Homily for Pentecost IV, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

What is the account we have just heard in the Gospel really about? What, I suspect, most of us remember are the words of the centurion, in response to Jesus’ offer to come and heal his ‘child’ (or maybe a young servant of whom he was particularly fond; the Greek is παῖς): ‘Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but just say the word and my child will be healed’—and then the centurion goes on, ‘For I am a man under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go, and he goes; to another, Come, and he comes; and to my slave, Do this, and he does it’ (Matt. 8: 8–9). And Jesus marvels at what he hears, and says to those around him, ‘Amen, I say to you, with no one have I found such faith, not even in Israel’. If that is for us the core of the account, then we shall find ourselves reading it as about obedience. The centurion knows about obedience—the obedience on which the functioning of the Roman Army depended—and he assumes that in the ‘kingdom’ that this teacher and wonderworker Jesus spoke of there was a similar structure of authority, held together by obedience. This kingdom, he sees, is not a kingdom limited by space and time, by history: it transcends that, and in this transcendent kingdom, Jesus’ commands will be obeyed. He doesn’t need to come and enter the centurion’s house—he, like his Kingdom, is not limited by space and time—all he needs to do is give the command, and his child will be healed. If we start off like that, then we shall go on to think about the importance of obedience—in the kingdom, and in the Church. And we do, don’t we? Particularly in Orthodoxy, we make much of obedience. One can imagine the bishop saying, in the words of the centurion, ‘For I am a man under authority [the authority of my metropolitan/archbishop, and ultimately of my patriarch], I say to this priest, Go, and he goes; Come, and he comes; to those who are my slaves [for they call me, Vladyka], do this and he does it’. We talk about obedience, too, in other contexts: obedience to one’s spiritual father, for instance.

But it seems to me that to see the story of Jesus and the centurion as being about obedience, and seeing the centurion’s experience of being under authority and in authority as about obedience in the Church, is to run the risk of misunderstanding the Evangelist’s account—and, furthermore, to misunderstand the meaning and place of obedience in the Christian life. For the real point of the story is faith. Jesus’ response to the centurion leaps over his notions of authority and settles on his faith, a faith that does not need the crutches, as it were, of Jesus’ physical presence, but is faith in Jesus’ words of healing. In the Latin Eucharist, just before communion the people respond to the priest’s turning to them, holding the Body of Christ, by saying: ‘Lord, I am not worthy, that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed’. The Lord’s word of healing cleanses us, makes us worthy to receive Christ in the Holy Gifts; but we might think, too, that the Lord’s word of healing reaches us, even if we cannot, right now, approach the Holy Gifts.

But what of obedience? It is, surely, of importance in the Christian life. Yes, indeed, but we need to explore a little what such obedience means, what it entails. Let us first explore the word itself: obedience comes from the Latin obaudire, the root here, audire, means to ‘hear’, indeed obaudire itself means both to ‘obey’ and to ‘listen to’; it is the same with the Greek equivalent, ὑπακούω, the root here, ἀκούω, means to ‘hear’ (or to ‘listen to’). So obedience has something to do with hearing, listening to, and the two verbs we can use in English to capture the meaning suggest that there is a range of hearing involved here: from the soldier who hears the barked command, and hastens to obey, to a more sensitive and careful listening that underlies a deeper form of obedience. When the centurion illustrates the kind of obedience he is used to, he talks about his ‘soldiers’, his ‘slave’ (sometimes translated ‘servant’, but δούλος, servus, really means ‘slave’). So sometimes does Jesus, but in St John’s Gospel we find him talking to his disciples of a relationship beyond that of a slave to his master:

For you are my friends (φίλοι) if you do what I have commanded you. I call you slaves no longer, for the slave does not know what his lord does [it is blind obedience that is expected of the slave]; I have called you friends, for everything that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you that you might go and bear fruit and your fruit will last, that whatever you ask of the Father in my name he will give you. These things I command you, that you love one another (John 15: 14–17).

We are called—we have been chosen—to be friends of Christ; as his friends we shall do what he wants of us, we shall be obedient to him, but this is not the blind obedience of slave, it is the obedience of friends, friends who have been admitted to the Lord’s relationship with the Father, friends who know that what is required of them is to love: to love God, to love one another, to love all those we encounter in our lives, all those we know to be in need. And love, too, is a form of hearing, or listening. It is not a matter trying to organize the world, even our world, in accordance with our own ideas, our remedies for all that we see to be wrong in the world around us. It is more a matter of listening, of hearing what is in the hearts of those with whom we live—beginning with those to whom we are closest. That hearing, that attention, is itself healing; such hearing, such attention, is also demanding—it also draws blood, from our hearts as we try to hold there the burdens of others.

Today, as well as the Sunday, we also keep the feasts of two great monastic saints: in the Greek calendar, St Athanasios of Athos, the founder of the Great Lavra, the most senior of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, and in the Russian calendar, St Sergii of Radonezh, the founder of the great monastery of the Trinity, also now dedicated to St Sergii, a little north of Moscow. Two great saints, two monastic founders. If you read their lives, you will find something of the importance of obedience, though sometimes a quixotic form or obedience, in their lives. But the passage from the Apostle, read—almost without exception—on the feast of ascetics and monastics is from St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

Now the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control… [ending:] Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal. 5: 22–3; 6: 2)