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Vocation? What's That?

Sermon Preached at Saints Philip & James, Whitton, 9/03/2008
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Lent 5
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘vocation.’

Do you think about priests, monks and nuns? Religious specialists? People who keep themselves apart from the real world in some way? Different from the rest of us?

Do you think about teachers, doctors and nurses? Those who choose particular jobs or occupations?

The word ‘vocation’ comes from Latin and means a ‘call’, ‘summons’, or ‘invitation.’ The Greek word is klesis and it can be seen in our words ‘cleric’ and ‘ecclesiastical’. It can also be seen in the New Testament word for church which is ekklesia. Hence the idea that the church consists of those who have been ‘called out’.

Contrary to modern thought, vocation is not about our choice, it is about God’s calling. We do not simply choose a course of action, we respond to a divine summons – a summons that is often against our will! You only have to think about Moses who complained that he was a poor speaker; or Jeremiah who repeatedly moaned and resisted God’s call; or Jonah who fled in the opposite direction to the one God told him to go in; or even Jesus who prayed to be delivered from his appointed calling.

God’s call in almost every case involves hardship. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Paul all found themselves under the threat of death by their community. Jeremiah was thrown into a pit. Paul faced physical illness, imprisonments, beatings and exile. Jesus was called to die for the sake of others – and he called us to follow the way of the cross.

But perhaps the greatest danger to God’s summons is the possibility of diversion or distraction from the goal. Throughout the history of Israel, recounted in the Old Testament books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, we read about how God’s people were distracted from their vocation to worship and serve the Lord their God. The kings of Israel were judged according to their faithfulness to God. This was measured by their resistance to the religions of their neighbours. Jesus was well aware of the ever-present danger of diversion or distraction: in his model prayer, he includes the petition, ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

You may be tempted to think that God only calls certain individuals but since the story of Abraham, God’s call has been intimately concerned with the community not merely with specific individuals. The covenant with Abraham was for him and his descendants, the people who became the nation of Israel. Moses received the commandments on behalf of the nation. The prophets challenged the life of the nation, summoning the people of Israel to live in accordance with the covenant, to walk blameless before the Lord their God, warning them of the consequences of their failure to do so. And so the exile to Babylon in 598 BC was seen as the result of a failure to live in accordance with God’s call. The people were oppressed and defeated. Like Ezekiel’s vision of a mass of dry bones scattered as far as the eye could see, they were without hope, finished, dead.

Yet that was not the end of the story. Ezekiel was given an amazing vision of the God of life and death at work among his people. In that vision Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy to the dry bones, that they might listen to the word of the Lord and live.

Perhaps the most significant item in this account is the Hebrew word ruach which occurs ten times and can be translated as spirit, breath or wind according to its context. It is the spirit that sets Ezekiel down in the valley full of bones. He is to proclaim that God will bring the bones together and cause life-giving breath to enter them. First, with a loud rattling, the bones come together, they are knit with sinews and covered with flesh and skin. Only then is Ezekiel to summon the life-giving breath from the four winds to give life to the cadavers. This re-enacts the creation story of Genesis 2 when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils life-giving breath. Note that it is the whole nation that is called back to life not just one or two individuals. And it is the spirit which bonds the community together and gives it the will to live.

In the New Testament there does seem to be more of an emphasis on the individual’s response to God’s call. But this response is no longer in the context of a nation with a historical covenant. The individual’s response is now in the context of the creation of a new community which transcends all the usual divisions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Paul, whose words I quote here, continually reminds his correspondents of his own vocation, I am ‘Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...’ (Romans 1:1-2)

Whilst being well aware of his personal vocation, when writing to ‘all the saints’, Paul places great importance on using the corporate imagery of the body, the temple and the household (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 & Ephesians 2). What makes the members of a body significant in Paul’s use of the metaphor is not their equality but their difference. The hand is different from the eye so that they can each contribute to the unity of the body in their own distinct way. Each member is equally loved by God, equally accountable to God and equally made in the image of God. But each member exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the body.

John Calvin saw the idea of vocation as having a double focus, one upon earthly duty and the other upon heavenly destiny.

Finally, we might think of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus as a rich image of the deepest meaning of vocation. Lazarus is not merely healed, he is raised from the dead. From the isolation of death, he is called by Christ’s powerful voice to the community of the living. The grave clothes, in which he is bound, are loosed and he is made free to respond as one living before God, full of the life-giving breath of God. Each of us is so called. Vocation is all about being raised from the dead, being made alive to the reality that we do not merely exist, rather we are called out for a divine purpose.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Based on A J Conyers, The Meaning of Vocation, available for download from the Vocation Library at the Centre for Christian Ethics, Baylor University. As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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