The American writer and humorist, Mark Twain (1835-1910), once said: “When I read the Bible, the parts that trouble me the most are not the ones I don’t understand, but the ones I do understand.” What do you think he was intimating? Was his trouble with their difficulty? Perhaps, but more likely, his trouble was obeying them. And this points to one of the central dilemmas for Christians. It’s not that we don’t understand what God commands us to do. However, our problem is obeying them.
Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent each year, we commemorate our venerable father among the saints, St. John Climacus or St. John of the Ladder (+649). His nickname of Climacus/Ladder is because he is the author of one of the greatest treatises on the spiritual life, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” John lived during the 6-7th century in the desert of Sinai as a hermit and hesychast for forty years. Many knew of and respected his great asceticism and eventually persuaded him to become the Abbot/Geronta of St. Catherine Monastery at the foot of the mountain, the place where Moses received the tablets of the Law from God.
Also because of his reputation as a grace-filled man of God, the abbot of the nearby Raithu monastery asked John to write a manual of how to live a life in communion with God. Thus, John wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent and it has been used by monks, nuns and lay people ever since. Of course, John’s Ladder is a metaphor, but it contains thirty (30) steps to master or overcome. We don’t have time today to cover all thirty steps, but I certainly encourage everyone to read the book.
The first three steps are: 1) renunciation, 2) detachment, and 3) exile, what Deacon John Chryssavgis calls “Break from the World.” The next four steps Chryssavgis calls the “Fundamental Virtues.” In other words, the desirable, honorable traits and habits that must be mastered before we can ascend the steps that follow, which mainly consist of overcoming the passions.
The first fundamental virtue, the fourth step of the Ladder, is obedience (upakoue). The dictionary defines obedience as dutiful and submissive compliance. It comes from the verb “obey” which means to comply with or follow the commands, restrictions, wishes, or instructions. The Greek word for obedience is ‘upakon’, and for obey it is ‘upakouw’, which literally means ‘to hear’ and then place myself under that hearing, in other words, ‘to submit to what I hear.’
Some people bristle when they hear the word obey or obedience. They get uncomfortable and even hostile because they think they are being forced to do something. However, obedience cannot be obedience if it is not freely chosen. In other words, obedience is predicated on freewill. God always respects our freedom. However, we cannot be in communion with God if we are not obedient to Him.
God does not make us pray. God does not make us go to liturgy. God does not make us fast. God does not make us help the poor. But can we commune with God if we do not pray, if we do not participate in liturgy, if we do not fast, if we do not help the poor? No. We must be obedient.
How do we learn obedience to God? We learn by being obedient to others. It starts with children being obedient to their parents. The Apostle Paul says, 20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. (Colossians 3:20). If children cannot obey their parents, how can they learn obedience to anyone else, including God? Now of course, parents must be teaching their children to be obedient to righteousness. That’s why St. Paul also says, 1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Ephesians 6:1).
Obedience learned well eventually translates to others like teachers, other adults, authority figures, and spiritual fathers. Again, St. Paul instructs, 22 Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. (Colossians 3:22). Of course, we must teach our children discernment to learn the warning signs of abusive authority. In this process of learning and practicing obedience, we must teach our children to obey God and His commandments. In the Book of Acts we hear, 29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: "We ought to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29)
Like many things, obedience is learned by watching others and their example. How can children learn to obey others, including God, if their parents do not? Actually, it works like this, we are all obedient to someone or something, but we cannot be obedient to everything. Our kids watch us and they learn who are masters really are. Is it God and His commandments and His Church, or is something else? Again, the Apostle Paul cuts to the heart of the matter when he writes: 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Romans 6:16). Thus, just like we teach our children by enforcing certain minimums of behavior in the home, the Church of Christ requires certain minimums of conduct in order to teach the faithful because she seeks to lead them to righteousness and thus to communion with God, which is eternal life.
What did Jesus say about obedience? Actually, He said nothing specifically about it. He just lived it. Jesus whole life, especially the last three years were centered on obedience to the call of His Father to save the world.
8And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, (Philippians 2:8-9). 19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)
We must follow Jesus example of obedience to God the Father. Not just in our actions, but also in our words, and even to our very thoughts. 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, (2Corinthians 10:5).
As we conclude today, listen to the main teaching of St. John Climcus about obedience. He called it: Blessed and Ever-memorable Obedience. “We mention the weapons of these warriors, these athletes of Christ. They have the shield of faith in God, their spiritual trainer to ward off every thought of unbelief, the drawn sword of the Spirit to slay every wish of their own, and the iron armor of meekness and patience to avert every insult. Their helmut is their superior’s protection through prayer. Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. Obedience is an abandonment of one’s discernment in a wealth of discernment of the spiritual father. From obedience comes humility and from humility comes dispassion.”
Centuries before Christ came, the prophet Sirach said, 15 They that fear the Lord will not disobey his Word; and they that love him will keep his ways. (Sirach 2:15). The prophet Jeremiah said, 23 But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.' (Jeremiah 7:23). My brothers and sisters in the Lord, where is your obedience? Who are you obedient to? Amen!