Many jobs, but one vocation

From an address to TSCF Conference 2000, Thursday 6 July.

The Christian In The World: Many Jobs, But One Vocation
(Gerald Pillay 2000)

What does it mean to study and work in this world as Christians? What makes us different? There is a general concern in the modern university to have graduates gainfully employed. A great deal of attention is paid to vocational guidance and developing graduate profiles so that our students will be attractive for the job market. Understandably so!

The word 'vocation', from Latin, means 'calling'; not just, as it is commonly used, (getting a) 'job'. As Christians we do different kinds of jobs, but we all share one calling, one vocation. We may be members of different faculties of study - science, education, commerce, law and the humanities - but we share one calling. The word 'calling' is a Biblical word, and it is God who calls. And the overwhelming sense about being called by God is that it is always accompanied by a clear responsibility. God calls you because God has a purpose for you.

So 'vocation' is tied up with purpose. Outside any reference to being called by God, the goals we set are fairly predictable. What do people live for? There are exceptions, but in the main they seek to be happy. This may mean to have money, to be famous, to be popular, to have an attractive spouse, successful children - whatever gives a sense of fulfilment. And why not - if happiness is the goal? There are obvious benefits in being important or popular - that's why famous people have so many friends, why the wealthy have so many admirers and so much influence. And with influence comes power.

A rich young ruler once came to Christ to enquire what was necessary for him to do in order to acquire salvation. Christ reminded him of the golden rule - love God and love your neighbour as yourself. 'All this I have done,' he replied. Here was an obviously successful human being who had all that he needed.

He was religious but wanted also to be sure that he would receive eternal life. Christ immediately diagnoses his problem. He replies, 'You lack one thing. Sell everything you've got and come and follow me.' What is our Lord saying? Your heart's in the right place, but it's preoccupied with the transient - you do a great job, you're successful but you have no sense of purpose. Now Christ is not saying one mustn't have money or be rich. He's saying one can't give one's heart away to the mundane and then want God on top of it. One can't order one's life around oneself and then try to fit God into it.

To have a sense of calling is to have a central focus for one's life, which gives meaning to everything else one does and aspires to. The Christian's central focus is to share in that which gave focus to Christ's own life. It is the grandest focus of all. Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher of the 19th century, described 'purity of heart' as 'the willing of one thing'. Purity is more than just religious piety in the usual sense. It means, says Kierkegaard, to have one thing that one can live and die for. The importance of having this central focus to one's life is that every other claim on one's energies, time and life can be assessed as either important or wasteful. Without an informing, central allegiance, all these other claims seem equally important.

In the three years of his ministry, Christ preached one sermon over and over again in different ways. The central theme was that the Kingdom of God (God's rule) has come. His best-known story to illustrate this was the story of the wheat and the tares growing side by side. At harvest time the tares will be removed, and then the wheat will be easily seen and can be harvested. The wheat represents those who live under God's rule; they are the sign that God's rule is present in the world. The other story is that of 'the pearl of great price'. The man who seeks to own it sells all the other pearls he's got in order to buy this one great pearl whose value exceeds that of all the others put together. We too give up all the other lesser allegiances to keep the one great allegiance that gives meaning and purpose to everything.

The great problem is that we very often live in two worlds. The one is the world of academia, intellectual pursuit, keeping a job and all of that goes with being successful. The other is the 'private' world of our faith and our church community on Sundays. These worlds don't meet. In fact we even speak different languages in the two worlds. We have become adept at moving between them, at speaking two languages. Those who are not so adept usually give up the Church which, in a secular society like ours, seems the easier thing to do, so great is the scepticism it breeds. A great tragedy!

But that is not in fact what God's reign is about. God's reign has not broken out in the Church. God's reign has silently broken out in the whole world. The Church and worshipping communities - you and I - are signs that this has indeed taken place. The wheat grows among the tares. You and I walk about with this secret in our hearts: God's reign has broken out in our time and in our space.

The Church is merely a conduit of God's grace; if you like, a pipe, through which God's grace flows into the world. It is not an end in itself. The idea that there are two sides to us - a Christian side and then another side that functions in the world of hard science and commerce - leads to a form of 'schizophrenia'. The Christian word for it is 'hypocrisy'. In the end we fool no one but ourselves as we try to live chameleon-like in both worlds. That's not what Christ requires us to do. He has freed us to be whole persons making the world whole. He wants us in our troubled, individualistic, secular societies, to be instruments of peace and healing.

Being 'whole' is the old word for being healed. To be 'in Christ', to live in the sense of his calling, restores wholeness of personality and purpose. This is the meaning of the 'incarnation', the mind-boggling claim that God in Christ identifies with the full human condition. It is perplexing for modern people to make sense of this incarnation of God because it can't be reduced to a predictable experiment. It offers no analogy with anything familiar.

In Christ, the Scriptures say, God comes to us and God redeems us. All we can do in the face of that is live in the wonder of it. Thomas the doubter said he would only believe when he saw for himself and touched Christ's nail-pierced hands and side. When he did encounter Christ who invited him to undertake this empirical test, all Thomas could do was exclaim in wonder, 'My Lord and my God.'

Christians have something important to say about what it is to be human. Why? Because God in Christ becomes human. We don't just have things to say about theology; we have a lot to say about anthropology too and about what constitutes the humane.

Consider the moving - but brief - story in Mark Chapter 1. A leper cries out to Christ, 'Lord make me clean'. More is involved in this story than meets the eye. It is more than just a story of healing from leprosy. Leprosy at that time struck terror in people. A contagious disease without a cure, it was akin to AIDS today, yet worse: both the medical and religious worlds of the time pronounced lepers unclean and applied draconian measures to isolate them from others. Lepers couldn't live with their family or keep their jobs. Imagine this man's sad life. Some of the bylaws of the time prescribed how many paces away from the leper one had to keep lest one be contaminated. If the wind was blowing from the leper's direction one had to increase the distance. As leprosy slowly rots the flesh away, he probably looked miserable and was unpleasant to be near. Then comes his audacious and desperate plea to Christ for wholeness. While others were counting paces and checking the direction of the wind, Jesus first touched him and then said, 'Be clean'. The miracle really is that this man - who had probably forgotten what it felt like to be hugged by his children, or to have his wife's arms around him - this man was touched by the Christ. Besides the healing of leprosy, this man was made human again. That is wholeness!

That still is the miracle of the Christ among us. The miracle of revealing what it is to be human again. You and I who call ourselves Christian are in fact saying we know what it is to be wholly human. Whether we are in science or commerce or law - whatever our intellectual interests - our prior calling is to show the world the way to being truly human. Our world desperately needs it. The last century that saw our greatest technological advances was also the century that saw more people die in war than had died in all previous wars in human history. The century ended with gross examples of ethnic cleansing.
This is the world Christ has placed us in. Often we are the voice of the minority - but so was Christ in his time. He makes us 'whole' so that we can bring wholeness to the world. That is our calling, our vocation, no matter what our jobs may be.

Gerald Pillay, at the time of writing, was Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of Theology at Otago University.
He is now vice-chancellor of Liverpool Hope University