"Whom Shall We Obey?" - Pentecost 17A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
October 1, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Philippians 2:1-13

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Pentecost 17A; October 1, 2017

Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32


Whom Shall We Obey?


            In Luther’s explanation to the Fourth Commandment, he writes, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise nor anger our parents or others in authority, but instead honor, serve, obey, love, and respect them.” This is a classic example of Luther taking a simple commandment in Scripture and expanding the scope. Not only parents, but all of those in authority are to be obeyed – secular leaders, pastors, and teachers.


            Of course, there is a certain irony in this explanation to the commandment. Luther liked “good order” and obedience to the proper authorities, but only when they didn’t compel a choice between obeying them and his understanding of the Word of God. Luther notoriously defied both pope and emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521 with those famous words, “My conscience is bound to the Word of God; therefore, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me. Amen.”


            Something of Luther’s attitude has made its way into our time, but it has been twisted and sharpened. Obedience is right for other people, but not necessarily for us. Whenever authorities go against our deepest commitments, we want to have the freedom to express our dissent. However, when others who disagree with us want the same privilege, we want the authorities to lay the hammer down. We are all too happy to cite Romans 13 against other people (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God….”), but we cite Acts 5:29 when it comes to us (“We must obey God rather than people.”). And if truth be told, when we say we must “obey God”, we often don’t mean the One True God of heaven and earth. We mean the god of our own values and projections; the god who doesn’t ask for any real sacrifice or sublimation of our right to self-determination. That ancient human sin of pride keeps popping back up. We want to be our own gods; our own masters; and to make matters worse, there is a drive in us to extend our mastery over others. Other people need to obey, but not me.


            Isn’t it interesting that we hear a hymn and a parable today, both of which involve obedience? The hymn shows up in our reading from Philippians, when Paul exhorts the church there to “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”. The second involves the proper authorities coming to Jesus and demanding to know his credentials, so to speak. By what authority does he do what he does? After throwing the question back on his inquisitors, Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons, neither of whom does what he says he will do. But one son – the one who initially refused to do the father’s will – is the one who eventually obeys.


            Today, I’ll focus more on the Christ-hymn from Philippians. There is something about these verses that is absolutely timeless. Just like today, the church faced internal divisions. And, also like today, many of those divisions concerned just who or what had authority. Which apostle should one listen to, especially if they disagreed among themselves? Which local leader should be followed? Which laws of the Old Testament, if any, had any claim upon followers of Jesus? To whom or what should Christians be obedient? Everybody believed that Christians ought to obey God and be under Christ’s authority, but just how that worked was (and is) up for serious debate.


            By quoting this hymn, Paul highlights several attributes of Christ’s own earthly life and ministry that are to be a model for Christians. Jesus had all power in heaven and on earth. He was and is equal to God the Father. However, he didn’t use that authority for his own selfish gain. His lordship wasn’t established by the point of a sword, but by the wood of a cross. Certainly, he was tempted to use his power solely for himself, as the Gospels tell us. And he certainly could have used the sword – during his arrest in Matthew’s Gospel, he tells one of his disciples (John identifies him as Peter) to put away his sword, since Jesus could have “more than twelve legions of angels” at his disposal at once, if he wished. But that isn’t the way Jesus works. Jesus, fully trusting in and obeying his Father’s will, was able to live, suffer, and die on behalf of others, on our behalf, to reconcile us to God.


            When we obey Christ, and follow his call to work in his vineyard, we obey the one who himself was obedient to his Father. And so we see the true nature of authority. The One – the Lord – who is himself humble; who is himself not driven by self-seeking pride but by the needs of others – that is the One who we ought to obey first before we obey anyone or anything else. Jesus, who has redeemed us by going to the cross for us, to whom everything in creation will bow, is first. Not the state. Not the president. Not any politician. Not any bishop, or pastor, or theologian. Not even the Bible. These all have their proper places, especially the Bible which witnesses and points to the authority of Jesus in the first place. Jesus says and does as much when he says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” and when he pays the Temple tax “so as not to give offense”. However, as redeemed Christians, our first allegiance is to Christ alone.


            My pastor once told me that at his first call, he received a framed, embroidered (I think) work which said: “Remember that first you are a Christian. Second, you are a husband. Third, you are a father. Fourth, you are a son. Fifth, you are a pastor.” Our first priority is to remember that we are redeemed, beloved children of God. The rest can go from there.


            Let us pray.


            Lord Jesus, you came among us as one who serves. Help us to have this same servant mind in us, emulating and obeying you first. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.