Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Being Zealous

Zealous: full of zeal, ardently active, devoted, diligent.

Recently, I was in conversation with a group of people concerned about the state of the their respective congregations.  These congregations are designated as “marginal,” not quite dead, but dying, and they cannot seem to find ways to survive let along grow.  They look for someone to blame; the pastor, the church council or consistory, the judicatory, the denomination, the “times we live in,”  The congregations will most likely die a slow, inexorable, and painful death which they will not understand.

Presently, among these congregations, there is a considerable amount of conversation about “evangelism,” but when asked why they should do evangelism, the inevitable answer is “to get more members so that we can pay the bills.”  In these congregations the word is $$$-EVANGELISM-$$$.   There is little or no thought about proclaiming the faith in word and deed, bringing the good news of the gospel to all whom they encounter, and being a living community of prayer and the worship of God.

Here is the foundation of the dying congregation.  They are troubled by the constant demand of gospel for zeal and energy and sacrifice in the name of Christ.  The group I was speaking to responded,  “Why can’t we just be simple believers, saying our prayers and attending worship when convenient?”  “Why do we have to be constantly badgered to demonstrate our faith and evangelize all over the place?”  “We’ve got our own kind of religion, so leave us alone!”  They want to know Christ, but have an aversion to what they see as religious fanaticism, and answer “No!” when confronted with the demand to be zealous.

These congregations, indeed the whole church catholic, need to hear the call to be zealous.  It challenges the malaise of spiritual laziness and the desire to avoid the real cost of discipleship.  There is, I regret to say, among the so called “mainline denominations” a lack of zeal, which is the result of settling for a religion that makes no demands for individual or corporate witness of faith, and creates high levels of anxiety when the word evangelism in mentioned.  The question then comes, “Why is there so much reluctance to share the good news Christ has given to us?”  The stock answer is about avoiding fanaticism, but that is simply an excuse to cover up the anxiety about doing evangelism.

This essentially was what was said and implied by this group of congregations with whom I was in conversation.  Then I threw a text at them that is one of the “hard sayings” of scripture.  “I know what you have done; I know that you are neither cold or hot.  How I wish you were one or the other!  But because you are barely warm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth! …. Be zealous and repent!  (Revelation 3:15-16, 19)

This reading was received with shock, and not a little anger, for many in the group had never heard this before.  I explained that it is language like this that can arouse the church from the half-hearted discipleship which is so easily accepted; lukewarm self centered worship, flimsy prayers, feeble witness and token mission.  This statement brings the realization that Christ cannot be claimed as Lord and Savior, if the members then act as if Christ and the church are minor factors in life.

“Be zealous and repent!”  Repentance is the foundation of Christian zeal.  For some this conjures up an image of fanatical repenting, an orgy of breast beating and spectacular scenes of sackcloth and ashes.  But their words mean something markedly different and provide understanding of the meaning of being zealous.

Repentance does not mean an occasional or sporadic recitation of sorrow for sins.  Repentance is turning away from the condition of sinfulness to the mercy of God.  Repentance is not a one-time event in which there is confession of need for a savior.  Repentance is a life-long act of mind and spirit.  Christians are those who repent and believe, with understanding of the need for God’s grace.  To live repentant lives and rely on God’s grace alone is the way in which zeal is expressed.

When St Paul wrote of those who considered that they have a zeal for God, he was speaking about those who thought they could earn their way into God’s kingdom.  The purpose of their zeal was to save themselves.  There are many who are driven by the mistaken idea that they must work out their own salvation, that they must prove and justify themselves by their energy in good causes.  This mistaken zeal is painfully evident in the church’s moving away from evangelism to “church growth” and “marketing.”  St Paul referred to these as fallen from grace (see Galatians 5:4), those who try to prove themselves by their zeal, and turn the church into a voluntary religious society for the doing of good deeds.  That is when evangelism fails.

To do evangelism it is necessary to be zealous with a zeal of love that cannot be induced by threat, but is the spontaneous response of all who open their hearts, minds and lives to living out their baptism in Jesus Christ.

The last words of my conversation with this group representing several congregations was with a question from one of the men present: Did I believe that they had all the faith necessary to accomplish real evangelism.  My response was, “I can’t answer that question; you must.  Perhaps you don’t at this point have all the faithful necessary, but I suspect you have enough, and it will grow.  Whatever you do, however you do it, be zealous, and God’s Spirit will lead you in the way you are to go.”   

And some have begun to become zealous, and have taken first steps on a spiritual journey to authentic evangelism.   I pray for them daily.

Richard Hammond Price, OCC  ©June 2011

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