The Christian year provokes us to reflection upon many key words that shape our faith. During Advent we deepen our understanding of waiting, watching, anticipation, hope, announcement. With Christmas we explore joy, new birth, promise, and other delights. Epiphany opens our eyes to gifts, journeys, and revelation. Pentecost focuses us on Spirit, community, the church, service, and mission. These are but a few of dozens of words from key moments in the Christian story that merit exploration, openness, and rethinking of our practice of faith.
Holy Week brings an abundance of words that deserve our careful reflection and response: Passover, sacrifice, passion, betrayal, serving, denial, fear, prayer, blood, cross, death. Then there are the words of Easter: joy, life, witness, resurrection.
Obedience is a word that comes into focus for me during Holy Week. In Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in his prayer at Gethsemane, and in his submission to the cross we see a radical redefinition, expression, and invitation to obedience.
Obedience is not my favorite word in the Christian adventure. I prefer to mull over words like grace, love, charity, generosity, kindness, prayer, caring, or joy, and to reflect upon how these shape my life. There’s something appealing about these other words; they pull me forward, invite me in, and provoke in me a positive curiosity. I’m attracted to them.
In contrast, words like obedience, duty, submission push me from behind, and they prod me into places I don’t always want to go. They rob me of control, offend my sense of self, challenge my pride, and undermine my pretention. With words like these, I risk losing my independence and choice, perhaps losing something of myself to which I cling. They take the focus away from what I want, what I know, what I desire, where I want to go, and what I will.
Obedience invites me into an unnatural humility, a trust that is hard and deliberate. Obedience suggests there are some things we do, not because we want to do them, but because Jesus asks us to. Jesus commands them of us. We perform acts of grace, offer ourselves, sacrifice time and talent, express love and service because . . . well, simply because Christ tells us to. What we perceive we need or where we desire to go isn’t the driving question. Our will is not the center. There are things we do because Jesus did them. We do things Jesus did, love the people Jesus loved, act the way Jesus acted. That’s what being a follower and a disciple means. Pretty simple. Pretty hard.
Watch ballet dancers glide across the floor, their every movement both extreme and elegant. They effortlessly lift themselves on tiptoe, spinning in graceful movement to the music. One dancer lifts another overhead as if weightless, with such incredible ease of motion. Every movement perfectly coordinates in graceful patterns that make it all look so unspeakably natural, effortless, and graceful.
How do they do make it look so easy? They have worked very hard. How do they make it appear effortless? They have put years of extraordinary effort into the task. Their discipline has laid a foundation for an exquisite creativity. They are able to do things they never could have imagined at an earlier stage because of a disciplined submission, an obedience to teachers and lessons and fellow students for years.
By using the metaphor of the dancer, I risk supporting a works righteousness corruption of the message. Rather, I would suggest that through faithful obedience practiced with intentionality, the following of Christ becomes more creative, satisfying, effective, and graceful even when it takes us into places we may not want to go. In some people, obedience begins to look effortless, even natural. They have cooperated with the Holy Spirit in their own sanctification, in their own perfecting, in a way that has allowed God to use them in remarkable ways. A patterned and practiced obedience, a saying Yes to God, even when doing so stretches us into uncomfortable territory becomes a foundation for creative and life-changing ministry.
Holy Week means many things. During worship services, meditations, sacraments, prayers, fasting, Scripture readings, youth dramas, and special musicals, we remember Jesus, open our hearts to his life and his death, and celebrate the new life given us in Christ. Between the sober reflections of Holy Week and the joyous choruses of Easter morning is a bridge, a necessary pathway. And a critical word and necessary commitment for crossing that bridge and finding that pathway is obedience. In practiced obedience is greater freedom, finer humility, more intentional serving.
Jesus says, “Follow me.” The words are an invitation to an adventurous new life, and they stimulate our curiosity, our commitment, and our anticipation. But Jesus’ way also includes a whole host of imperatives: Go . . . Teach . . . Pray . . . Give . . . Heal . . . Love . . . Wash . . . Forgive . . . Offer . . . Obey.
When we obey, we find ourselves moving toward those who suffer rather than turning away; we find ourselves reaching out when our tendency is to pull back; we discover ourselves offering an open hand instead of a clenched fist. We discover that giving our lives allows us to receive life, and that in losing it all, we gain more than we ever imagined. We discover that what looks like death to self really prepares us for new life in God. That’s the way of Christ.
What would sustained obedience in a consistent direction, daily honoring and serving God, look like for you? What unexpected places might such an obedience to Christ’s mission take you in your community?
What might sustained obedience to the mission of Christ mean for your congregation? For your conference? What tasks of discipleship trouble us? Which are we prone to avoid? How does obedience to Christ push us through to tasks we would never choose for ourselves?
Read John 12:20-27.