by Michael N. Jagessar
Of recent I have been given much thought to the promises made at induction and ordination services and its implications for our vocation as followers of the way of Jesus. In our “post-everything world” and heavily individualistic tendencies, there is an urgent need to reflect on and consider the place of “obedience” in our individual and collective life together. Obedience is difficult. We all want or prefer to do our own thing. Few of us like to be told what to do. We love our freedom which is often separated from responsibility and accountability to and with each other.
In the context of the United Reformed Church, is there a tension between “the habit of obedience” which is at the heart of discipleship and a “free church” and “non-conforming” ethos? How much ‘agency’ do we give or are able to give to a “habit of obedience” in our conciliar way of discerning? How and where do we locate and place “obedience” in our ministry to and with the whole people of God? How can we move beyond a ‘cringe reflex’, perhaps for legitimate reasons, at the mention of the vocation/calling to a Christian life of obedience?
In terms of a larger picture, can it be that one of our dilemmas is that obedience as a virtue has become separated from the gracious call of our generous God in Christ, resulting in the “call to obedience” being perceived as an uncompromising command (associated with fear for instance) that loses its sense of grace and generosity? With such a perception, obedience is then experienced as an arduous and enforced habit rather than as a joyful virtue with costly implications for our life of faith and faithfulness. The mark of the habit of obedience is radiant joy. It is there when we “centre-down” living life with the ‘singleness of eye’ and when we are wholly yielding to God in Christ.
From the perspective of discipleship, obedience ought to have a natural flow as our lives are transformed by the inward grace of love. One who is born anew in and of God in Christ ought to be inclined to a habit of obedience that desires to remain in the flow of love. In other words it is about the living Christ living in us—the abiding presence of Christ shaping our personal and collective life together. As an act of love in response to the offer of full and abundant life, obedience does not ask in the first instance, “what shall I do?” Rather the habit propels us to ask whether we are willing to surrender all – that is to “lessen” so that the way of God in Christ can “increase”.
The habit of obedience is a call to trust. “Only the believing obey, only the obedient believe” wrote Bonhoeffer. Can it be that Bonhoeffer is challenging our attempt to ‘order’ faith and obedience, creating a distinction between believing and obeying? Obedience is the prerequisite for discipleship because we can learn to trust Christ as we have experienced Christ’s presence in our lives. We must learn to “step out” trusting that we would either land on something solid or we will be taught to fly. Faith in God in Christ is not speculation! And let us be honest: if we knew what God has in store for us, we would most likely try to talk ourselves out of it!
So as we journey through Christmas, into the New Year and Epiphany, let us take time to ponder, to be surprised, to step-out in faith and to make helpful promises. And let us promise ourselves to overcome getting in God’s way – prayerfully reciting: “not my will, but yours de done”.