel—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Eph 4:1-6). Division obscures the truth of the gospel itself.

And so this is our challenge and, I believe, our hope here on Ascension Day. That the world has forever changed in Christ Jesus—all things have been subject to him, and he rules over all. So then, “Sleeper, awake!” writes Paul. “Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you,” (Ephesians 5:14). And again elsewhere he writes, “When [Jesus] ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people,” (Ephesians 4:7-8). Wake up! Christ is risen—he lives! Christ is ascended to the right hand of the Father—he rules over all! May the light of Christ shine upon us, may the Spirit of God awaken us to this new reality, and may we live into the kingdom of God as we submit one to another, that we may be one. For he has given us grace to do so. Come, and let us together find true freedom in submission to Christ Jesus who is head over all things for the church, and who blesses us and sends us out for the good of the world. Amen.

[1] For a more in-depth engagement with this work by Dom Columba Marmion see the chapter titled ‘Bad Bishops’ in Ephraim Radner’s, Hope Among the Fragments.

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