When I was ordained a deacon, I remember very well the promise of obedience that we all made. Approaching the bishop, you place your hands into his and he asks you “Do you promise obedience to me and to my successors?”
And again at the ordination to the priesthood, I gave my hands to the bishop, and again the question “Do you promise obedience to me and to my successors?”
It is the only promise that the priest makes twice. So it will stick. And I have often heard older priests say that it is the most difficult promise – not celibacy, not the discipline of prayer, but obedience.
Obedience is one of the most counter cultural concepts lived and taught by the Church today. Particularly, I think, in our American culture. And that is why I think that the readings this weekend, if we are open to them, are some of the more challenging readings that we hear all year.
Joshua starts us off right away in our first reading with the question: Who will you serve? Will you serve the Lord?
And in our second reading, St. Paul was adamant in his insistence that wives should be subordinate to their husbands and husbands love their wives as Christ loves the Church by giving up his life for her. In our Gospel, which follows Jesus’ challenging teaching about the Eucharist, he asks his followers to choose: will they accept his teaching? Many don’t and they leave. Peter, and some others stay.
The situations are stark and the stakes are high in our readings this weekend. They show us men and women who have to make a decision, who have to decide: Who will we serve? Whose teaching will we follow? There is no dodging the question, no hedging. You have to look into someone’s eyes and decide: will you follow or not. I think it might be the fundamental question that our society is asking Catholics today. Who will you serve?
Now you can see how many people, many of us might have wanted to ask Joshua or Jesus, well why do I have to answer you? Can’t you just leave us alone and let us figure it out? Why this insistence that there be a choice? Why does someone have to serve someone else and follow their teaching, why can’t everyone just make up their own mind? Why obedience? Educated, well informed people should be able to live and let live, right? What if I reject the either or, serve this or serve that? Can’t we be masters of our own destiny? Isn’t that the American dream?
But St. Peter knew better than that. He knew that he was going to serve someone, something – and if not, he would just be serving himself. And so as he looked around at the options, the choice was very clear to him: where else was he going to go? He was pretty convinced that there was something different about Jesus Christ, that he spoke words of eternal life, that he understood the truth about our destiny and knew how to get there. Could he say the same for his wife? For his governor? For his best friend? For himself? No.
And he also knew that if you are really serving someone, obedient to someone, you cannot pick and choose what to follow and what not to follow. He didn’t say to Jesus, “Well, I will follow you and I like your teachings about the poor, but this whole Eucharist thing, I’m just not really sure that I can buy that.” Who’s the master in that picture, Peter or Jesus? It would have been Peter, setting himself up as arbiter and jury, deciding which teachings of Jesus he should accept or not accept. No, when you are serving someone you don’t just accept the teachings and decisions that you approve of. That’s what you do with an advisor when you are the master. Peter knew that Jesus did not come to be an advisor, but that he was God’s son. And you don’t ask God’s son for advice, you ask him what he wants you to do.
If you look at the statistics, I think it’s very clear that many, many Catholics are treating the Church as an advisor. They are happy to accept the teachings of Christ that they have an easy time accepting, but the teachings they find problematic – well, they overlook them. Their master is somewhere else – who is it?
Some might respond: but Father, you just made a switch – you started with Jesus and ended with the Church. I am serving Jesus, I am obedient to him, but the Church – well that is an advisor to me on how to serve him. The Church is made up of human beings.
True, and don’t we know that in recent years. But the weakness and sinfulness of the Church does not change the fact that we are all weak and sinful human beings, does it? And if we are not obedient to our bishop’s interpretation of Christ’s will in matters of faith and morals when they speak in union with the pope, then whose interpretation are we obedient to? Who are our masters? Who are we serving? We’re serving someone, we’re listening to someone. We’re making someone else the master, whether it be ourselves or a political party, or some other social affiliation. And unlike the bishops, who Christ promised would always be guided by the Holy Spirit to keep the faith until he returns, we have no guarantee that our evaluation, much less the evaluation of a political party, will be guided by God’s will.
Are we first Catholics, or are we first democrats, or first republicans, or first independents? Who has the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching and apply it to our world today? A priest very clearly promises obedience to his bishop – twice – so it is very clear that he must follow his lead – even if he can’t stand the man, and even if he argues with him. When push comes to shove, Peter understood that even when the teachings are hard, even when the road is difficult, we must trust that in Christ and his Church dwell the words of spirit and life, and work to figure out how to accept that.