The story is told of four monks who came to see the great desert father, Abba Pambo. Each spoke about the virtue of one of the others. The first fasted a great deal, the second was poor, the third had acquired great charity and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty years in obedience to an old man. Abba Pambo said to them, “I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others had obtained the virtue he wished to acquire, but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another”. The monk who “lived in obedience to an old man” was devoted to the loving service of another.
Obedience is a term, which has come to make many of us shudder today. It doesn’t seem to have any good connotations whatsoever, and appears to be in direct contradiction to many of the things we prize most highly, such as freedom and personal choice. In contrast, obedience is often seen as a narrowing down of life by submitting one’s will to another in a servile sense, to the extent of abdicating from personal responsibility. As children we were all taught to be obedient to our parents, our teachers, well basically anyone who was older than us, and though at times this may have been challenged or negotiated it was still pretty clear at the end of the day who was in charge. Its not surprising therefore that obedience has often been equated with an infantile state of submission in the best-case scenario and as dictatorial oppression in the worst.
Well our two readings this evening seem to uphold this view of obedience. To any sensible person, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son seems outrageous, regardless of whether it be a test of faith or not. How could a loving God command such a thing of a faithful servant, surely these are the actions of a tyrannical bully. Equally shocking though is Abraham’s apparent blind obedience. In true Old Testament brevity, we know nothing of what Abraham is thinking or feeling about such a command, all we are told is that he obeyed without a word of question or complaint. Surely this is an example of religious oppression at its worst and we can’t blame it on a human institution this time as it comes from the very mouth of God.
Similarly, in our New Testament reading from John, Jesus commands Peter to be essentially like him, the good shepherd, and to tend his flock in what appears to be proof of his love. However, in contrast to Abraham whose obedience brings the reward of a ram for sacrifice instead of his son and the Lord’s blessing, for Peter the reward is to be bound and taken to a place he does not wish to go. To obey Jesus’ commands not only seems to be about losing freedom but also one’s life. Peter had seen what had happened to Jesus and the kind of death he endured, surely he must be mad to obey such a suicidal command.
It would be easy to dismiss these two passages as being about the spiritually elite who, either impress or horrify us by their faithful obedience, but either way are out of our league. Easier still would be to interpret these passages differently and stress not the obedience, which is asked of both Abraham and Peter but the faith they show. But this would be to avoid a very thorny issue and not answering a charge, which is often laid against God. Given this, how then are we to understand these passages, let alone apply their wisdom within our lives?
Maybe one of the things, which clamours at our ears and prevents us from listening to the Word in these passages, is our negative and fearful understanding of obedience itself. Obedience has not always had such connotations. As we heard in the saying from the desert fathers, obedience has been held as the highest of all the virtues, not because it was to do with submitting to another’s will but because it was to do with loving service of another. This understanding of obedience can be found at the very root of its meaning. The word obedience comes from the Latin oboedire, which does not mean to obey but to listen. The prefix ob can be translated as ‘in the direction of’ whilst audire means to hear. The word obedience thereby conjures up the image of leaning towards someone, straining to hear what they are saying, giving them all your loving attention as if your life depended on it. Obedience therefore is not so much about hearing and obeying as listening in love to another.
From this understanding of obedience the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son is no longer simply seen as a test of his obedience to the will of God, but rather of his loving trust in God. God tells Abraham that he must do the impossible and he listens and does what he is asked, not out of obedience but out of loving trust. All parents know that, whilst a child may see obedience as your will over theirs, from the parents point of view all is done out of love and concern. Explanations may make this all clear, but when a two year old is on the verge of rushing into a road, what is important is that, regardless of whether they can see the car or not, the child in loving trust immediately hears the voice of the parent and listens or obeys. It is this depth of love and trust that God tests in Abraham and the result of this is not so much a reward of many offspring, as the ratification of this relationship in a covenant between God and the people of Abraham.
Our reading from John’s gospel is similarly more concerned with mutual love than doing as Jesus commands. What is immediately striking about Jesus’ three commandments to Peter is that they each spring from a question concerned with love. There is something of the paranoid lover in Jesus as he keeps asking, as if for reassurance, whether Peter loves him. So much so that Peter starts to get annoyed, even hurt that Jesus doesn’t know how much he loves him. Here we have a scene where Jesus is not so much testing Peter as seeking the assurance of their mutual love. It is out of this that Jesus asks Peter to look after his sheep and lambs, not in the sense of being a priest to the flock of the church, but in the sense of mutual love. Just as Jesus has loved his sheep, so he asks Peter and each one of use to do likewise and to love and care for one another. To strain and listen in love to the needs of others, freely choosing to put aside our own desires for the sake of theirs, and so fulfil his command to love. The words, which follow are thereby a reality check, to walk the way of love is to walk the way of Christ, and like Peter before us, it is to find ourselves similarly bound and taken where we do not want to go. But this willingness to give up our own desire for self-fulfilment for the sake of others is no longer a servile obedience rather the path to freedom and fullness of life.
This new and liberating understanding of obedience can be found not so much in the words of John’s account as in its structure. It cannot be a coincidence that Jesus’ three questions to Peter before a burning charcoal fire mirror the three questions put to him on the night of Jesus’ arrest. There, Peter full of fear not only denied Jesus but also himself. Fear cast out love and made him his obedient captive, a slave to his will. Now the resurrected Jesus stands before him, not to give Peter a chance to undo his denials but to physically show him that ultimately it is love which casts out fear, he is no longer obedient to its bonds of oppression, love has set him free. But his love is not just a new set of shackles it is the way, which leads to true freedom and to life. If we want proof of this, then we need only look around.
In the last few weeks, I have never seen such an overwhelming expression of kindness and goodness and love as I have experienced in this College. Time and again individuals have set aside their own concerns and fears and have strained to listen to the needs of others and have been obedient to their call. It has not answered those questions of why such a brilliant and good young man such as Tsz should be killed so suddenly but it has brought love to a desolate situation, it has brought resurrected life out of death.
So let us this evening in loving trust strain once more to listen to the words of Christ to “Come, follow me” and to seek to walk in his way of loving obedience which casts out fear and leads to the freedom of fullness of life. Amen.
13th May 2007