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“The Obedience of Faith”

Fairy tales frequently begin “Once upon a time” – presenting a never-never world where anonymous princesses are always enchanting and princes always charming. What a far cry from the gritty world of the Bible!

Biblical stories are always fraught with specificity – this time, this place, the interaction of these determinate individuals. They are not cloaked in risk-free anonymity. The Biblical protagonists are identifiable: these poor and powerful, these prophets and rulers. We know their names: Isaiah and Ahaz, Paul and Nero, Mary, Joseph, Herod. We encounter in the Bible the stories of concrete men and women, summoned, often peremptorily, to “the obedience of faith.” (Rom 1:5)

The coming of God’s Messiah is sheer grace – a grace that disrupts established patterns and powers, not to destroy, but to repair and make whole. “The obedience of faith” is the one possible response to the awe-filled deed God has wrought in Jesus Christ: “descended from David, according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness, through resurrection from the dead.” (Rom 1:3-4)

These verses from Romans help broaden our appreciation of “Incarnation.” For the Incarnation is not reducible to a bare point without extension. The flesh-taking of the Son of God comprises the whole life, death, and new life of Jesus Messiah. Incarnation culminates in resurrection: the full realization of God’s likeness in man, the divinization of the flesh.

We are summoned, as Paul’s Letter to the Romans urges, to belong totally to this Christ who comes now in the everyday of life. Paul himself, in the very first verse of his letter, introduces himself as slave (doulos) of Jesus the Messiah. One can hardly imagine a more radical “belonging.”

But this belonging to Christ is no forensic fiction, nor a merely moral alignment of wills. It is a new reality: a union so deep and intimate that it can rightly be termed “mystical.” It is grounded, of course, in the life-changing experience of baptism. Paul reminds the Romans: “We were buried with Christ by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4)

And the consequence is striking: a servile enslavement gives way to a life-giving dispossession. Paul presses his case: “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” (Rom 6:16) Christians belong, spirit, soul, and body, not to sin, but to Christ who has been raised from the dead, whose service is true freedom.

Journey to Bethlehem (c. 1320) [Church of the Holy Spirit, Chora, Turkey]
In one of the most lyrical passages he ever penned, the liberated apostle exults: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of the dead and of the living.” (Rom 14:7–9) The Lord of all demands our all.

The obedience of faith commences with baptismal surrender: “branded” as Christ’s, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. But it also entails free consent to ongoing transformation. So the Apostle urges: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom 12:1-2)

The Apostle’s call to transformation can be easily muffled by the dismal din of our contemporary therapeutic culture. And the widespread appeal to “my experience” risks canonizing an individual’s present condition and foreclosing authentic change. In this context, the increasingly rote rhetoric about “pastoral accompaniment” can reinforce, rather than counter, this cultural declension. Pastoral accompaniment needs clearly to incorporate and be governed by the challenge to conversion, an imperative that lies at the very heart of the Gospel: “metanoeite!;” i.e. repent. (Mk 1:15)

For the telos of pastoral accompaniment is not a gradual approximation to an “ideal,” however sublime. It is the entrance into a new life, defined by a new, life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Paul, who urged the Romans to ongoing transformation, is the Paul who witnessed to the Galatians the radical scope of such transformation. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19-20) Disruptive grace conspires to fashion a new self, transforming Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle.

But the apostle of pastoral accompaniment does not set himself apart from the community of believers. He freely confesses that he is their companion on the journey of transformation in Christ. Indeed, he has not yet been fully transformed, is not yet perfected (teleios). But “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12)

We all, who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, belong to him. Like Paul, we are not our own, but Jesus Christ’s, for we have been purchased at the price of his Incarnation unto death and new life.

This same Jesus continues to come in the everyday of life. Just as he came in the fear-ridden days of Herod and the frenzied days of Nero, so he comes in the dwindling days of Obama and the uncertain days of Trump – and calls to the obedience of faith. He comes to dwell within us, to make us his own, so that we may have true life, and have it to the full.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).