Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 19th January 2014
19 January 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Less well-known on this side of the Pond than to our brothers and sisters in North America, Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian who believes in political engagement. Arrested twenty-two times for acts of civil disobedience, primarily to do with the Vietnam war, he has become a trusted adviser to presidents, most recent President Obama.
Incidentally – and of absolutely no relevance to this sermon, but of great interest to British members of the congregation – Wallis is married to one of the first women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, Joy Carroll, who holds the distinction of being the real-life role model for the ‘Vicar of Dibley’.
Speaking at the Commencement address at Virginia Theological Seminary some eighteen months ago, to a group of would-be church ministers, Jim Wallis said:
Christianity is not just a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of everybody else.
Rather, it is a call to a relationship; and one that changes all our other relationships.
Jesus calls us into a new relationship to God; and he says that also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies.
You don’t always hear that from the churches. But that transformation of all our relationships, when lived out, has always been the best thing for what we now call the common good.
This highlighting of both the personal and practical, social nature of Christian vocation, is something which has made a remarkable resurgence in the Christian Church in the past couple of years. It is definitely not the case that the Church had stopped talking about it before this point, but the narrative is certainly being heard more distinctly and perhaps articulated with more energy.
Nor is this new spirit restricted to one part of the Church. Pope Francis, in writing last week to Cardinals-designate to tell them of their appointment, struck an austere if not severe note:
“Therefore I ask you, please, to receive this designation with a simple and humble heart,” adding that “while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”
Our own Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church have, in their own spheres, found themselves engaged in an intentional and direct way with both the personal and social elements of Christian living.
In this series of sermons at Matins during January, I have been developing an argument which tries to move the idea of vocation, of Christian calling, away from the individual – though I will look at that next week in my final address – and towards what we might call the connectedness of vocation. Whether it be the call of the People of Israel to ‘a land, a people, a Nation’, or if we may speak of such a thing, the vocation of Christ in self-revelation.
And this week, I want to focus on the vocation of the Church asking whether we can speak of an ecclesial vocation. And, of course, our readings this morning are enormously helpful.
The first from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah dates from the time of the Fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the disastrous exile in Babylon, historical events which took place at the end of the seventh and early sixth centuries BC.
He describes his calling in a highly stylized, we might almost say, individualistic way:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
It’s as if the finger of God appears from the clouds and points to the one, the chosen one, the anointed prophet who is then sent to speak to the people. It’s this view of a calling which has coloured much western thinking about vocation.
But Mark’s gospel account of the calling of the disciples and the beginnings of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee gives us a different perspective.
Firstly, there is a trigger to this new phase, the opening moments of Jesus’s ministry. Mark describes how John the Baptist, whose baptism of Jesus we celebrated last week, was arrested – and then Jesus comes to Galilee to begin preaching. The two things seem connected: John is no longer at liberty, and this seems to have been the impetus for Jesus to enter public ministry, with a message which is strikingly similar to that of John the Baptist: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.
But what is interesting for us is how he shares that call with the first disciples. Undoubtedly there was a personal component – after all, the individuals are named: Simon and his brother Andrew; James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. We get some detail about what they are doing – casting their nets into the lake, or mending their nets by the shore.
But while the response is individual, the vocation is corporate – ‘follow me, and I will make you fish for people’. We can imagine them, in our minds eye, peeling off two-by-two, inquisitive, curious, baffled perhaps. Leaving their nets. Pulling the boat up onto the shoreline. A wave goodbye. James and John didn’t even have time for that – they left their father in the boat with the hired men.
But what are they being call to? To use the skills they had – they were after all fishermen – but to apply it in a new way – ‘I will make you fish for people’. Their lives were no longer their own, their wills were no longer their own, their futures were entwined with a Lord who would call them to sorrow and pain and hardship. But they would be in company, a band of disciples who would carry their burdens and share their wounds.
So the vocation of the Church is not about self-fulfilment, an ecclesiastical ‘finding-myself’, attaining my true potential, but is about service, it is about following Jesus.
This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. On Monday I was in the chapel of Parliament for the Annual Methodist covenant service which uses words of Charles Wesley in 1755 to put more clearly than ever I could the sacrificial nature of the calling of the Church which is both to us as individuals but also to us as a band of disciples:
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.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.