The concept of obedience has fallen on hard times.
And for good reason.
In some previous generations,
obedience to any and all authorities,
a parent, a boss, the government,
was generally considered absolute, and unquestioned.
And in an era that were even more patriarchal than today,
obedience was written into marriage vows,
that is, of the wife to her husband,
not the other way around.
that obedience came at significant personal cost.
There have been many people in our history,
and continuing to the present day,
that lose their own sense of selfhood,
because of a badly distorted notion of
obedience for the sake of obedience.
Power is so easily abused.
Authority so easily becomes authoritarianism.
Leaders easily get accustomed to having their own way.
And we end up with bullies as leaders.
So for those reasons, and more,
I’m glad that today we are often shy about the subject of obedience.
We choose more suitable substitutes,
like mutual respect, and
honoring the other or honoring the office.
And I’m really glad “obey” rarely shows up in marriage vows.
But . . . and you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? . . .
it’s just possible we may have lost something
important and life-giving along the way.
One cannot read scripture—Old or New Testaments—
without facing explicit teachings about obedience—
mostly obedience toward God,
but toward some human authorities as well.
Obedience is associated with the good life.
While disobedience is associated with grave consequences.
Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading from Deuteronomy 30
is a prime example, here’s v. 10:
“For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you,
just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors,
when you obey the Lord your God
by observing his commandments and decrees
that are written in this book of the law,
because you turn to the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul.”
And Colossians 1:9-10, in our epistle reading for the day,
likewise asserts that God has a will, a purpose,
and we have an obligation to live
according to that will and purpose.
“ . . . we have not ceased praying for you and asking
that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord,
fully pleasing to him,
as you bear fruit in every good work and
as you grow in the knowledge of God.”
We read texts like that,
and we give them a nod,
but we often let them roll off our backs without much reflection.
Even talking about obedience as it relates to God,
makes us twitch.
Since obedience is not in vogue these days,
we substitute more suitable rhetoric.
Have you ever observed that we talk much more often and freely
about following God, or following Jesus,
than about obeying God’s laws,
or submitting to the commands of Jesus.
There’s a not-so-subtle difference there.
Following is softer.
Sounds like us opting for our personal preference.
Could go this way. Could go that.
All legitimate choices.
But I think I’ll follow Jesus.
There’s nothing wrong with that language.
Following Jesus is biblical, of course.
But it’s more than a personal preference.
The biblical language is much more demanding than we think.
Let me say it again.
We are told all throughout our scriptures,
that God has a will.
God has a purpose and intention for us and for creation.
Conforming to that will is obedience.
Not conforming to that will is disobedience.
Both have consequences.
This allergic reaction we often have to obeying the “law of God”
is not shared by many other world religions,
or even by Christians in many other parts of the world.
Our Jewish cousins
have a long-standing love for the law of God.
A ritual they have in every worship service,
is expressing their emotional affection for the law,
they physically kiss the Torah scroll.
Our neighbors and friends who are Muslim,
also have a clear and unmistakable reverence
for the authority of Allah,
and bowing low with one’s head on the floor,
is again, a regular and repeated ritual of worship.
I think it’s largely us Western Christians
who have hang-ups about obedience.
Like I said, I’m not faulting us for that.
The origins of that resistance are real and legitimate.
But blindly holding on to our resistance,
for the sake of resistance,
does not give room for nuanced reflection.
It is not the way of wisdom or maturity, it seems to me.
So how might we redeem the life-giving parts of obedience,
while continuing to reject the self-robbing parts?
The Jewish branch of our faith family knows very well,
that the law of God does not rob us of self.
Rather, it gives us a home, a place of belonging,
a knowing of who we are and whose we are.
The law of God gives a safe and secure home
to those of us who are free.
The law does not primarily constrict. It frees.
It’s the first word in the Ten Words (or Decalog) or Ten Commandments.
In the Jewish system of counting,
they begin with this as Word 1:
I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of bondage.
Then their Word 2 is our first commandment
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
In devout Jewish households, this get reinforced
multiple times a day in the Shema.
The God who gives us freedom, has given us a law.
And we are to love our liberating God
with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Over and over they remind themselves,
The God who brought them out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery,
welcomes them into a house of love and security and freedom,
through obedience to the law.
It does not need to be different for us.
If we can be intentional and reflective long enough,
we too might put aside our instinctive resistance,
and see God’s love embedded in God’s law.
These commandments of God do not constrict us,
they do not reduce our selfhood.
On the contrary, they free us to be whole people,
they free us to be the people God intended us to be.
Let me repeat . . . “the people God intended us to be.”
That phrase points to a core truth for people of faith.
We believe that God has an intention for us,
and for all creation.
Maybe you take for granted that everyone believes that.
That’s not the case.
Not even all Christians seem to grasp this.
We Western Christians been shaped by a secular view of life
that asserts we are autonomous beings.
We think human freedom means
we can be a law unto ourselves,
as we don’t infringe on somebody else’s right
to be law unto themselves.
We think freedom is not only choosing our means,
but also choosing our ends,
choosing our own self-made life purpose.
Well, that runs counter to one of the major claims of our faith—
that our purpose is already determined,
and it was determined by our Creator.
We were created in love, created by love, created for love.
It is God’s gift to us, that God made us with purpose,
that our life has a purpose.
God has a will for us,
and God makes that will known to us.
We are created for and called to obedience,
not to restrict our freedom,
but to show us a grace-filled path
where we discover the life we were made for.
Not everyone in downtown Harrisonburg today will agree with you,
if you make the claim that we are handed our life purpose,
and do not get to choose our own.
To many in the modern secular public,
asserting that there is a moral law outside ourselves,
a meta-narrative for our lives,
a meta-purpose for our existence,
is almost scandalous.
That notion seems to undercut individual freedom.
But no, we have plenty of freedom, plenty of choice in life.
We can choose any number of different paths
toward our God-given purpose.
We are even free to reject that purpose,
and live in rebellion against our Creator.
But what we cannot do, is choose a different purpose.
We are not able to choose our purpose,
any more than we are able to choose our species.
Our purpose, our end, our telos, to use the Greek term,
was given to us by the one who made us,
the only one who has the authority to do so.
Therefore, I am morally responsible to God for the way I live my life.
I worship a God who has a will,
and whom I am called to obey.
I have plenty of freedom,
but God my Creator, has a prior claim on me,
even as I exercise my freedom.
And that claim has its origins in love.
That’s why the Good Samaritan stopped to help the injured man.
He wasn’t blindly submitting to a coercive legal regulation.
He was living naturally out of his love and worship
of a God who has a will,
and whose will is to show love to the suffering neighbor.
Therein lies the key to redeeming obedience,
and associating it with love, instead of authoritarianism.
In Christ, love is always connected with obedience.
It was in love that God created us.
And it was for love that God created us.
God gave us an identity and purpose
to reflect the divine image,
to embody love for God and others.
So to obey God is to live in love,
and obey the loving commands of God,
and live in the love and security of God’s law.
Obeying the commands of God
is an act of loving friendship with God.
As Jesus told his disciples in John 15,
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer . . .
because a master doesn’t tell a servant everything.
But I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything my Father told me.”
Love puts a different spin on obedience.
These “commandments” of Christ are coming from a friend.
Not from a taskmaster to a slave.
Not from a big bully of a boss to the underlings.
But compelling invitations . . .
from a friend who is being open and transparent.
God in love created us with a purpose.
Then God invited us to live on purpose.
To lean toward.
I found it interesting to learn that there are two root words
behind the word “obey”
one means “to hear”
the other means “in the direction of.”
To obey God,
is literally to lean toward the sound of God’s loving voice,
to orient our lives toward God’s purpose,
to live on purpose.
God wants to love us into serving God’s purpose,
not force us into serving.
A God who calls us friend.
A God who doesn’t hold back crucial information,
so as to exert power.
But a God who is willing to reveal, to be transparent,
and then trust us to respond in kind.
That is the kind of God we should be lining up behind,
eagerly wanting, choosing, to obey.
So that we might live the whole and full life God intends.
Then, as it says a little later in Colossians, ch. 3,
we will “put on love” as a garment, as clothing.
And that love ties it all together—
“Binds into one every dissonant part,”
to use the poetic version of it,
which we find in STJ 38 — Beloved, God’s chosen.
Let’s sing together.
—Phil Kniss, July 14, 2019
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