Second Personal Obedience

Twelfth Sunday of the Year (C). Zech 12:10-11; Ps 62; Gal 3:26-29; Lk 9:18-24


In today’s Gospel, after Jesus has been proclaimed by Peter as ‘the Christ’, meaning ‘the anointed one’, he then warns his disciples about what is implied by being the ‘Christ’, namely that he will suffer grievously, be rejected by practically the entire ruling class of his people (the elders, chief priests and scribes) and be put to death, to be raised on the third day. Jesus then warns that those who want to follow him to eternal life will also have to follow him to his death, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce (or deny) himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.” What, then, does it mean to ‘renounce oneself’ in this way and to win eternal life?

At first glance, ‘renouncing oneself’ implies simply ‘giving oneself up’, but Jesus emphasises here a particular kind of giving up. ‘Renouncing oneself’ is linked in this sentence to ‘following him’, implying that what we are really meant to renounce is our own absolute autonomy: in other words, when following Christ we no long decide entirely for ourselves what is best for our lives. Just as children need to obey their parents to develop properly, giving up their absolute autonomy, so also we need to obey God, even when we might choose to do something different by our own wisdom. This choice of obedience is where the cross enters into the picture, because while it is sometimes easy to obey God, it can also be very costly at times. Jesus gave us a graphic image of this cost when his sweat was like drops of blood as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Furthermore, the sacrifice of saying, “Not my will but yours be done,” is not just reserved for the greatest, most dramatic events in life. Christian husbands and wives, priests and religious sacrifice their own autonomy in the way that they live and work. Similarly, Christian children obey parents or teachers and we are also all called to obey Christian moral laws, even when we do not fully understand why they are important.

So ‘renouncing oneself’ is linked to obedience, to following Christ, but such obedience is not a kind of cold or blind or robotic obedience. St Paul warns of this false discipleship when he says that even if we were to give our bodies to be burned, but were without love, then we would not benefit at all. We are called to have the obedience of loving sons, not the obedience of slaves used as instruments. Slavish obedience is the kind established and exploited by cult leaders, false prophets, demagogues or dictators. Indeed, it is normally a reliable indication that a religious movement is not of God when it demands an obliteration of the will and slavish obedience.

Some then might conclude that we are meant to follow God most of the time, but not all the time, but this solution does not make sense either.  The answer, I believe, is to think of obedience in a different way, more like a kind of alignment of wills, like musicians in an orchestra. In effect, a person says to God, “I shall love with you the things that you love.” In following Christ, we are not longer isolated, trapped in lonely pride, but nor are we robots or puppets, lacking a will of our own. The relationship with Christ is an ‘I – you’ or second-personal relationship in which we are moved to take on God’s stance towards things. Rather like the players in an orchestra can achieve far more when playing in harmony than when playing in isolation, so too when our wills are in harmony with God rather than in opposition to God, we actually become more fully alive and will be fruitful in all manner of good works.

So how can we achieve this loving obedience? The sacraments make this relationship with God possible, but the sacraments become fruitful on a daily basis by personal prayer. Our wills cannot be aligned with the will of God if we do not pray, never speaking or listening to God. And so I urge you, if you do not already do so, to set aside at least some time every day for prayer – preferably first thing in the morning. I also promise you two things: first, that you will find this practice difficult – a daily sacrifice of your will. Second, that you will find this discipline supernaturally fruitful. Without God, we can achieve nothing of any lasting value; with God, all things are possible.

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