Then the Word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (1 Kings 17:8 NRSV).
Wouldn’t it be nice if God spoke to you, like God apparently spoke to Elijah? As a preacher, it would be nice to stand before you each Sunday and say: “I have a direct Word from the Lord?” Or, as Elders or Trustees or the Council, we could turn to God and say – what do you want us to do? And then, God would send us a message from heaven, either in an audible voice or maybe as a Tweet, telling us where to go and what to do.
When it comes to a call to ministry, how do you know God is really calling you?
Twenty-eight years ago – today – I was ordained to the Christian ministry at Temple City Christian Church. It was the culmination of a rather busy weekend that included walking across the stage and receiving my M.Div. Degree the day before. So, here I was — I had a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordination certificate issued by the Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I had the proper credentials, but what was next?
Just a few weeks after I received my “ministry credentials,” Cheryl and I packed up and moved north to Eugene. My plan was to pursue a degree in history from the University of Oregon, and then armed with my eventual Ph.D. I would settle in across the street at my alma mater – Northwest Christian College – serving the church as a professor. Things didn’t work out quite the way I thought they would, and so a year later we moved back to Southern California. I still had that dream of teaching and so I went back to Fuller and earned that Ph.D. As far as I was concerned – teaching was my calling. But, perhaps God had different ideas for my life, because that door never seemed to open up as wide as I’d hoped. Then again, I never heard that direct Word from the Lord, like Elijah did.
I don’t think that I heard God wrong or that pursuing that Ph.D. was the wrong thing to do. It’s just that it took awhile to discern where the focal point of my own ministry would take place. Although I’ve enjoyed my opportunities to teach in colleges and seminary, I have also found a calling to serve God through the local church. Although I couldn’t foresee back then that twenty-eight years later I’d end up here in Michigan, I believe this is where God has called me to serve.
We often talk about a ministerial calling, by which we usually mean a call to vocational ministry. But, what about the majority of God’s people who don’t receive such a call – to what is God calling you? How do you discern where God is leading you?
This morning we were going to honor our graduates, but as it turns out they’re very busy and none of them could be present today. So we’re postponing our celebration of their achievements for another day. But, while they’ve each worked hard to achieve their goals and have a bright future ahead of them, they too must discern where God is leading them in life.
Whether we’re called to vocational ministry in and through the church or out in the broader world, each of us has received a divine calling to represent Jesus Christ before the world.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians invites us to consider our own sense of calling or vocation. Paul is writing this letter to defend his own calling to apostolic ministry. Apparently there are some folks who are questioning his credentials. They’re claiming that he didn’t go through proper channels, and so his ministry and authority in the church were somewhat suspect.
As you read through Galatians you might catch a hint of frustration and maybe even anger in his response. His detractors claim that his ministry doesn’t have the proper authorization from the home office, which for us would be either Lansing or Indianapolis.
Paul doesn’t disagree with this assessment. He just makes it clear that his was a divine calling not a human one. While he doesn’t mention the Damascus Road here, he does claim that he received his calling directly from Jesus. If they needed evidence of this calling, all they had to do was check out the change in his life. He went from being the chief persecutor of the church to an apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, like Jeremiah, God had prepared him for this calling in the womb. It took a while for Paul to hear the call, but here he was, preaching the Gospel of Jesus. He didn’t need a piece of paper from the home office to know that this was his calling. In fact, instead of going to Jerusalem to get his call confirmed, he went out into the deserts of Arabia for a couple of years. When he finally went to Jerusalem three years later, the only people he saw were Cephas (Peter) and James.
Unlike Paul, God didn’t knock me off a horse. So how did I know? How did Maggie know? How did Rick know? How did Eugene James know? Ask Eugene about his calling. He’ll tell you he ran away from it for a lot of years!
When it comes to a call, does God call people to ministry – whether vocational or not – because of their great holiness? Is it necessarily a person’s ability? Is it due to choosing the right schools to attend?
Now, I have nothing against holiness, ability, or a good education, but is that the basis upon which God chooses to use you or me in the ministry of the church? Yes, gifts are important, but gifts are the means to the end, not the end.
I know a little bit about how this works. You see, I didn’t go to a Disciples of Christ seminary, which made me suspect in the eyes of some Disciples. Had I applied for the Edgar DeWitt Jones scholarship back in 1984, I doubt I would have gotten any consideration. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Disciples seminary, but is that the only way to go? Did Paul need to go to seminary in Jerusalem for his ministry in Galatia to count?
Martin Luther had an answer for all of these questions. Picking up on verse 15, he wrote of Paul’s sense of calling:
Did God call me on account of my holy life? Or on account of my pharisaical religion? Or on account of my prayers, fasting, and works? Never. Well then, it is certain that God didn’t call me on account of my blasphemies, persecutions, and oppressions. What prompted him to call me? His grace alone.
Such is the case for all of us who have been called to the ordained ministry. It is grace alone that sustains us. But It’s not just true for those of us in this particular calling. It’s true as well of those who are called to be Elders and leaders of this congregation. God has chosen to use us, whatever our gifts or our backgrounds, to bring good news to the world.
According to Paul, it’s God who chooses. We have to receive the call, and having the received the call, we must show due diligence in preparing for service in the kingdom of God. We need to test that calling. But it’s grace that allows us to take the step of faith. If we believe that our ability to serve depends on our own holiness and preparation and not on the grace of God, we’ll never take that step of faith. I believe that God has called me here to this community to serve as an ambassador of reconciliation. I’ve taken up this call in the full knowledge that I live in grace.
So, knowing that we live and work within God’s grace, where is God leading you?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 9, 2013