Sermons and Talks

“The Friend Who Teaches Obedience”: Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 21, 2021

Preached via internet to All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 March, 2021, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  Readings for this Sunday (Yr B): Ps 51.1-13; Jer 31.31-34; Heb 5.5-10, Jn 12.20-23

8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb 5.8-9)

Most of us I suspect have issues with the word “obey”.  While we want to obey the law when we have to, while driving, or while preparing our tax return, I suspect that we instinctually bridle at the idea of being told to obey.  We associate the word with dictatorships and a lack of personal freedom. We’re civilians.  We cherish autonomy.  We don’t want to be told what to do.  I think one reason why churches started emptying out in our lifetimes was because people didn’t want to be told from the pulpit what to do.  And yet here is the author of Hebrews, telling us that if we want salvation, we have to obey Jesus.

To put it plainly, if we choose to follow Jesus, then I think we have to obey him, however imperfectly, as best we can.   We obey for the same reason that we obey traffic laws, because Jesus defines a way that gets us through life and safely home.  It also helps that Jesus, as the author of Hebrews notes, models obedience for us.  Now as we approach Holy Week, and as we hear Jesus say in today’s gospel, the cross draws near.  Jesus knows where he must go and what he must do.  He knows the cost, and still, he goes.    Now I want to make it clear at the start that Jesus’ obedience is the perfect love of God’s self-giving shown on the cross.  Hebrews does not say, if you want to obey Jesus, you must suffer like he does.   What I think Hebrews does say that we follow someone who knows what our lives our like, who knows our suffering and our imperfections, and who chooses to share our burdens.  You don’t follow someone like that out of blind obedience.  You follow them out of love.

I had the chance to follow someone like that during my basic military training, which is itself designed to teach obedience through suffering.   One of the goals of military training is obedience, meaning a state of mind that allows you to think of other things than your own basic desires and wants.  Through carefully creating situations of stress, discomfort and sleeplessness, the military trains people to be leaders, to think about the mission and about the condition and needs of their troops before you think of their own needs.   If you’re hungry, you wait to eat until your sure your people all have enough to eat – that sort of thing.

Officers’ basic training is challenging for young, fit men and women in their twenties, but it’s another thing altogether for people like myself who want to be military chaplains.   My course mates were people like me, clergy in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s who’d been used to being on a pedestal and calling the shots in their churches.  Now we were out running at 5am, mopping floors and ironing uniforms, learning drill and marching cold and hungry through the woods in the pitch dark.  It wasn’t really suffering at the time, but it sure seemed like suffering to us at the time.  

Now our instructors were all “real” military, infantry sergeants and corporals with chests full of medals, and we learned that if we complained to them, we’d only get extra pushups.  However, there were two chaplains assigned to our course.   One of them showed up rarely, gave us a box of timbits, and quickly left.  He didn’t make much of an impression on us, and I honestly don’t recall his name today.   The other was a United Church pastor named Sheilah and she did everything with us – marching, pushups, the obstacle course.  On long cold nights out in the training area, she stayed with us and cracked jokes to keep us awake.  We loved her because she knew our hardships and embraced them with us.  She showed us how to be an army chaplain.

There are, I think, similarities between military training and the Christian life.   Both happen over time, gradually, and have the desired effect of changing us.  We learn to think not just of ourselves and our immediate loved ones, but we also learn to think of the group, the church.   We learn to be followers, which means that we learn obedience.  As the author of Hebrews says, we learn to follow Jesus, “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5.9).   

Even when we as Jesus followers get (at least partly) over our taste for personal authenticity and autonomy, we know that we’re not that good at obeying.   The preacher Timothy Keller says about the Sermon on the Mount, when we actually hear what Jesus asks of us, it can seem impossible, even terrifying.  Heck, it’s hard enough living out the Golden Rule most days of the week.   And yet Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”.  So it’s pretty clear that if we want this Christian life, then we will need to learn how to be obedient followers of Jesus.

If that idea seems daunting to you, take some comfort in knowing how fully Jesus understands your situation, because he does.  He’s been in our place, fully and completely.   The author of Hebrews seems to be thinking of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when  he talks about how Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who as able to save him from death” (Heb 5.  ).  Jesus himself in John’s gospel seems to anticipate the same moment when he says “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?”  (Jn 12  ).   In these two readings, we are given something profound to meditate on as we approach Good Friday, that the man who set his face towards the cross and death was human as we are.

How indeed could it have been otherwise?   Would it have meant anything if Jesus had gone to the cross, confident in his resurrection and knowing that nothing bad would really happen to him?   No, of course not.  The crucifixion would have been a piece of theatre, just empty performance art.   But it’s not.  What happens on the cross is profoundly tragic and highly meaningful because Jesus goes to the cross as one of us, to share a human death.  But we knew that already, because at the very start of his ministry, Jesus chose to share a human life.  That was the whole point of the temptation in the desert.  A wise person this week shared with me that the point of the temptation is for Jesus to abandon his humanity.  Turn this rocks into stones, fall and be caught by angels – Jesus is asked to take refuge into his divinity, to be God and not man, and he refused, because that would have made everything he did a sham.  

Jesus saves us because he did not abandon his humanity.  He lives out what Hebrews calls “the days of flesh”, fully and completely.  Jesus embraced life and death fully and completely, taking all of our pain, all of our fear, all of our struggles to obey.  He takes all we are, the good and the bad, and perfects them in what the author of Hebrews calls his “reverent submission” to God.  Only Jesus could perfectly do his Father’s will.   We know that we can’t do these things on our own.   We’re bound to be less than perfect.  We’re doomed to be less than fully obedient to Jesus, even when we try our best.   Jesus knows this about us.  That was the whole point of the incarnation, so God in Jesus could know the good things and the bad things about our nature, how easily we are tempted, how often we fail, and how we long to be what we can’t be by ourselves.   It’s ok.    That’s why Jesus is our “high priest”, because as the theology of Hebrews goes on to explain, only his sacrifice can bring us home to the father.  Remember that on the blessed day that we can take the Eucharist again.

It’s a long business, this training to be a Christian.   It may seem like we’ll never be perfect.   That’s ok.  My thoughts go back to a long march, a small column of would be chaplains struggling under the unfamiliar weight of heavy packs and helmets, feet sore and aching.   We weren’t sure where the finish line was or if we could make it there.   Right alongside us, going up and down the column, was Padre Sheilah.   She was as old as many of us, and we could see that she felt weight of her pack just as much, her feet were as sore as ours, but we could also see by her cheerfulness that she wanted to be with us and share what we were feeling.  It made us want to finish and finish strong.

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5.8).    Suffering isn’t a good in itself.  No one likes it, not even Jesus (“My soul is troubled”).   But Jesus knows that it is part of human life.  He knows that better than anyone, and he still wants to be there, in the thick of it, for our sakes.   As we approach Holy Week, let’s not just see Jesus as a passive victim and sacrificial lamb.  Let’s also see him as a friend who wants to walk alongside us, share our burdens, and see us safely home.  Amen.