Vocation in the economy of God (ii)

In the previous post, I explored how the language of vocation is used in contemporary discourse, (expressing individuation, interiorisation, stratification, self-actualisation and marginalisation) and then began to reflect on the rather different description in scripture. God calls creation into being; his disruptive call to Abraham both completed the past and opened the future; God’s call to Israel was based on his grace, not their strength, but could be resisted; and God called particularly individuals through dramatic, challenging and at times terrifying revelations of his presence.

We continue now to reflect on further key moments of God’s call in the biblical narrative.

5. God’s call of Mary

In the two birth narratives, Matthew takes the male perspective (all the main actors are men) and the women are silent; Luke’s account takes the female perspective, and one of the men (Zechariah) is struck with silence through his unbelief. Because of this, many people take Luke’s narrative as portraying the virtue of the women, and in particular Mary, as modelling for us a receptivity to God’s call. It is certainly the case that Mary’s virtue emerges in the events that unfold. But it is worth noting that, in classic OT terms, the main point of the Magnificat is that the ‘lowly have been lifted up’ by God’s grace, and not by their own virtue, and the narrative is emphatic about the unexpected nature of Gabriel’s visitation.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1.26-27)

The mention of her name comes almost as an afterthought. When I was being interviewed for a curacy, the incumbent preached on this passage, and offered the congregation a list of Mary’s virtues that they ought to emulate if they wanted to be used by God. (There was, it seemed to me, some hardening of the oughteries…) But the point of the passage is quite the opposite: if you want to be used by God you need to make an archangel appear to you in heavenly splendour. I am not sure I have a recipe for that. (I didn’t point that out at the time…and we both agreed the curacy wasn’t right…!)

The birth of Jesus comes about because ‘the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Luke 1.35) and Mary then speaks out in testimony, and the Messiah is born. In Acts 1–2, we again see the Holy Spirit come on the disciples, power from on high overshadow them, and ‘you will be my witnesses’ as the community of the Messiah is born.

6. Jesus’ call of the disciples

In Mark’s abrupt opening to what he calls ‘the gospel’ (good news; Mark 1.1), where everything happens ‘straightway’ after the straight way has been prepared by John, the moment Jesus starts to proclaim the good news, he calls the first members of The Twelve.

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. 

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1.16–20)

Once again, we see the powerfully disruptive nature of the call of God; the most poignant phrase in this brief account is ‘they left their father Zebedee…’, making a break with what would have been their primary defining community and kinship group to which they had, heretofore, owed their greatest allegiance. We hear in this an echo of God’s call of Abram, and it is confirmed by Jesus later teaching that his followers must, in comparison to their loyalty to him, ‘hate’ their families (Luke 14.26). Although Jesus’ call of them to leave their situation is specific to these disciples, they model something that is true for all those who hear the call to follow.

The image of being ‘fishers of men’ is not actually designed to fit in a jaunty children’s song or provide easy pictures for Sunday school friezes. It is an OT image of eschatological judgement at the coming of God (see Ezekiel 29.4–5 and Jer 16.16), and Jesus is calling the disciples to be partners with him in the separation of the people into those who will hear his call and follow, and those who will not. As Mike Higton highlights (in his Grove booklet on the theology of learning) this is a transformative moment:

Jesus sees what these two people currently are, and calls them to a strange fulfilment of what they are…They become in that moment, disciples. They become learners…They are captivated by the possibility of transformation.

7. The Spirit’s call of Paul

The account of the ekklesia in Antioch was particularly important for me as I was thinking about God’s call on me to ordained ministry.

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13.1–3)

God’s call is heard in the context of diverse community; this list of five, including a Palestinian Jew, a black African, a wealthy Roman, someone from Herod’s household, and a fanatical Pharisee, could hardly have been more culturally and ethnically diverse. God’s call is heard in the context of worship; it comes through the specific direction of the Spirit (presumably through someone with the gift of prophecy); and the word of God’s call is the beginning, not the end, of the process of listening and praying. Where boundaries of division have been crossed in the community ‘from every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9), a boundary-crossing ministry is called into being.

8. Paul’s language of calling in 1 Cor 7

1 Cor 7 is a remarkable passage, not least in its vision of husband and wife living in mutual reciprocity, where they exercise authority (exousia) symmetrical over each other through mutual self-surrender (1 Cor 7.4). But the second half of the chapter focusses on whether we should change the state ‘in which we were called’. In some tension with the socially disruptive nature of the call of Jesus, Paul is here arguing that you don’t need to change your social situation and identity in order to live faithfully; expectation of the coming kingdom does not bring mundane life to a halt. ‘If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow’ said Luther reputedly, ‘I would still plant an apple seed and collect the rent’. But Luther was mistaken in thinking that the phrase ‘the situation in which you were called’ attaches the ‘calling’ to the ‘situation’. It is clear from the argument that follows that Paul is using the language of ‘calling’ as Jesus did—the call to follow him.

Nevertheless, each of you should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to you, just as God has called you. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each of you should remain in the situation you were in when God called you. (1 Cor 7.17–19)

So our ‘vocation’ is primarily about the call to know God in Jesus by the Spirit. What occupation we have in life as we do this is relatively unimportant. When fretting about whether we have heard God’s ‘call’ and whether we are in the right job, we often just need to relax. These things are ‘nothing; keeping God’s commands is what counts’.

9. The distribution of ‘gifts’ of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12.

Although Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts does not use the language of ‘call’, but instead the language of ‘giving’, it does set out some key principles for the development of patterns of ministry. As Gordon Fee highlights in his NIC commentary, there is a constant dynamic of movement between the individual and the community, and between differentiation and unity. This begins with the repeated refrain ‘different…the same’ in 1 Cor 12.4–6, and this is expanded in the detailed list that follows, structured around the two poles of ‘to each…for the common good…to one…to another…for the common good.’ God’s call through the gifting of ministry is not about self-actualisation, but about serving the community. And any individuation only makes sense in the common bonds of community life.

10. Calling to holiness and distinctiveness in Revelation.

Although most people conceive of Revelation as a ‘vision’, in fact nearly half the text is a report of what John hears. Voices, including the (sometimes delegated) voice of God, are prominent in the text. God’s call to his people is to be faithful witnesses; by hearing his voice and responding to it, to live in the victory that was won by Jesus on the cross, which will one day be fully revealed but is at present hidden. This means living in, but not of, the world, so that the primary call is to live distinctive lives; whilst living in the reality of the Roman Empire, they are not to be shaped by the values of Empire, but to ‘Come out of’ Babylon (Rev 18.14) and start to live as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem as we await the revelation of that city to the world.


What, then, does this all mean in relation to the way that vocation is commonly talked about? I think I have experienced many of these aspects of vocation, of God’s call, during my life, particularly in key moments of change and transition. I have heard in the context of community; in disruption of my situation; through specific words spoken to me (and to me through others) by the Spirit; and in unfolding quite new and unexpected aspects of life. I express my own Rule of Life in terms of call, ending it with:

This is the pattern of life I believe God is calling me to. If I achieve it, it is with his grace. If I fail, it is with his forgiveness.

But these observations from Scripture also offer specific challenges to the five patterns I observed at the beginning of the last post. The biblical understanding of call involves:

1. Shifting the focus from the called to the Caller.

Vocation is a verb, not a noun! It decentres the individual, and focusses our attention once more on the One who is calling, and the relationship of communication this assumes. As someone commented to me in discussion:

Vocation is what I’m called to do by God – as a follower of Christ – at this particular time, in this particular place, in these particular circumstances. Every Christian has a vocation.

Andrea Jaeger was world number 2 women’s tennis player, and competed in Wimbledon finals. But an injury made her reconsider her priorities, and she heard God’s call to be a nun. When asked in a Church Times profile what she would like to be remembered for, she replied: ‘Remembered? Why would I need to be remembered? All that matters is being faithful.’

2. Locating vocation in widening circles. 

God has a vocation for the world—to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2.14). Because the world has not yet discovered this, he calls a people to know him. To enable this, he calls particular people to ministries to equip the whole people of God. Each of these circles of vocation is related to the other, and only makes sense in relation to the other.

The service which every Christian should offer to God as the outworking of his call to follow Jesus and further the progress of the gospel and his sovereignty in the world.

3. Making different vocations interdependent.

The Faith and Order Commission report on senior leadership offers a fascinating theology of calling to leadership in relation to the calling of God on his people:

At a very simple level, we can represent the triangular dynamic of these relationships in the form of an equilateral triangle enclosed in a circle. In this diagram, the two ‘sides’ of the triangle represent this double calling: God calls his people; and God calls individuals to lead his people. The base of the triangle represents the complex two-way relationship between people and leaders—a relationship created by God’s double call. 

4. Vocation reflecting God’s sovereign decision.

We do not create ourselves. and vocation is not primarily about ‘discovery’ the self that was always in there, waiting to come out. In our vocation, hearing our calling from God, we might actually become a different or transformed self as God does a work of new creation in us.

A vocation is a calling from God. It is a task which God wishes us to complete to his glory.

5. Seeing the tension between calling and choice. 

Vocation is not about self-actualisation. We must dethrone the tyrant ‘choice’ from ruling our lives. He is an oppressive despot who delights to bring people up to the heavens in their imagination and then crushes them with the weight of reality. God’s choice for me is always better than my choice for myself. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, ‘the kingdom of God is like going to a party with people you would have never chosen to spend time with, except that they were invited too.’

God speaks sovereignly, unbidden, and we have to wait and listen if we are to hear his call. 


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7 thoughts on “Vocation in the economy of God (ii)

  1. I recall one Pentecostal preacher of my acquaintance who once made the comment

    “Bloom where you are planted – you can be ‘scent’ where you are. “

  2. Ah, I can make my point now.
    I too was thinking of the outworking of point 7 where the Holy Spirit specifically called Paul and Barnabas rather than them putting themselves forward. But maybe that incident was unusual due to the importance of what God had planned for Paul. However, I would see the same principle applying in more ordinary circumstances where mature people recognise the gifts in others and point them towards their gifted ministry (vocation??). Barnabas went and found Paul in Tarsus when he recognised that he had the ministry which Antioch needed. The disciples at Derbe recommended Timothy for apostolic ministry having seen his character and gifts. As Paul mentions in his letter to him, Timothy was also given a gift by the eldership through the laying on of hands; clearly they recognised his future. Surely this should be a healthy way in which people discover their vocation.
    Interestingly, that’s what happened with me. After attending this church for 18 months or so, the Rector said, “You should become a Reader!” I didn’t know what that was (not being Anglican), but when I looked it up I realised it comprised all the things I had been doing for 25 years in a New Church environment. It is reassuring when your gifts are noticed and confirmed in this way.

    • Hi Peter,

      Would God that more of those ‘mature people’ in the CofE also recognised the gifts in those of BAME origin and pointed them towards their gifted ministry.

      Only 3.5 per cent of clergy are BAME and only 7 per cent of last year’s influx of ordinands was minority ethnic.

      The blame lies with vicars, BAP advisers, DDOs and even senior clergy, who pay lip service to the idea of diversity, nodding with approval at Synod resolutions on diversity, but meting out the all-too-familiar treatment of BAME churchgoers as unsettling anomalies, who are rarely ‘encouraged to apply’ for anything resembling a vocation in the CofE, but, for the most part, merely tolerated under the proviso that we ‘behave’ ourselves and know ‘our place’.

      Back in the sixties, criticism of racial prejudice and exclusion was often deflected with the unhelpfully dismissive stock response: ‘But, if it’s so bad, perhaps, you’d be happier elsewhere.’

      My own recent experiences of bias and exclusion in the Diocese of Guildford have demonstrated to me that there’s still significant support for that sentiment in the CofE today.

      So, I find myself agreeing with David Isioru, a black vicar in Handsworth, who researched and presented a paper on black clergy to a British Sociological Association conference, and told the Guardian: <i<“The under-representation of BAME [people] in the Church of England rests upon institutional racism.”

      I also agree with Ian’s statement: ’God’s call is heard in the context of diverse community; this list of five, including a Palestinian Jew, a black African, a wealthy Roman, someone from Herod’s household, and a fanatical Pharisee, could hardly have been more culturally and ethnically diverse.

      I just don’t see that kind of diversity happening any time soon in the CofE. At least, not without those of the majority ethnic community coordinating efforts with BAME people to insist upon it.

  3. Good comment on that tyrant, choice. That’s in the quotes file. The statement in part (i) which jarred with me was:

    “I chose my vocation when I was 7 years old and never changed my mind. ”

    The point of a vocation is that it not your choice, except for the choice to respond, perhaps with reservations.
    Someone, possibly Wesley, likened to becoming a Christian to a gateway. Above the entrance is enscribed “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden”. But when you pass through and look back you see, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you.”

  4. What a great piece – affirming, stimulating and challenging. Great keynote address focusing as it does on the incredible nature of a pro-active God who persists in calling us into relationship with him. Thanks

  5. “Jesus sees what these two people currently are, and calls them to a strange fulfilment of what they are…”
    Marvellous – and was it not also the case with Mary?
    None of us are “qualified” or “special” to be chosen, but choose He does, and not by raffle or random chance. One does not have to sign up fully to the Immaculate Conception (which as a child, I used to think meant she hadn’t skimped in the bathroom!) to think she had qualities any ordinary woman *could* have, but usually for all sorts of reasons doesn’t.
    The intuition to realise what she was being told (when any normal person would think “you will have a child” meant in the normal course of nature, in a year or so, not right this minute with no man involved) and the courage to say “yes” to God with really no idea what she was signing up to – and possibly some rather false ones when you think how far we are from “putting down the mighty from their seats” in this world. The willingness to sacrifice her marriage, her relations with her parents and society, and probably her life, on a single message from her God.
    That’s a fair bit from which God could make “a strange fulfilment” – and strange indeed! – and not to be dismissed as if she was just a box God chose and furnished from among a million others just like her, while the *men* who were chosen had something in them to be “strangely fulfilled”.
    Come to that, haven’t we all? May He of His grace so use us for his glory.

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