Obedience as Discipleship

In the writings of the desert fathers, there is an interesting interplay that occurs regarding a literal understanding of instructions and a literal understanding of the scriptures.  The Scriptures reveal Christ and so often are not understood literally or historically but rather are read as signs or prophecies or prototypes of Christ.  The Scriptures are to help us remain faithfully united to Christ – and thus their historical or literal truthfulness is not the really important issue.   The issue is how they reveal Christ to us and help us follow Christ.  In the early Church it is often the heretics who hold to a completely literal interpretation of every text and who fail to understand the true scope of the Scriptures.  On the other hand, one sees a literalism that is related to obedience in which the disciple tries to fulfill the wish of the teacher to the letter of the law.  So we read:

On another occasion the blessed Arsenius said to Abba Alexander: “Come and eat with me when you have cut your palm-fronds, but if some guests come, eat with them.” So Abba Alexander worked away evenly and moderately; when the time came, he still had palm-fronds. Wishing to fulfill the elder’s instruction, he stayed to complete the palms. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that [Abba Alexander] had guests, but Abba Alexander went [to him] when he had finished the palm-fronds in the evening and the elder said to him: “You had guests?” and he said: “No.” “So why did you come?” [the elder] said to him. “Because you said to me: ‘When you have cut your palm-fronds, come then,’” he said, “and, observing your instruction, I did not come because I only completed [the task] just now.” The elder was amazed at his scrupulosity and he said to him: “Break your fast earlier so you can perform your synaxis and partake of your water, otherwise your body will soon sicken.” (Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 44-45)

Many in the early church read the sin of Eve and Adam as being one of prideful disobedience.  The corrective as they saw it was for Christians to be disciples – to follow the discipline of their teachers and not follow their own self-willfulness.  Thus we find in the desert fathers many stories of monks diligently and scrupulously obeying their elder’s instructions, even to the point of absurdity.  Of course, the point is not to do the absurd, but to emphasize the need to be a disciplined follower of Christ.

Obedience is Better Than Asceticism

Photo by Seth Bobosh

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

As we move through the second week of our Lenten sojourn, we are reminded that if we are not acting in love or if we are not growing in love than our Lenten discipline, no matter what heights of ascetical self-denial we attain, are in vain.  The purpose of Lent is to control the passions and sin, not just to strictly change our diets.  Among the sayings that come to us from desert monastics are the words of Amma Syncletica. 

She also said, ‘As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 234)

Asceticism can become a source of pride as we compare ourselves to how others are keeping or not keeping the food fast.  Or, even as we compare how much better we are doing this year than last or this week than last week.   Pride can set in, judgmentalism, gossip, bickering and backbiting. Or, on the other hand, envy and jeealousy, showmanship and hypocrisy.

Amma Syncletica thinks that obedience to an elder or a rule is even better because then there is no self pride, self vaunting, seeking attention or hyper-vigilance in watching what others are doing or keeping track of how much more I am doing than others.  Obedience says, it doesn’t matter what others are doing or not doing, I have a rule which I am to keep and that is what I need to be mindful of.  There is nothing to get proud about, or envious, or judgmental – we are simply doing our duty, doing what we were told to do.

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”  (Luke 17:7-10)


Christian Obedience Must be Freely Chosen

Christians have valued the virtue of obedience from the earliest days of the Church’s existence.  This obedience was not that of cowering sheep ruled over by a tyrant – a kind of obedience Christ characterized as belonging to the Gentiles who love to lord it over one another (Luke 22:25-26).  The obedience within a Christian community is one of love, freely chosen to work in harmony and concord with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ so that each and all mutually submit one to another. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”  (Ephesians 5:21).  It is a great ideal, and very had to maintain.  Because humans in society also need order, hierarchy is sometimes a social necessity, but it too can be easily abused.  Sometimes within the Church and through its long history one gets the impression that the only virtue valued by hierarchy is obedience by the flock.  That is a sad reflection of how the world of the Fall penetrates even into the Church, for ultimately the command of Christ is that of mutual love and obedience must submit itself to Christ’s command to love.  In the Nicene Creed we do profess faith in a church that is one, holy and catholic, but no mention is made of hierarchical.  The oneness of the church, the unity, is to be held together by love.  Hierarchy is good when it supports the commitment to love one another.

“Monastic obedience is a religious act and, as such, it should be free, otherwise it would lose its religious significance. Obedience is fruitful only when it has the character of free denial of one’s own will and reasoning…for the sake of learning the will of God…  If in the monastery the abbot or other spiritual guides are obliged to use ‘discipline’, it is a sure sign of the decline of monasticism and perhaps even of the entire understanding of its goal and essence.”   (Nicholas Sakharov, I Love Therefore I Am, pg. 218)

The same can be said of parish life – if parish leadership has to constantly address issues of discipline in the parish, it is a fairly good sign that parish members have forgotten their commitment to love one another.  They have lost sight that their very purpose for being in the parish community is to practice love for one another: which means freely submitting their own behavior and will to the needs of others and the good order of the community. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).

Denying the Self Will

The Lord Jesus said:  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24)

Apostle Peter

Fulfilling the Gospel commands of Christ has been the desire and goal of His disciples through the ages.  Countless numbers of Christians left homes and families and became monks and nuns in an effort to practice the command to deny the self.   But even among them, many became monks to follow their own will and desire rather than in obedience to Christ.  Many Christians choose to follow Christ only in those areas that suits their own personalities – what comes natural to them – but not in those areas which really require self denial.   The practice of true self denial, requires us to obey Christ not just when it suits our  personalities or is convenient or when we happen to agree with or approve of the behavior.   Some people are kind or generous by nature, some are by nature indifferent to the finer things of life, some find abstinence suits their personalities.  However, to obey Christ, to deny the self or one’s self will in everything is another matter.  In the desert fathers we find this story:

“Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo. Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbor.

The first fasted a great deal;

the second was poor;

the third had acquired great charity;

and they said of

the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to an old man.

Abba Pambo said to them, ‘I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.’ ”

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 196)

A Thorn in the Flesh

St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-12:9:

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

St. Silouan the Athonite (d. 1938AD) writes about his own experience with a thorn in the flesh:

“The love of God gives strength to continue in prayer the whole night through, but pain in my head wears me out and I am obliged to give up and rest. These headaches have been given me because I insisted on having my own way, and left my task as steward to go into the ‘desert’ to have great freedom for prayer; but the Lord wanted me to spend my life in the Monastery as steward. Twice they would have made me prior, and once senior steward, but each time I refused, and for that God punished me. It was only later that I understood that everyone is needed in the place where he is, and we may all be saved whatever our office.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pgs. 465-466)

Even a School of Fish can Teach us obedience

 Matthew 4:18-23

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic wrote about the above Gospel:

“We are presented with two examples of obedience: that of the fish and that of the apostles, and it is clear which is the more touching. The fish obey the Lord’s command and unhesitatingly place their lives at His feet. The Lord had created them to serve men’s bodily needs. But see how the fish are able to fulfill a spiritual need of men. To those who had fled from God, to rebellious and disobedient men, they served as an example of obedience to their Creator. In very truth, these fish could not have been more greatly glorified had they been left to live and swim in the Lake of Gennesaret. They redeemed their lives with great honor by serving in the plan of the Lord, the Redeemer, as an example and reprimand to disobedient men. The Lord’s inexpressible mercy is evident in this: the Lord uses all His creatures to bring man back to the path that he has lost, to arouse him, sober him and raise him once more to his primal dignity.”  (Homilies: Volume 2, pg. 188)

The Grace of Humility

As we prepare ourselves for entering into the Great Fast and while we are thinking about the lessons from the Gospel parable of the Publican and Pharisee, we can consider these words which contrast obedience and fasting:

“Neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only genuine humility can do that. None of the other virtues could save a monk, because none of them could so effectively overcome the natural tendency to rely on oneself, to look to one’s own achievements as the reason for one’s happiness and well being. The elders were well aware of the treachery of this kind of thinking and warned against it. They were especially concerned that no one should imagine that the work of asceticism alone could bring one closer to God. The martyrdom of obedience for instance – suspending one’s own wishes and desires by placing oneself under the authority of another – would do more to loosen the tenacious grip of one’s ego than any amount of fasting. It is for this reason that Amma Syncletica said,

‘Obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility.’”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pg. 237)

Sermon Notes 1 November 1992

3 STATEMENTS ON PRAYER   Sermon Notes   1 November 1992

1] The election – pray to God for our nation and for our leaders. We are in special need of God’s guidance at this time. Pray that God will guide you in your voting.

2] Intercessory prayer – How would you feel if you knew that at the throne of God, there was always someone pleading to God that he have mercy on you?

We are to pray for one another. We do have a list of people we are praying for. We have a parish directory. Pray for one another. Then you will have someone standing at God’s throne pleading for you. And you will be standing in God’s presence when you stand in prayer – this is also a blessing for you.

3] 2 Chronicles 25:5-13  (Listening to God, no matter what the price)

Moreover Amaziah gathered Judah together and set over them captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, according to their fathers’ houses, throughout all Judah and Benjamin; and he numbered them from twenty years old and above, and found them to be three hundred thousand choice men, able to go to war, who could handle spear and shield. He also hired one hundred thousand mighty men of valor from Israel for one hundred talents of silver. But a man of God came to him, saying, “O king, do not let the army of Israel go with you, for the LORD is not with Israel; not with any of the children of Ephraim. “But if you go, be gone! Be strong in battle! Even so, God shall make you fall before the enemy; for God has power to help and to overthrow.” Then Amaziah said to the man of God, “But what shall we do about the hundred talents which I have given to the troops of Israel?” And the man of God answered, “The LORD is able to give you much more than this.” So Amaziah discharged the troops that had come to him from Ephraim, to go back home. Therefore their anger was greatly aroused against Judah, and they returned home in great anger. Then Amaziah strengthened himself, and leading his people, he went to the Valley of Salt and killed ten thousand of the people of Seir.

Failure that Leads to God

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

St. Mark the Ascetic writes:

“If Peter had not failed to catch anything during the night’s fishing (cf. Luke 5:5), he would not have caught anything during the day. And if Paul had not suffered physical blindness (cf. Acts 9:8), he would not have been given spiritual sight. And if Stephen had not been slandered as a blasphemer, he would not have seen the heavens opened and have looked on God (cf. Acts 6:15; 7:56).” (St. Mark the Ascetic in The Philokalia, Volume One, pg. 142-143)

There are moments in life when we have nothing – nothing to hold on to, nothing to show for our efforts, nothing for which to look forward, nothing to  hope in or believe in or trust.  It is in those moments of “nothing”, when the world has nothing to offer, that we become open to life beyond this world:  something greater than my self, to the possibility that the world or even the entire created universe in and of itself is not sufficient for human aspiration.  We become open to the possibility of God who is not limited to or by the created order.  This realization can become for us a time of hope and faith – that nothing is not all there is.

Two Stories about Discipleship from the Desert Fathers

1)    “Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo. Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbor. The first fasted a great deal; the second was poor; the third had acquired great charity; and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two year in obedience to an old man. Abba Pambo said to them,  ‘I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.’”

2)     “Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria.   He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said,

‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’”

(Pambo in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg.196)