Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today is kept in the Church of England as Vocations Sunday. For some years now Vocations Sunday has been kept around this time of year and it is a Sunday when churches are encouraged to think about the meaning of vocation, and their own in particular. The word of course literally means “calling”, from its Latin root. In centuries gone by, and even not that long ago in the first half of the twentieth century, vocation in church circles was often understood to be the privilege of the few rather than the many. Priests had a vocation to serve God in the Church, religious – monks and nuns – had a similar vocation with an emphasis on a life of prayer. Certain caring or educational professions would be referred to as vocational, such as teachers, doctors and nurses. Hopefully by now, in this relatively enlightened twenty-first century, people will be more aware that vocation – calling – is not just the privilege of the few, or even the many, but includes all.
Everyone has a vocation. First, we are called to be flourishing, joyous human beings. Secondly, we are called to grow in the knowledge and love of God. For most of us if not all of us here today that will be as Christians – people who have heard the call of Christ and who have responded and followed that call. That is why we are here in church this morning. Of maybe some of us are still seeking. In terms of church life, vocation is not about hierarchy. Sadly, it has often been understood that way in the past. Rather it is about diversity and co-operation. Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament is helpful. In any one congregation it is as if each of us is part of a body. We all work together in our different ways as a team to help build up the kingdom of God. A time of vacancy in a parish, such as now – indeed a time of double vacancy, with no Team Rector here or Team Vicar at St Matthias – is always a litmus-test time to see how the local body of Christ is really working. It is a time when church members are tested and challenged in more ways than usual, and it can be unsettling. But – to quote a well-known phrase – every crisis is an opportunity – and I have often thought that a parish vacancy is a great time for growth. I’m not talking necessarily about numbers. I’m talking about spiritual growth and a flowering of gifts, spiritual and otherwise. It’s a great opportunity for people to discover gifts that have been latent, and they had never realised they had. It’s a time for willingness to lend a helping hand, rather than turning away and letting someone else get on with it.
The body of Christ can never depend simply on one person. That is not how the body works – to work well, all parts of the body need to thrive. Like any other group, church life has to be ordered. And that is why God calls people to be bishops, priests and deacons who can engage in a ministry of the Word – preaching and teaching – the sacraments and pastoral care. But of course such tasks, with the exception of certain sacramental functions, are not exclusively clerical. It is really important that lay people are engaged in these ways as well.
At one level of course in the Church of God we are all priests. This is eloquently expressed in the first letter of Peter in the New Testament:
“let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”
“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.
This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers acknowledges that we are all called to offer spiritual praise and worship to God. And that is at the heart of what we are all about, and why we come here Sunday by Sunday.
Our gospel reading today from John is very much about vocation – and in particular, Jesus’ vocation. It is winter, and Jesus has come to Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. The religious leaders of the day take it as an opportunity to question Jesus about his true identity. They are growing increasingly hostile to Jesus, jealous of his popularity and the miraculous powers that he has been exercising. And they demand that Jesus openly and publicly tell them if he is the Messiah, the Anointed One, as prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures, who is to bring salvation to the people of God. In Jesus’ day there were all sorts of expectations around as to what kind of person the Messiah would be – perhaps a great military leader who would set the Jewish people free from Roman occupation? Jesus didn’t really match that kind of figure – yet he was causing a real stir among the people and gathering a significant following through his preaching, teaching and healing ministry.
The religious leaders are really trying to catch Jesus out with their questions, and Jesus knows this. If he states categorically that he is the Messiah, then the religious leaders will be able to accuse him of blasphemy. So Jesus, as so often, uses picture language, metaphorical imagery, to describe who he is. He is a shepherd, and his sheep hear him and follow him. Surrounding the great city of Jerusalem at that time it was very much an agricultural environment. There were lots of sheep around – the imagery Jesus used was taken from daily life. The vocation of the shepherd is to look after the sheep in his care – and to protect them from danger, whether it be wild animals or sheep-stealers. And Jesus says that is just what God is like. God cares for and protects us. As Jesus puts it,
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No-one will snatch them out of my hand”.
Jesus makes a great claim here –
“The Father and I are one”.
This is all too much for the envious religious leaders, and in the next verse after today’s gospel reading they take up stones to stone him. Jesus had made it quite clear, without spelling it out in all too explicit terms, who he is.
Presumably most of us are here this morning because at some point in our lives God had made us aware that God is real and that God is love. Some of us may have had a dramatic sense of call from God, for others it may have been more gentle and ongoing. There is no hierarchy in vocation. This applies also to the way we are called. A memorable event of being called is no better than the quiet, steadfast sense that God is leading us in some way. One is not better than the other – they are simply different ways in which God may nudge us – as many different ways as there are people to be nudged – to awaken us into a sense of God’s call upon our life.
It is Eastertide. Our parish may be experiencing a double vacancy at the moment. But we are not abandoned. God continues to love and care for us as much as ever. And God will continue to do so. Yes, life has its many trials and struggles. For there are powers at work both within and beyond this world that militate against our true vocation to flourish as human beings, as Christians, as the beloved children of God. Patient endurance is a great gift from God. Let’s pray that as we journey through this Eastertide we may grow in such patient endurance, and let’s endeavour as best we can to journey with joy, for none other than the risen Jesus accompanies us.