Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB 16 January 2010
Lections for Proper 2 Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Text: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Today’s sermon continues some ideas on how we hear the voice of God that I preached on last Sunday. Since church was cancelled due to snow on Sunday, you never got to hear that sermon, unless you went to my blog (see the URL in the bulletin) and read it. (Thank you if you did, thank you even more if you shared the link with someone else, a nice example of internet-enabled evangelism!).
This Sunday I want to talk about a specific way that we hear the voice of God in terms of the “calling”. I’m thinking about the word “calling” because of the way that St. Paul beats us over the head with the word in our second lesson. In the first nine lines of 1 Corinthians I count the word “called” three times. Paul seems to be using “called” to mean “chosen” or “set apart for something”. Likewise in today’s gospel from John, when we hear Jesus say to Simon that “you are to be called Cephas (Peter)”, we get the sense that our Lord is doing something more profound than giving a nickname. Jesus seems to using “called” to suggest that this new name of “Peter” stands for a new life and role that he has in mind for Simon.
Because of scripture passages such as these, when we in what a friend of mine likes to call “churchland” hear the world “calling”, we think that it only applies to bible characters and religious professionals. None of us would aspire to be another Simon Peter, and when we hear Paul talking to “the church of God in Corinth … called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2) I suspect we doubt that we could be considered saints like the Corinthians. After all, weren’t the early Christians brave and persecuted martyrs who had faith even when they were thrown to the lions? Well, some of them were certainly brave, but the Corinthians certainly had their faults, and yet Paul said they were “called to be saints”. Today I want to suggest that when we think of a “calling”, we need to get past the idea that it only applies to religious professionals, such as padres. I want to ask, would it change the way we see ourselves as Christians if we all felt that we had callings from God to be, as Paul puts it, “saints”?
When we broaden our thinking beyond churchland, I think we would agree that lots of people, and not just religious professionals, have callings. Anything which is more than just a job, anything which requires loyalty and perhaps some degree of self-sacrifice, is often called a calling. Thus teachers, firefighters and professional soldiers, for example, might be said to have callings because they are set apart by their unique talents, devotion to duty, and the value they bring to society. Another important aspect to the calling is that it comes from within, that there is some voice or some desire that compels a person towards a certain profession. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines calling as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career”. The “urge” or compulsion that is part of a calling is important because callings are not easy things to follow. There has to be an element of satisfaction, a kind of pleasure and fulfillment, that allows a person to keep pursuing a calling. Thus a young man may take a series of demeaning and tedious jobs in order to work at becoming an artist. A recruit may have to endure harsh and exhausting training in order to prove herself as a soldier. This element of satisfaction explains the spiritual dimension of the calling. The writer Frederick Buechner captures this idea well when he writes that a vocation or calling is “the place where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need”.
So if we agree that lots of people – teachers, soldiers, firefighters, artists – can have callings, can we also say that lots of Christians can have callings, rather than just a few religious professionals? After all, at the beginning of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul says that they ALL have callings, and that calling is to be a saint. Paul writes “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. That’s a pretty strong way to start a letter, when you consider that Paul could have started off by saying “to the Christians in Corinth, a great bunch of folks” or “to that little church with the big heart and the family feel”. No, these people are “called to be saints”. The word “saints” is a translation of a Greek word, “hagios”, meaning “holy ones”. And, since Paul goes on to say that the Corinthians are “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and since we too “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (after all, our chapel is named “Christ the King”), that must mean that we, too, are called to be saints or holy ones. So how does that work for you, hearing that you too are “called to be a saints and holy ones”?
Well, if you feel that you aren’t good enough to be a “saint” or a “holy one” because you’re a bad person or because you’re not a religious professional or whatever, sorry, you don’t get a choice. God has “called” you to be a saint, just as he called the Corinthians, and you know, the Corinthians were a pretty messed up bunch. We’ll be hearing more readings from 1 Corinthians at church in the next few weeks, which will reveal that this early bunch of saints argued over theology and church life, and had ahead of the poor in their church life, and had some pretty dodgy ideas about sexual practice. Some saints! Paul knows all about these faults, but as he writes in the opening of his letter, God is both faithful and generous. He has given his people the gift of his Son (“for in every way you have been enriched by him, in speech and knowledge of every kind”) and he will continue to support his people and “strengthen [them] to the end” so that on the day of judgement “[they] may be blameless”. Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian church is for them to realize that they have all been given these gifts, to end their divisions and to live up to the calling that God has given them.
The thing about callings is that they find us. Something puts that urge, what Buechner calls that place of “deepest gladness”, and that urge persists until we find the place where our joy and the world’s need are met. Or, as a priest I knew once said, “when you have an itch, you have to scratch it”. What Paul reminds us, I think, is that God has given us all these callings. Before we thought of God, or made a decision to follow him, he called us to be his people. We may not think we are worthy of God’s call, we may not think of ourselves as saints or holy ones, but it’s in God’s power to make us into saints and holy ones. John in our gospel reading this morning realized that when he looked at Jesus and said “Look, here is the Lamb of God”. John realized that Jesus would be the one who would save us, take away our sins, and make us holy. So in a culture which values individual choice above all, and even in a Christianity which often talks about making a decision to choose Christ as our personal Saviour, there is the startling, and hopefully liberating, fact that God chose us and called us first. Our choice is really only how we respond to that urge.
So how do we respond to God’s calling? As I suggested earlier, once we dispel our notions that a calling is something that only religious professionals get, then we can start to think seriously about this question. We don’t have to be preachers or ministers. We can all have callings. We are all called to be God’s people, to be his holy ones. We don’t have to worry about finding it within ourselves to be saints because that is God’s gift in his Son. God has given us the resources sufficient for the task he has called us to, starting with our baptism, and will continue to strengthen us with his love and with his faithfulness. How we live out our lives as God’s holy ones is as individual as each one of us here. The preacher Barbara Taylor Brown once said something to the effect that God doesn’t care if you are a missionary or if you work in a gas station, as long as you live in the knowledge that you are God’s person. Beyond the basics of loving God, loving our neighbour, and using our God given talents, I would say that be we be God’s person is up to each of us. It may mean being a farmer or soldier, a parent or grandparent, a son or daughter, or a friend. Whoever and wherever we are, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God loves us, forgives us, strengthens us and that we aren’t alone. We are called, like the Corinthians, “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ”. That fellowship includes all the others that God has called over the ages, including you and me, just regular folks, “called to be saints”. Praise God.