Homily: 6th Sunday of Easter – Cycle A
In the six years that I spent in the seminary, I spent a good number of hours participating in various workshops and presentations focused on formation for living a life of chaste celibacy. This, so that I would not so much see celibacy as a discipline to be endured, but rather a life-giving choice: a “gift of love”, if you will, that directly connects to and supports my calling to the ministerial priesthood. This is because it is assumed that the promise not to get married (and, thus, to live a chaste single life) is a very difficult one to keep for a man who, for the rest of his life, will often find himself living alone in a parish rectory; and so the seminary wants to be sure that the men who will be ordained priests are equipped with the tools that they need to live this lifestyle well.
Fr. Ron Knott was one of only a couple of diocesan priests on the formation staff at the seminary and what he brought to our formation was a treasury of lessons born out of practical experience gained through nearly 40 years of priestly ministry. He used to love to tell us: “Don’t worry about priesthood. The first 40 years are the hardest, the rest is smooth sailing.” But he was the first one to tell us as seminarians: “You know, people think that the hardest promise that a priest makes is the promise of celibacy. After nearly 40 years of priesthood, I can tell you that the hardest promise isn’t celibacy, but rather obedience.” He claimed that a higher percentage of conflicts that a priest will experience in his priestly vocation will come out of his promise of obedience to his bishop, rather than his promise of celibacy.
Part of this, he argues, is that there is a widespread misunderstanding of what obedience means. The common definition that many of us might give to obedience is “being subservient to the will of another” (or something along that vein). In this definition, obedience seems negative as it is often associated with one person’s domination over another person. Slaves and other servants are “obedient” to their masters, just as good children are “obedient” to their parents, grandparents, teachers, etc.
The word obedience, however, comes from the Latin verb oboedire, which translates literally to mean “to listen towards” something. Thus, obedience, for it to be true, always involves a relationship between the one who responds and the one who speaks. This is an affectionate relationship, since one would not “listen towards” someone or something that he or she didn’t think had concern for him or her in return. Thus, true obedience involves a level of intimacy between the one who responds and the one who speaks. To put it another way, obedience, if it is true, is really an act of love.
Jesus, of course, understands this correct definition. In our Gospel reading today, he says: “If you love me, you will keep [that is, obey] my commandments.” Here Jesus is directly linking love with obedience. And as we heard throughout the rest of this passage, Jesus reveals to us that love, expressed through obedience, initiates a cycle of love between the disciple, Jesus, and the Father, in the Holy Spirit, that gives the believer filiation (that is, sonship) with God. In other words, love, expressed through obedience to Jesus’ commands, initiates the believer into nothing less than the dynamic life of the Holy Trinity. (I’ll bet you never thought obedience was so powerful, did you?)
Well, OK, Father, if obedience is love, then why is it so hard? Well, perhaps it’s because we haven’t correctly understood love, either. The love that we speak of here is so much more than affection (that is, good feelings for another person). Rather, the love we are talking about here is the willing of the good (that is, happiness) for another: even if there is no reward (and, perhaps, even suffering) for yourself. Obedience, therefore, often involves self-sacrifice. (Just ask any of our military veterans here if obedience to their superiors ever involved self-sacrifice… this is why we honor our fallen veterans with a special holiday this weekend.) This component of self-sacrifice is why we often view it as being slave-like. We think, “I have to give up what I want in order for that other person to get what he or she wants.” But didn’t Jesus say “No one has greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”? Obedience, therefore, willfully given, is really an act of love; and most especially when it involves some sacrifice of one’s self.
My brothers and sisters, obedience is easy when it begins with the relationship. A turning point for me in my understanding of obedience came when I was preparing to be ordained a deacon (which happens a year before being ordained a priest). I was on retreat and had been given a copy of the ordination rite so as to meditate on what it was that I was about to do. Included in the rite is an instruction to the candidates for ordination that the bishop may give in place of the homily. In this instruction, the first words that the bishop says are: “My sons…” I knew right then and there that my promise of obedience to him (and to his successors) was not a promise of servitude, but a promise of sonship. And just as a son will obey his father because he loves him and he knows that his father would never ask something of him that wasn’t ultimately for his own good, I knew I could promise to obey my bishop, because he looks on me as his son.
Our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we honor this month, knew this quite well, also. When the angel Gabriel came to her with the message that she would bear God’s Son, she made herself obedient to him: not as a slave who fears retribution, but as a daughter who trusted completely in God the Father’s love for her. Even though it would be revealed to her that her “yes” to be the Mother of God would involve great suffering for her, she never failed to obey what God asked of her through loving and following her Son. For this she has been glorified in heaven and for us she has become a model of true obedience.
My brothers and sisters, the reason that we went through six weeks of Lent (anyone here remember Lent?... I know, it was sooo long ago!); the reason that we went through six weeks of Lent was to restore our relationship with God the Father in Christ Jesus, and thus our obedience to him. And the reason that we are going through seven weeks of Easter is bolster our hope in him: the hope that in our baptism and by our obedience to him we have been initiated into this cycle of love, which is the Holy Trinity, and thus can live our lives as if the promise we wait for—that is, the full coming of God’s Kingdom—has already been fulfilled. Therefore, let us live this mystery by being obedient to Jesus’ commandments to love God and one another and by always being ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for our hope (even when that means that we may suffer for doing good); because the promise of new life in the Spirit—the resurrected Body and Blood of Jesus—is here with us at this altar.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – May 25th, 2014