The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, St. Mark’s Church, Antioch

“Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles…” (Rom. 1:5).

The “obedience of faith”: it’s a phrase that St. Paul uses twice in the Letter to the Romans, once at the beginning (in our reading this morning) and once at the end, and it’s easy to think that we know what it means. Obedience conjures up an enforced regimen, about which we’re not enthusiastic or naturally drawn to: that’s why obedience is involved. “Eat your spinach,” parents told their children in the olden days, because no child in his right mind wanted to eat spinach. If you put “obedience school” into your web browser, even today, you will come up with a variety of training schools for dogs, offering courses that will produce a better-behaved pet.

The “obedience of faith” has nothing to do with being a better-behaved person, of course, but the phrase does take some unpacking. The English word “obedience” is a word that is rooted in “listening,” which is a discipline any sane person should be committed to. Failure to listen so often leads to disaster. We have two ears and only one mouth, and that’s as it should be. In our daily lives we ought to do twice as much listening as speaking. We shouldn’t be so busy talking that we fail to listen and miss the point.

Witness Joseph in our Gospel today. God speaks to Joseph in a dream, delivering the word that he needs to hear. He’s paying attention to the message of the angel, one that sets aside Joseph’s own carefully crafted plan about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and puts forward another possibility. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21). Joseph listens and understands the point. He listens and obeys.

In other words, Joseph has faith. Here again the word needs unpacking. We tend to think of faith as subjective: something that we either have or don’t have. It’s about us, something we do here and now. But the truth is, faith is really about God and about what God has already done. Faith is the way we know God: in fact, it’s the only way to know God and what God has done. In faith, God is the prime actor. God acts, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we put our faith in him. We say in the Creed, “We believe,” and then we recite the mighty acts of God, from the creation of the world through the incarnation of the Son of God, to his coming again in glory. In faith, we’re doing nothing less than responding to what God has already done.

Joseph is listening and is willing to venture forth in response to what God is doing. He believes: that is, he puts his trust in God and he gets moving. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded” (Matt. 1:24). That’s what being a faithful person is about: taking some risks in response to the word. This is the “obedience of faith” that St. Paul is talking about in our reading today. It’s not about being a better-behaved person, but about being a faithful person. Faith creates new possibilities; it opens things up and gives them a scope that we could not create for ourselves. God cannot be contained by our limits, and so he stretches us to be something more than we were before we had faith. Joseph and Mary went forth in faith, seeking to do the will of God in response to what God himself had done. Through their faithful response, Jesus Christ came into the world.

St. Paul himself knew what he was speaking about in his letter. God had made him an apostle: that is, one who was sent and who responded in faith. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles, to all the nations of the earth. In our reading, Paul reminds us that we too are apostles, people who are sent. “Through [him] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). We too join in acts of ministry, of service, that make Christ known in our homes, in our communities, and in the world.

God has given us the gift of salvation (“grace”) and sent us out to share the good news. We too have been given a scope and range that we could not have imagined. We too are called to be something more than we were before God called us. We’re called to be faithful people; people who believe. God is at work in us, here and now, through the obedience of faith.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt