Doing the Will of God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
June 1, 2008
Scripture: Romans 1: 16-17; 3:22b-28; Matthew 7:21-29
“Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.” — Matthew 7:21
In the Lectionary we are at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and on the calendar we are at the end of our 2007-8 session of the Society of St John, a happy coincidence. As we go on our summer break, until July 13th, it is good to reflect on what a year of preaching should have meant, and the end of the Sermon tells us. It should mean that we are all the more inspired to do the will of God than we were when the year began. Note the emphasis on “to do.” The Kingdom of God, that is the kingly reign of God over our lives, is not primarily a matter of words spoken but rather of deeds done, not of advice given but of example shown. This is not to say that words have no place at all in our spiritual lives, but it is to warn against the great susceptibility of words to become mere cant and the bearers of that dishonesty we call hypocrisy.
One learns much about the meaning of a saying of Jesus if one imagines the situation he is addressing at the time. When he says, “Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven,” we might assume that there is a group of people plaguing him, who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. In such circumstances Jesus says it is better to do than the say, to live the life rather than merely to praise it and do nothing. Of course, under normal circumstances it is best both to do and to speak the truth. The attitude that the Lord is teaching here is in traditional Christian virtue called “obedience;” it is a very important virtue for the soul seeking heaven and a very unpopular demand in today’s culture.
Last week I spent three days at a Benedictine hermitage called New Camaldoli, in the mountains above St Lucia on the coast south of Big Sur. The rule of the house is silence and solitude. You have your own cell, a trailer out in the woods, you eat alone there, picking up food in a lunch pail, and the only time you speak is to sing the Psalms and prayers in the four daily services of worship, which begin at 5.30am. This kind of life is not for everyone, and really not for me, but a few days of silence and solitude and prayer in an exquisite natural setting is good for my soul. While I was there I read a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict, by Esther de Waal, the wife of the erstwhile Dean of Canterbury cathedral who said she was moved to it by living in the house of the Benedictines in Canterbury, which after the reformation had become the dean’s house.
One recurring thought I had was to marvel at the antiquity of what we were doing. These very services we were saying were in their style and shape 1500 years old; these Psalms we sang were 2500 years old. Leaving other marvels aside, consider only that here on the California coast in 2008 there is a community carrying on a 1500 year old practice, that started in a cave 40 miles from Rome in the period 480-547 AD, due to the work and witness of a Roman petty noble named Benedict of Nursia. What is it that founds a community so firmly that it persists for 1500 years and continues strong into the future? The short and most profound answer is that Benedict founded the community on Christ Jesus, that is, Christ Jesus himself wished it and continues to will it, and Benedict did what Jesus commanded, that is, Benedict was obedient. This explanation alone is enough, but Benedict spells out this will of Jesus at the very beginning of the Rule, and its chief cornerstone is the virtue of obedience. Listen:
“Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted by the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” (Prologue to the Rule of Benedict, the very first paragraph of all).
Might we say that obedience is the reason why this practice is still going strong 1500 years later? I think so. Obedience is what Jesus himself commands at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. ‘If you hear these words and do them,’ he says, ‘you are like a prudent man who built his house on a rock, and”…the rains fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on a rock.” ‘ Obedience is nothing neither more nor less than submission of the self to the divine will, and surely that is the only sensible attitude to adopt. The divine will is the truth in all things; if one knew that truth and did not follow it one would reasonably be judged suicidal. Some of you remember the great Cultural Revolution in China in the 60’s of last century, when untrained youngsters were performing surgery guided only by the thoughts of Chairman Mao and his little red book. Their refusal to be obedient to the laws of nature and human wisdom would have been ludicrous were it not so grotesque. There are rules governing all things, and so too the spiritual life, and rules have to be obeyed otherwise there is chaos and catastrophe. Obedience is the way our house clings to the rock of stability that is Christ himself, and therefore is impervious to the chaos of storms and stresses.
The Benedictine communities have thrived not because of obedience alone, after all obedience is an empty category, everything depends on who or what one is being obedient to, and in this case the goal of obedience is the will of God in Christ. They have thrived because of Christ’s faithfulness to their obedient faith. A Monastic life is for the minority, what of all the rest of us? The person who builds on the rock, who acts on his pledges to Christ, constructs a solid and secure life that lasts through all eternity, and constructs it, for the time being, here in this world, right in the belly of the whale. What an inspiration it is to encounter a mature and experienced Christian! His/her faith is a rock and his/her witness to Christ is clear and he/she is never ashamed to give reason for the faith that is in them. I honor such people above all others; they are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city on a hill. Wherever thy are their prayer-fed spirits bear life and joy to the world.
The world however hates the light and prefers darkness, hates joy and wants horror. There is nothing more despised in the world than obedience, (excepting in military circles, where it is a different phenomenon than spiritual obedience and serves a special function within its special institutions) especially in our American world, where obedience is seen as the opposite of our most precious possession, freedom. The thought of having to follow a course of action set by somebody else and in which we had no part in setting is abhorrent to us. I value freedom too, and I try to understand how subtle its uses are; but with reference to God the uses are simple; God is God, I am God’s creature; I must do God’s will if I want to live successfully in this world and enter into eternal life.
This is just plain common sense. What is the bedrock truth of our lives? We are going to die, we do not want to die, we cry out, ‘Who will save us from this horrible thing,’ and we hear, ‘I will save you! Just do what I say, just obey me. Don’t talk about it, don’t sing about it, don’t dance about it, don’t write about it; just live it and do it; and then all the talking, singing, dancing and writing will begin, and it will be inspired!’