Generous Orthodoxy  


Preached at Bayside Presbyterian, Dio Central Florida clergy conference, and Lenape Valley Presbyterian Autumn 2006

 

The Power of Obedience

 

 

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…(Romans 1:1-6)

 

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When Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he introduced himself as an apostle set apart for the gospel. It seems to me that when we think today of people who are set apart, we mean they have set themselves apart, like monks, or nuns, or Amish people; or they are set apart because they have special skills or training, like Special Ops troops, or Olympic teams. But this isn’t at all what Paul meant when he said he had been set apart as an apostle for the gospel. He hadn’t chosen this role; he was commandeered by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He didn’t suit the role; on the contrary, as he himself wrote,

 

I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:9-10)

 

            Let’s remember: Saul of Tarsus, as he was then called, was an arrogant, self-righteous pharisaical type—indeed, he was the very thing itself, a Pharisee—who was fanatically committed to exterminating the new Christian faith. He was literally on the road, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord as the book of Acts says (Acts 9:1), aiming to do whatever was necessary to get rid of this heretical sect when the Lord Jesus Christ knocked him off his horse and blinded him for three days That was the moment of his calling, his set-apart-ness, to be an apostle with credentials just as good as Peter’s and John’s even though he had never known Jesus personally. An apostle (Greek apostolos) was a disciple who had been promoted; a disciple is a follower, but an apostle is a fully commissioned ambassador. That is what God did with Paul. He took him from the camp of the enemy and sent him out to carry the gospel precisely to the people that Saul the Pharisee would have considered beneath him—namely, the ungodly Gentiles. It is a wonder that the other disciples did not resent him more than they did. It is comforting, actually, to know that there was tension between Paul and Peter (Galatians ); they were not stained glass saints, but remained fully human beings struggling with their faults just as we do.

 

            So this man, this apostle Paul risked life and limb a hundred times over as he traveled around the Mediterranean world in conditions so rugged that people today who try to trace his steps are amazed that he could do it. Add to that the fact that he was persecuted, imprisoned, and threatened with death almost everywhere he went, and you get some idea of how much we who sit in this room tonight owe to the Lord’s calling and commissioning of this apostle to the Gentiles—that is, to us. Without Paul, there would have been no worldwide Christian faith. Most important to remember, it was not Paul by himself. It was, as he said repeatedly, not I, but Christ in me.

 

            Paul wrote wonderful things about his apostolic ministry. He wrote to his troublesome Corinthian church that he knew there were a lot of things about him to criticize, but, he insisted, We [apostles] have this treasure [the gospel] in earthen vessels [lowly clay pots, not fine china] to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (II Corinthians 4:7)That’s Paul’s theme throughout; the transcendent power belongs to God. If there is anything at all that comes to you through the preaching of the gospel this weekend at Bayside, it is from God, not this earthen vessel.

 

In this same passage Paul reflects on the dangerous, difficult life of an apostle, knowing that he will most probably be killed eventually. He knows that his martyrdom would be life-giving for the Church. Listen to what he says about that, remembering that the suffering he speaks about is not the kind that comes to every one sooner or later but the suffering that is specific to the Christian messenger:

 

We [apostles] are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we [apostles] live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us [apostles], but life in you [who receive the apostolic message in faith]. (II Corinthians 4:8-12)

 

            Hold this in your minds tonight as we go on: We are given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh…death is at work in us, but life in you

 

Now to go back to the beginning of Romans, let’s recall that Paul is preparing for his biggest trip so far. He is coming to imperial Rome. Last night we tried to imagine the might of the Roman Empire compared to the infinitesimally small band of Christians there. He is determined to come in spite of the very real possibility that he will lose his life—as indeed he did. His letter is written to prepare the little congregation for his coming; many of them are personally named and greeted by Paul in chapter 16. The central focus of this message tonight is a phrase that Paul uses in his greeting to them. Here it is again:

 

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...through whom we [apostles] have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name…

 

            The obedience of faith. What exactly does that mean?

 

            “Obedience” is not in favor today. American culture prizes everything that is rebellious, “edgy,”, and—a favorite word of the cultural elite—“transgressive.” Staying within boundaries is nerdy; pushing the edge of the envelope is hip. Baaaad is good. It is disobedience that’s in fashion, not obedience. It takes some effort to reappropriate obedience in the way that Paul means it. He, of course, means obedience to God. He returns to this theme at the end of his letter:

 

I have written to you very boldly…because of the grace given me by God to be a minister…of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit… I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles...by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:15-19)

 

            To win obedience from the Gentiles—that’s you and me. Obedience by the power of the Holy Spirit. The obedience of faith.

 

I have one goal today and that is to offer this message: True freedom is not found in rebellion against God. Rebellion against God leads to the death of the soul and the spirit. Obedience to God may mean the death of the body, but it means life for the world. We [apostles] are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. Paul speaks specifically here of his own apostleship, but by extension the apostleship of the apostolic Church (that’s us). How do we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus?

 

That 13-year-old Amish girl, Marian Fisher, has lodged in my mind. “Shoot me,” she said. “Shoot just me, and let the other girls go.” This is as striking an example of the obedience of faith that could be imagined. I want to compare it with another school shooting. You will remember that the Columbine High School massacre was carried out by two boys who had fallen into the transgressive mode of life. As the story was told, they pointed guns at their fellow students and, in some cases, asked them if they believed in God. One girl said yes, and was shot dead on the spot. There was a book about this, called She Said Yes. I do not intend in any way to disparage this young girl’s confession of faith or cast it in an inferior light when I say that the Amish girl’s words carry with them the distinct, unmistakable, unique character of the death of Jesus Christ. She offered herself in the place of others who were younger, smaller and weaker. It is an almost exact parallel to the death of Christ in our place, we who in our human nature were in every way smaller and weaker, indeed sinful, polluted, distorted and perfectly capable of hounding him to death.

 

And here’s more: the Amish community was prepared to extend that sacrifice immediately to embrace the father, wife and children of the man who shot and killed their children before killing themselves. This is nothing short of miraculous. This is God at work. This is an extension of our Lord’s words as he was dying in agony, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

 

            It would be a great mistake to romanticize or idealize the Amish people. They have their strengths and weaknesses just as we all do, and I am sure that they and we would have theological disagreements. But there is this to be said for them. In this terrible trial they have proven themselves to be a people prepared. The strength of their ties to one another, to their biblical faith, and to their way of life has, so to speak, rooted the obedience of faith in their communal DNA. During this terrible episode they have carried in their bodies the death of Jesus.

 

            You see, when Paul speaks of the obedience of faith, it is not generic religion of which he speaks. He speaks of being in Christ (Romans 8:1, 12:5, 16:9, etc.). He speaks of having the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5), formation in Christ (Galatians 4:19), being in accord with Christ (Romans 15:5), dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6:4-8, etc.). He speaks of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14). He says we are letters from Christ to the world, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (II Corinthians 3:3).He even says that we are the fragrant aroma of Christ being spread by God throughout the world. (II Corinthians 2:15) He says all these things so that we, those who are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3) would be a people prepared. This is the obedience of faith.

 

            The obedience of faith in Jesus Christ does not mean restriction or claustrophobia or imprisonment. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means power. Karl Barth uses a phrase that caught my attention: “the power of obedience.” Aligning oneself with the power of God in obedience to the Spirit: this is the power that overcomes the world.

 

Who said that? Another apostle. Listen to this from the first letter of John:

 

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

 

            I am not an apostle. The age of the apostles ended before the close of the first century. But as the Nicene Creed declares, the church is still apostolic. That means that earthly vessels, clay pots like Christians of today, can still be agents of the transcendent power of God as the Spirit sees fit. I long to impart to you these thoughts. It is not very likely that any of us will be called upon to lay down our lives in the name of Christ. For the great majority of us, the obedience of faith is lived day to day in the humdrum details. The purpose and meaning of regular worship with fellow believers is to be a people prepared for the daily decisions:

 

·         Shall I reach out to that person who is lonely?

·         Shall I protest against unfair treatment of my fellow worker?

·         Shall I speak out against racial prejudice?

·         Shall I write a letter about Darfur, or torture, or the death penalty?

·         Shall I forego financial reward in order to serve God better?

·         Shall I than take time to teach my children, or grandchildren the ways of the Lord as well as taking them to soccer practice?

 

In such mundane decisions as these, the mind of Christ takes shape within the Christian community. As we share the Lord’s supper together, let us rejoice to remember whose Spirit it is that bears us up and links us together in the power of the obedience of faith, the faith that overcomes the world.

 

AMEN.

 

 

 


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