St James' Chapel, Marion & St Andrew's, Carbondale--John 15:9-17
Through a combination of circumstances that I tend to see largely as fortunate, I have never served in any branch of the armed services. I did explore becoming a reserve chaplain in the Navy when I graduated from seminary, but was told that, at age 37, I was just a year too old. Nonetheless, I have a profound respect and admiration for the military as an institution. In order to accomplish their mission, armies and navies and, more recently, air forces, have evolved over the centuries a culture that honors and prizes duly-constituted authority and chain-of-command. In an enterprise as vital as maintaining peace and, when necessary, waging war, you simply cannot have it any other way. There must be a cohesiveness in communication and execution that can be relied on absolutely. Lives depend on it.
Yet, the practical reality of all this is that not everybody can know everything about what’s going on all the time. When you get an order from a superior officer, you may or may not be supplied with the reason behind it, but in any case, he or she is under no obligation to give you that reason. Ordinary field personnel usually have a very restricted view of the big picture. All they know is, their orders are to “take and hold this hill,” or “send this message,” or “make our depth sixty feet,” or whatever. It is neither practical nor desirable to have every foot soldier and deck hand brought up to speed on the strategic thinking of the generals and admirals in the Pentagon.
Now, life as a Christian in this world has often been compared to a battle, and the Church has often been spoken of as an army. St Paul exhorts us to put on “the whole armor of God,” and then goes on to describe the attire of a Roman legionnaire. As baptized Christians, we are soldiers of Christ. As the well-known hymn text says it, “Christ our royal master leads against the foe.” It behooves us, then, to adopt the attitude of soldiers. Our duty is to follow orders. Why? Because we have all sworn in our baptismal vows to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord—going where he wants us to go, doing what he wants us to do, being what he wants us to be. As John Henry Newman expresses it in the old Victorian hymn Lead, kindly light: “I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” Humble obedience is the hallmark of a good soldier, and a good follower of Jesus Christ.
Yet, even on the road to mastering humility and obedience, you and I— foot soldiers and deck swabbers that we are—you and I are invited into the war room for a strategic briefing from the commander-in-chief. In the fifteenth chapter of St John’s gospel, Jesus is bidding farewell to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He tells them, “You are my friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you.”
Apparently, in the army of Christ, everybody gets to see the big picture. We still have to follow orders, and we may not know every detail, but we are clued in to the Commander’s broad strategy. We’re not kept totally in the dark, because we’re not just his servants; we’re his friends. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that the very heart of our common vocation, our shared calling as Christians, is to grow beyond a spirit of mere servanthood—not that we aren’t still servants, but we’re not only or even mainly servants—to grow beyond a spirit of mere servanthood into an appreciation of the inestimable privilege of friendship with God. A servant follows orders out of duty. That is all well and good. But a friend of the commander follows orders out of love. That’s better. A friend of the commander follows orders out of love, and out of a knowledge of what is on the commander’s heart, and what is in the commander’s mind.
When we know ourselves to be friends of God—humble and obedient friends, to be sure, but friends nonetheless—when we know ourselves to be friends of God, we see the world through God’s eyes, we understand the terrain of the battlefield as God understands it, and our estimation of the enemy is according to the “intelligence” that God provides us. Yes, even friends don’t necessarily tell one another everything that’s on their mind, and there are moments when we must adopt the attitude of Newman— “Lord, just show me the next step I should take.” But friends do communicate to one another their vision —their hopes and dreams and aspirations. God communicates his vision to us in the pages of the Bible. We know what’s on his mind. We know his battle plan. We know his strategy. We’re friends of the Commander. This knowledge should give us added courage, and strengthen our resolve to do the “little things” that seem so trivial and inconsequential. When we receive orders to “take that hill” or “send this message,” we have some idea what the reason is. We’re not just grunts in the army of Christ. We’re friends of God.