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Today is Vocations Sunday, a day on which the church invites us to think about God’s calling to us. Often the word ‘vocation’, particularly when said from the pulpit, means nothing more than a recruitment drive by the church – wanting more clergy or religious or lay ministers.
But it is important to remember that we are all called by God. We were called into being by God, our very existence is a response to God’s call. The word ‘ekklesia’ used in the New Testament means the community that is called together – this is where our word Church comes from – a community not a building.
The main reason we gather with the church is because we are the church. You don’t attend church. You are the church.
Merely attending church doesn’t make you much of a church because sitting in a back row consuming church doesn’t make you very good at being the church.
I think being the church has something to do with living your life for Christ, demonstrating God’s love by serving others and sharing your faith with people. That’s very different to consuming church in a back row, which you can just as easily do on your sofa at home.
The reason you would go to church today is that you’ve moved from being a consumer to being a contributor. You don’t just go to be served, you go to serve. There’s something deeply scriptural about that. So individually and corporately we are called. Together and as individuals we have a vocation.
And our primary calling is to be ourselves. Be yourself’ is a refrain that we hear a great deal in our society, and it can be a great freedom to be yourself, not to worry about other people’s expectations. But there are also times when ‘be yourself’ tends to mean ‘put yourself first’, ‘do what you want to do’, or ‘don’t think about anyone else’ which is perhaps where we might feel our country or society is going nowadays, and is certainly not Christian.
Nevertheless the primary Christian calling is to be ourselves, because God has created us, God has called us into being, to be who we are. If God had wanted us to be anything else, then that is how he would have made us. Where we often get this wrong, is that we think that we know who we are, we think we know what it means to be ourselves. But the truth is that all too often we don’t, we allow ourselves to be shaped by society and not by God. If we are called to be ourselves, to be the people who God made us to be, then we are called to discover who we are. However young or old we are, none of us are the finished product. We are constantly learning new things about ourselves.
You may have seen something about Archbishop Justin’s parentage a while ago in the papers. I think his full reply was brilliant, but one phrase probably sums up what we’re talking about here. He said ‘I am who I am in Christ Jesus, not in genetics’. That thought can be wonderfully freeing for many whose family background might not be the greatest.
So we are called to be ourselves, to explore who it is that God has made us to be. This vocation is given us by God as he created us. But this is not the end of our calling. Perhaps the most basic Christian calling is Jesus’ call to follow. ‘Follow me’ he tells his disciples, then and now. We are called to follow Jesus, to follow him in his care for people, to follow him in his willingness to sit and eat with the wrong sort of people, to follow him in his self-giving love. ‘The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me’ Jesus says. Following Jesus is difficult and costly. If the vocation to be ourselves sounds liberating and affirming, then the call to follow sounds restrictive and hard. It can even seem that the call to follow Jesus contradicts the call to be ourselves – how can I be myself if I am following someone else? But in fact following Jesus is the only way that I can truly be myself. It is as we follow Jesus that we are healed of all that makes us less than ourselves. It is as we follow Jesus that we die to sin and to all that would keep us as less than ourselves and we rise to the new life that he brings. We are all called to follow Jesus.
The third part of our calling is the calling to belong. Jesus tells us that ‘there will be one flock’ of which he will be the Shepherd.
- We are called to belong to each other.
- We are called together, never on our own.
- We cannot be ourselves on our own…
- We are made to live in the midst of people.
- We cannot follow Jesus on our own…
- We are called into the one flock with Jesus as our Shepherd.
- We are called to love one another, and we cannot do that on our own.
Our vocation is founded on these three callings –
- the calling to be ourselves,
- the calling to follow Jesus and
- the calling to belong to one another.
But we cannot leave it there. We have to live out our vocations and that gets us into the very messy business of our lives. Here we come to more traditional understandings of vocation in relation to jobs described as vocations – such as teachers or nurses, or a vocation to ordained or lay ministry in the church. But vocation is not just for some people – we all have a vocation, we are all called by God to something.
Vocation also changes throughout our lives, my first Vocation I felt was to be a wife and mother, there is probably no greater vocation than the one some of us are privileged to hold; to bring up the new generation of Christians. Of course you don’t have to be a mother or a Father to do that, you can be a Godparent, or an aunt or uncle or a Sunday school teacher.
I do consider that becoming ordained was not a new vocation but one that came from the other that morphed and moulded into something different, and I am under no illusion that this will be my last calling – I know something else will be around the corner, and trusting God that it will be all ok, that I need not worry he will guide and I can just follow, is something that we have to learn, and it takes time to get there, and it takes faith and it takes trust. And because it changes throughout your life, you are never too old for God to be doing a new thing in your life.
Following a vocation can be a difficult thing. What you are called to may not pay good money. You may be called to do difficult things, to change your life, to move your home, maybe even to another country. Vocation is an adventure, and the excitement that comes with this is matched only by the fear and trembling with which we must approach it.
But if it is a true vocation God will be with you every step of the way, so there is nothing to fear. The Methodists have a prayer which expresses a radical openness to the calling of God. It goes like this:
‘I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’
It is a difficult prayer to pray, but it is an important one.
If we are to be called, then we must listen for the call and be ready to respond. We can only answer God’s call if we have listened for his voice. So let me end with a challenge. Are we listening for the voice of God calling us to be ourselves, to follow Jesus and to belong to one another? And how is that calling to be manifested in the realities of our lives as individuals and as a community? Might God be calling you to a new thing, and might that new thing be ministry in the church as a lay preacher, a visitor, or even as an ordained person? We are all called, we all have a vocation, and we must all constantly listen for the voice of God calling us to new things. My sheep know my voice and they follow me. John 10.27