Fellow Workers With God

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After all, what is Apollos and what is Paul? They are servants who brought the faith to you. Even the different ways in which they brought it were assigned to them by the Lord. I did the planting, Apollos did the watering, but God made things grow. Neither the planter not the waterer matter: only God, who makes things grow. It is all one who does the planting and who does the watering, and each will duly be paid according to his share of the work. We are fellow workers with God; you are God’s farm, God’s building.

1 Cor 3: 5-9

 

In the Fundamental Principles of the Xaverian Brothers, we read of Theodore Ryken’s vision for the Community he was initiating:

A band of brothers,
who mutually help, 
encourage, 
and edify one another,
and who work together.

The very “heart” of his and his followers’ participation in the mission of Jesus was as a communal and collaborative effort. There is something about working with others, about a “community effort” that is revelatory of the very nature of God’s loving presence and work in the world. In brief, that nature is of a work that is always God’s work of which each of us is a unique and partial servant. The work of God depends on each of us fulfilling our responsibility for our part of it and, at the same time, recognizing and abetting the unique role of others in the work.

The carrying out of God’s work collaboratively and in community carries with it a result that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. When we serve harmoniously with others (“In harmony small things grow.”), the loving presence and work of Christ is all the more manifest in its multifaceted reality. The fulfillment inherent in being a part of a “band of brothers and sisters” is made evident in the willingness of persons even to sacrifice their own lives on the battlefield for their comrades in arms. As those responsible for military training realize, the strongest motivation to be instilled in a trainee for the military is the developing of a sense of that camaraderie. We long to belong, but, perhaps even more so, we long to be truly committed to and share a responsibility for a common project and a common life.

In battle, however, responsibility to and for each other, the “watching each other’s backs”, is a matter of life and death. Survival depends on looking out for and being responsible to and for each other. In our other attempts to live out community, however, our tendency for self-gratification and fulfillment tends to create a consistent threat to our “working together.” In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians we hear of the dissension and competition in the community of Corinth. “. . . you are still unspiritual. Isn’t that obvious from all the jealousy and wrangling that there is among you . . .?” (1 Cor. 3: 2-3) Paul, the teacher, is using the breakdown in community to teach the Corinthians a spiritual lesson. Paul is showing them that it is also in their struggle with  and failures in “working together” that they can come to know more of the nature of God and be formed and reformed more into God’s likeness.

The key, says Paul, is to recognize that he and Apollos, as well as each of them, is a “servant” of God’s call and God’s work. We each have our “place” in God’s way and design for the world. To learn that place is a lifelong task. Ryken’s lifelong conversion begins with an experience of being “put in my place.” As Adam and Eve in the beginning, so each of us has an inherent resistance to the “place” that is ours. We  suffer from a built-in delusion about our own identity. And so, we spend much of our energy creating and then defending and supporting a “place” that is not ours, that is not us. When life, especially life with others, reminds us of our true place, we are hurt, disappointed, and even angry. We feel overlooked, disregarded, and insignificant. The place which God has “allotted” to us seems to us as if it is not enough, that as the person we are we can never be recognized and loved. Thus, as with Ryken, our initial experiences of God’s love for us feel humiliating. What can a person who is merely this be worth?

Life with others and working in collaboration and community is a constant reminder that we are but one with others. It is constantly teaching us that our worth is not a matter of our power over others but rather of our service of them, by offering the gift we have been given — not trying to offer the gift we have not been given. As Paul is well aware, “jealousy and wrangling,” as well as all other forms of violence, spring from the force with which we attempt to maintain a false identity and significance in the world. Non-violence depends on our growing in our true identity as a servant, as one whose call to serve is best realized in collaboration and community with other servants — whose roles, although distinct from our own, are not to be envied but rather helped and encouraged.

The rejection of community and of collaborative efforts is a refusal of formation. It is based on fear of what life with others will teach us about our own illusions. It is a refusal to be “put in our place.” What we do for others can never truly be love unless it comes from the heart of who we truly are, of the person God has created us to be — the Christ who lives in us beyond our fears and delusions.

After this, one should open the ground of the soul and the deep will to the sublimity of the glorious Godhead, and look upon God with great and humble fear and denial of oneself. One who in this fashion casts down before God one’s shadowy and unhappy ignorance then begins to understand the words of Job, who said: The spirit passed before me. From this passage of the Spirit is born a great tumult in the soul. And the more this passage has been clear, true, unmixed with natural impressions, all the more rapid, strong, prompt, true and pure will be the work which takes place in the soul, the thrust which overturns it; clearer also will be the knowledge that one has stopped on the path to perfection. The Lord then comes like a flash of lightning; he fills the ground of the soul with light and wills to establish Himself there as the Master Workman. As soon as one is conscious of the presence of the Master, one must, in all passivity, abandon the work to Him.

Joannes Tauler, Second Sermon for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, #5, in Thomas Merton, the Inner Experience, p. 14

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