Cruciform Zeal – Br. Sean Glenn

The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.[1]

“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.

As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 

Paul’s first letter to the community at Corinth is one of the most valuable letters we have from him, not only because we can know for sure it is his composition; not only for the insight it gives into the mind of the apostle and its rigorous explanation of the gospel; but for the tangible, vivid images it brings to us of the very real struggles we will encounter with one another in the Christian life as we learn—not in our time, but in God’s—how to live alongside one another as God’s children in Christ. For us—for our particularly Johannine witness, and as the heirs of Father Benson’s vision of the religious life’s service to the whole of the Christ’s Church—let us hear these words from Paul with open hands and open hearts.

Ζῆλος καὶ ἔρις, “boiling jealousy and strife” have arisen in the community at Corinth—deep divisions according to personality and leadership, purity standards and public behavior. The danger for Paul is clear: the division of the Body of Christ; the desire for any lordship other than Christ’sA quick glance at the world around us (and even the attitudes within the church) dishearteningly reminds us that we haven’t really grown much, it seems.

It is no coincidence that Paul should use the word ζῆλος—from it we get the word zeal and its cognates. It is a rich and fragile complex of deep meaning-making; it has a distinctive spiritual meaning. We can almost hear Paul asking, For what are you jealous? For justice discerned according to the defeated powers of this world? For creaturely wisdom, that wisdom formed in the complex matrix memories and wounds that we know—often implicitly—within our very bodies? The wisdom of the flesh, place where we are so often wounded—the place where so often we feel separated from God—a fragile wisdom which continues to divide us to our peril?

Or are you zealous for God’s Kingdom? For God’s justice? Or for God’s wisdom? For God’s freedom? A deep zeal after the will of God alone, disclosed even to us sinners in the face of Jesus Christ—and him crucified? A zeal that catches us heart first when we realize we have set our love on anything other than God? Why are your eyes set on these things? we can hear Paul asking; there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. We can almost hear fragments of Psalm 146 is his counsel: Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth / for there is no help in them. When they breathe their last, they return to earth, / and in that day their thoughts perish.[2]

We are not baptized, Paul reminds us, into a body formed according to human wisdom or human will—that is, the wisdom and will of the flesh. “What is the zeal of God’s own desire? What tradition did you inherit from my planting and Apollos’s watering?—that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is by body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

The cross of Christ is at the center of the common life Paul envisions for the Church, and it is easy for us to flee from such a summons: the cross asks us to deny our own habituated wisdoms and world-fashioned strengths. Look, entreats the hymn by William Bright, look on his anointed face / and only look on us as found in him; / look not on our misusings of thy grace, / our prayer so languid and our faith so dim. / For lo! between our sins and their reward, / we set the passion of thy Son our Lord.[3] In a world rich with divisive creaturely zeal, let us pray instead for a zeal that seeks only the mind, will, and freedom of Christ Jesus. His love will surely rebuke the fever of the zeal in our flesh, saying to us, “Behold what you are—behold how completely you are loved.” Amen.

[1]1 Corinthians 3:9. NRSV.

[2]Psalm 146:2–3,The Book of Common Prayer, 803.

[3]“And now, O Father, mindful of that love,” William Bright, in The Hymnal 1982 #337.

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