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The Next Faithful Step

Three Dimensions of Call

Our topic in this essay is Christian call or vocation. “Call” is usually cast as the broader term, referring to God’s calling us to Christian life and responsibility, with “vocation” often being understood within that context as God’s call to a particular task or set of tasks. But the terminology is not consistent.

When I look for the face of this reality as I have encountered it in the Church, I think of two actual faces of close friends. One is Lisa’s, peaceful and shining as, in a new robe, she floated through the service that installed her in her first pastorate. And the other is Steve’s face, torn and tear-stained with anxiety as he shared about his inability to convince his ecclesiastical supervisor to place him in a certain pulpit—blurting through clenched teeth, “I just want a piece of the pie!” Each picture represents an understandable response to the personal and ecclesial circumstances that determine the moment, but there was obviously a vast and (for this friend) painful distance between the two faces. Lisa was experiencing rich blessing at the heart of God’s will and the life of the church; Steve’s experience of frustration ripped into the depth of his sense of self and purpose. Thus we may expect some complexity as we investigate the apparently simple concept of call; here we explore three dimensions.

1. It is fundamental in the biblical material that God is the one who calls. God’s call of Israel is of a piece God’s choosing Israel (Deut. 28: 9-10; Isa. 45:4-6); God’s call creates Israel as Israel. Because God is Lord of heaven and earth, the call bestows dignity and purpose as well as identity (Isaiah 43:1-4). But because God is just, the call contains the command of righteousness (Psalms 50:5-6). The NT carries these themes forward, in a new key. In the Gospels Jesus calls the people and groups of his day to hear and receive in repentance the news of the kingdom of God. Criticized for sharing meals with the religiously marginalized, he replies, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17; cf. Matt. 9:13; Luke 5:32). The call stands in both testaments as the disruptive initiative of God toward people who have little or no awareness of their need. A new possibility is freely bestowed, entirely on God’s own terms.

2. A second element in both testaments is God’s particular vocational callof individuals in service of the wider call.  The call to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:14) served and strengthened God’s purposes with Israel. So also Jesus “called” individuals to his side as disciples in service of the broader and encompassing agenda of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:20, etc.). Acts and the Epistles describe the development of a variety of specific vocations: elders, deacons, apostles, pastors, teachers, and so on. It is important that we understand each such call as a particular instance of the wider call, rather than some event of a completely different kind (the Hebrew and Greek terms are the same in both cases)—that is, it is sovereign, unlooked for, disruptive, and imperative (exemplified in the case of Paul, Acts 9:3-6).

Two marks of vocation are what Don McKim has helpfully termed “locus” and “focus.”1 The call has a “locus” or a community that has recognized the candidate and confirmed the call, and a “focus” or specific task associated with it (the vocation proper). Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the church at Antioch at the behest of the Spirit “for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2), as Timothy was ordained by a council of elders for the pastoral ministry (1 Tim. 4:11-16; 6:11). There is a perfectly practical basis for this, as the letter to the Galatians makes clear: ministry, for its deepest results to be effected, must have the assent of those in whose behalf it is exercised (Gal. 4:12-16).

3. We find a third element in the writings of Paul: our “call” can apply to elements, or, as we must say, every element, of Christian life and service. Paul himself is the greatest example of this, and it is tempting to surmise that the terminological expansion derives from his own life experience. His “Damascus Road” moment was, as he tells us, simultaneously a call to Christ and to apostolic ministry among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16). And so, just as intensely as he was “called an apostle” and to a particular role, he understood his congregations were a urgently “called of Christ, called as saints” in ll they did (Rom.1:1, 6-7). He insisted that his churches acknowledge the daily relevance of call to them: “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1; cf. 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:7). Moreover the impact of God’s call moves toward the eschatological threshold, as Paul points to “the hope of his calling, the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18-19) and indeed to “the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim. 6:11; cf. 1 Pet. 5:10). For Paul, the call of Christ is so all-encompassing that it points us to eternal relationships as well.

The logic of call is consistent. If God is the one who calls, then wherever that call is heard, lives must be changed forever, intensively and extensively. In the larger strategy of God’s purposes, God calls for human leadership to confirm and effect lesser strategies, with uneven results (again Galatians provides a poignant case in 2:11-14).

In the case of Lisa, the moment of ordination, as divine call merged with personal and communal response, was wonderful and the prospect fine. But God’s call moves us forward from any such moment, and the day-to-day reality would be another matter. Actually not too much later I received an email from her that sounded a good bit more smug and self-satisfied than blessed. It may be that Lisa’s challenge will be to continue to hear the Godward side of the call for the personal growth that will be a primary source for her development in vocation. And as for Steve, it is well within possibility to imagine him soon in a compatible niche of service, though it may be that he must explore more widely the churchly institutions that can provide that opportunity. If God’s call is essentially disruptive, Steve may be the one to have learned more in his very human moment of desperation, if he is able to work through the community dimensions of the call that is upon his life.