The Cross of Christ Restores. . . Obedience
And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says, “I know him,” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 JOHN 2:3–6
Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death. JOHN 8:51
Some years ago I attended a religion class at a Catholic college that included several “spiritual talks.” On one particular night the talk was on obedience. I must have heard this particular talk more than once; I remember it too well to have sat through it only once. It was as though everyone had received the same set of lecture notes on how to deliver this new teaching on obedience. First the presenter would go up to the board and write “obedience.” Then he would break the word apart: ob meaning “toward” and oedire meaning “to listen to.” The presenter, who would always seem to have found in this exercise some moment of personal liberation, would then smile and say, “So you see, to obey is not some slavish exercise, but rather an exercise in listening to someone.” If one were to take a survey of all those educated in Catholic schools over the past forty years, I’ll bet there would be any number of experiences similar to mine. Suddenly a vow of obedience to a religious superior meant only the obligation to listen to him or her before deciding whether to carry out a particular instruction. Lay people adopted similar attitudes toward the teaching of Christ and his Church.
Through such disobedience, the sin of Adam and Eve is committed all over again. I suppose it is no coincidence that I have had to attend more than a few seminars on improving one’s listening skills. Here again, I know I’m not alone. A whole generation of us learned to parrot back phrases to show how well we listened, with unfortunate results. When you repeat the gist of the conversation back to the speaker, the vast majority reacts as though you are being condescending. Those in a slightly more charitable frame of mind assume that the subject of discussion is so boring that the only way you can stay awake is to repeat everything that is being said.
“Not See Death”?
When Jesus says, “If any one keeps my word,” he is talking about obedience. When Jesus says about the Father, “I do know him and I keep his word” (John 8:55), we understand him to mean that he is doing what the Father sent him to do. Similarly, John equates obeying the commandments with keeping his word (see 1 John 2:5). It is pretty clear that the more traditional understanding of “listening” implies doing exactly what God tells us. It is this kind of obedience that is Jesus’ condition to not “seeing” death. Disobedience was at the heart of the original sin. Have you ever watched a toddler assert his independence by resisting with every fiber of his little being the grown-up who wants him to do something he really, really doesn’t want to do?
Some have suggested that we are born princes but turn to frogs. It seems far more likely that we are born princes who would rather be frogs than members of a royal family. So, our fallen nature works overtime to redefine what it does not want to do in the first place.
“Keep His Word”
Jesus teaches us that we have to keep his word. Of course, this is the cross for many of us. We’d rather go our own way than follow the way of Jesus, if it didn’t mean having to face the horror of death without hope. When Jesus says that those who keep his word will never “see death,” what does he mean? I studied this passage for several hours. I found that this passage was translated differently in the Vulgate to include the word “forever,” so that the intended meaning would be that the person would still die but not forever. Many commentators simply ignore it. Death is referred to in only one other place in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Luke, where Simeon had been told that he would not “see death” until he had seen the “Lord’s Christ,” or God’s Messiah. Holding the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon prayed, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to they word; for mine eyes have seen salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32).
In the Scriptures, death was portrayed as an angel—and not necessarily a good angel. Remember, death entered the world because of sin, and resulted in separation from God. The angel of death passed over the Israelites to take the Egyptian firstborn when Pharaoh rejected God. So, what was Jesus saying? The most satisfying commentaries interpret the words of Jesus to mean that those who are obedient to the will of God, as revealed through Jesus’ teaching, will never see this angel of death; rather, when their earthly life ends, they will be greeted by the Lord and brought into eternal life. Obedience leads to acceptance into the kingdom; disobedience leads to expulsion from paradise. The secret to obedience is given to us in John’s Gospel, when Jesus teaches that he is the vine and we are the branches. Our life depends upon remaining part of him—which we do by being obedient to his commands and partaking in his Body and Blood offered in the Eucharist. John in his letter says that we can tell if we are “abiding” in Christ by our actions: Are they Christ-like? The power to be like Christ, of course, comes from dying to ourselves and allowing Christ to live within us. This requires more than simply listening to or parroting the words of Christ; this requires a complete abandonment to him. Every day the official prayer of the Church begins the same way, by praying Psalm 95: “Come, let us worship the Lord,” echoes the refrain, inviting us to see our Savior, our Creator, the God to whom we belong. With the invitation comes a warning: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.