[This is the manuscript for the second part of a two-part sermon on Vocation preached at Christ Church on Oct. 13, 2019. The audio can be found here.]
Last week I talked about some of the reasons why we might doubt that everyone is called and everyone is commissioned. Some of the these reasons might be just difficult circumstances in general, for you or for others, and how the sinful and broken world we live can prevent some of us from living into our vocations at times.
Or, sometimes vocation is unclear. Sometimes it’s delayed. Sometimes we’re called to do things that we just don’t want to do, or that we aren’t prepared to do – we feel inadequate. But vocational formation, like spiritual formation, is a process, and God will equip us. Remembering that our identity doesn’t come from what we do but from Christ and from the gospel, and we discover our vocation then as derived from that identity and in community with others.
But the challenges of vocation in the modern period are unique in some ways.
Here’s what author Os Guiness says about that.
“First, the search for the purpose of life is one of the deepest issues of our experiences as human beings. Second, the expectation that we can all live purposeful lives has been given a gigantic boost by modern society’s offer of the maximum opportunity for choice and change in all we do. Third, fulfillment of the search for purpose is thwarted by a stunning fact: Out of more than a score of great civilizations, ours is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus, more ignorance, confusion – and longing – surround this topic now than at almost any time in history…” – Os Guiness, The Call
So, this morning I want to go back and look at three distinct periods in church history, and the way that Christians in each of these times and places tended to understand this biblical idea of calling. Those three periods of Western Christian very simply are 1) the early church, 2) the medieval Church, and 3) the Church of the Protestant Reformation.
And then I want to ask, for today, and in our age, what can we learn from these previous eras and Christians who’ve gone before us about vocation, and then what else can we remember biblically that will guide for our present moment, which is different from these past eras? As Anglicans, Tradition does have authority for us – not as much as Scripture, but it’s still very significant.
So first, the early Church – what we might also call the Apostolic or AnteNicene Era: Simply put, the situation of the first Christians was that they had minority status. Which is to say, to be a Christian was not normal, and Christians were not widely understood or appreciated as a group. Rather, they were much misunderstood, considered by some to be a nuisance if not also viewed with suspicion and even seen as threat, which at times led to their sporadic persecution. It wasn’t systematic or constant, but it was enough to make you think twice before becoming a Christian – because it was definitely going to cost you significantly in one way or another, and could actually cost you your life.
So right away we see some significant differences between the early Church social situation and our own that many of us are probably already familiar with. But look at a few examples of the reputation that many Christians seem to have at the time. This description given by Galen, a Roman physician who generally held Christianity in contempt, admits that in their
“self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice,” these often lower-class and ill-educated Christians “have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”
The Roman satirist Lucian, holding Christians up to ridicule, noted that they
“that they are all brothers one to another… So if any charlatan and trickster . . . comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.”
Even the forcefully anti-Christian emperor Julian, who tried to restore paganism in the 4th Century, had to admit that
“the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
So what then can we say about vocation in the early Church? Their primary understanding of calling – and this I believe we can say is the primary understanding of vocation in the New Testament – the early Christians believed that their call was to become Christians.
Because to become a Christian was to be truly set apart! It was to follow Jesus! It was to be different. It was to be misunderstood. It was perhaps even to be despised and persecuted.
They refused to participate in the sacrificial rituals of paganism. They refused to make offerings to the Emperor or to recognize him as their Lord. To say that “Jesus is Lord” was in fact a politically subversive claim and a statement of allegiance that called into the questions the sovereignty ad divinity of Caesar.
Ok, so become a Christian was a very big deal. It was a calling, it was a decision, it was a weighty sacrifice that had implications for your whole life – your relationship with your work, family, government, the culture around you… everything. It could exclude you from all kinds of privileges.
And most people at this time, like most people in history, did not have the mobility and the options that we do today in terms of job options and social location. People did not ask, when it came to calling, what I am going to do with my life – that question was usually already answered for them. It was especially answered for you if you were a woman, but even men were also severely limited for the most part.
Now, the Middle Ages, which is a huge span of time and a complex time of history with all kinds of significant things going on, but in general, with regard to vocation for Christians and the Church, here’s what we can say.
Whereas in the early Church, Christians had minority status, in the Medieval Period, Christians enjoyed majority status. Christians was not only legal but it eventually become the official religion of the government – not only of Rome before it fall but also of Western European civilization in general. Sometimes this whole period of Church history has just been called Christendom – Christendom because it is a time when Christianity has occupied a prominent place in society – not only through the church, but in the wider culture and political and economy dimensions of civilization as well.
So to just be called a Christian, and to be identified as Christian – to be associate with Christians – did not necessarily come with a whole lot of sacrifice and commitment. Even though it still should have.
But in a context where Christians have majority status, what does calling and vocation look like? Well in the early days of Christendom, some sensed and responded to a call by God to removing themselves from society and pursue some kind of life in the wilderness or desert for a season, or even for their whole lives.
The purpose of this was to prepare for union with God by ridding oneself of attachments to any kind of worldly status, possession or power, and to embrace a simple, quiet life of contemplation and asceticism and spiritual readiness for death. St. Antony of the Desert is one of the most famous examples, but there were many others. In this way, these monks sought to retain the connection between their own voluntary martyrdom with those who were forced into martyrdom during the years of the early Church.“Bloodless Martyrs,” they’ve been called by some.
Vocation during Christendom and the Middle Ages later took shape through the beginning of Monasticism and religious orders like the Rule of St. Benedict. The idea behind Monasticism in part was that, because most everyone in society claimed to be a Christian, the Church was losing its distinctive witness to the culture. People could be Christian and pretty much look like everyone else.
Someone who was called to a monastery, whether they were a man or a woman, was responding to a genuine sense of vocation to participate wholeheartedly in “religious life” – prayer, manual labor, solitude, regular practice of silence and study, and a vow of poverty – a renunciation of the material world. So interestingly, the vocation to be different, distinct, and set apart for the gospel and for one’s witness to Christ was being exercised just as it had been in the early Church, but the new context required a very different form of faith.
Later on in Christendom, however – particular in the late Medieval period, Christian vocation became something of an entitlement for priests and friars only. Monasticism still existed, but many clergy in the Roman Catholic church were abusing and disregarding the holiness of the calling to the priesthood and to “religious life” as it was called. And this is what set the stage for the revolutionary understanding of Vocation during the Reformation.
For Luther, everyone had at least two callings – to be a Christian and become part of the people of God, and to a particular line of work, which included not only one’s job if you were employed, but also marrying, tending to the home, parenting and grandparenting. Every occupation was a potential vocation for serving God, and this by most accounts was a very positive development.
This Reformation legacy that revived the sacredness of all areas of work and life for ministry and for the Church is central to our understanding of Vocation today. It’s also the inspiration for the “Every Arena” part of our tagline. Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned – yes, into every arena.
Because yes, everyone is called and commissioned to make disciples in their places of daily work and life. No one’s questioning that. But does the work that do itself have any intrinsic value? Or, is it just a means to the end of sharing our faith and reflecting Jesus’s character in how we treat people?
What Luther stressed that hadn’t been emphasized much before, is how the work we do as such, is a good end unto itself, and is actually part of our worship of God. We work for God’s glory. We work because the work matters to God, and because it contributes to human flourishing (Genesis 1). Here’s Luther on this:
“Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.”– Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage
So when we say Everyone Called, Everyone Commissioned, in Every Arena – we are making the radical claim that God gets glory and delight from the mundane, ordinary work that we do in our daily lives. Our homes and our workplaces are cathedrals and sanctuaries!
John Calvin even says that work a means for our spiritual formation. It’s one of the ways God sanctifies us, in other words. And this too is part of our vocation.
There are several unintended byproducts of the Reformation on the vocation of every station, however: We’ve seen this in Protestantism in a few different ways:
- The tendency to overidentify vocation with occupation or social status
- the failure to acknowledge the instances in which certain kinds of work are harmful, undignified and dehumanizing (a certain interpretation of “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” – 1 Corinthians 7:20)
- The Protestant Work Ethic: Max Weber coined this concept and accused Calvinists of making perpetual labor appear to be a sign of one’s salvation, which of course would be a gross distortion of the original Reformation vision and Calvin’s own theology of work
- The flattening out of all vocations: inadvertently succeeded in devaluing the call to ordained ministry and opened the door for the secularization of all vocations
Alright, so here are few takeaways from these three eras –early Church, Christendom and Reformation:
- Our call to be Christians is still primary.We’ve been saying that, but it’s worth repeating. To be a Christian is a big thing, and asks everything of us. It affects every area of our lives. And it’s costly. We do it together, and we do it by the grace of God, not in our strengths, but its sacrificial life. It’s learning how to die, and how trust Jesus every moment of every day.
- Our witness is more dependent on our faithfulness and our holiness than on our influence and our effectiveness. This is not to say that we will never be influential. But rather, to take a lesson from history and recognize that, apparently, our influence was most significant, when Christians were most faithful. And not the other way around. This is especially instructive for us in this moment as our influence appears to be waning in culture. The word from the Lord might be, as Jesus told Peter, what is that to you? (John 21)
- Thirdly, from the Reformation we did celebrate and embrace God’s call to us to glorify him in whatever we’re doing, however we’ve occupying our time – so that work, that time and energy offered up, as worship, as holy, because it matters to God. It’s all part of his creation, and we get to take care of it.
And finally, for today, in the turbulent uncharted territory of the present– at least in our North American and Christ Church of Austin context.
We do live in this transient, fast-paced, digital age of social mobility and unpredictability when it comes vocation. And as Christians, we can lean into this unknown space where are there are so many options that it’s overwhelming, and we trust the Holy Spirit.
We trust the Holy Spirit and we trust God’s voice, that God is still speaking now. And isn’t once and for all. God cares about each of us individually, when it comes to what we do. So when we are listening. When we are quiet enough, when we are still for long enough. When we rest. When we seek God voice. God can and does speak to us and guide is. We’re not just guessing here.
Biblical scholar Klaus Bockmuehl has a trinitarian way of thinking about vocation that might be memorable and helpful to some:
The father gives us the cultural mandate to subdue and develop the earth. The Son calls us to discipleship and summons us with the Great Commission. The Spirit equips us for a task:“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
The New Testament reading for today reflects some of these manifestations or gifts in Ephesians 4: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
But this list is not exhaustive.We also find gifts listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Romans 12:3-8 in particular speaks to gifts that are extend beyond the body of Christ and that are useful for vocational work in the world:
6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with yourfaith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching,then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. Romans 12:6-8
Typically these are gifts, acts, strengths – things we enjoy doing that we’re also good at. There’s both an affinity and ability. So I think today something we’ve discovered as a Church that the Reformation didn’t emphasize is that our gifts and natural ability are from God for us as we have opportunity to use for the common good and for God’s glory.
And I would just add these final instructional words to that quote from Paul Stevens’ book The Other Six Days:
“There is no need to be “called” through an existential compelling experience to an occupation in society [necessarily…]. God gives motivation and gift. God guides. Work, family, civil vocation and neighboring are encompassed in our total response to God’s saving and transforming call in Jesus….So vocational guidance is not [just] discerning our ‘call’ but, in the context of our call to discipleship (early Church), holiness (Monasticism) and service (Reformation), discerning the guidance of God in our lives and learning how to live in every dimension [arena!] to please him.”