1 Kings 19.9-18
May I speak in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
When we think of calling or of vocation we all too often think solely in terms of being called to the priesthood. That of course is important, but we must not forget that everyone is called: each one of us has a vocation, each one of us is called by God, called to take our place with the Body of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. And those vocations play out in all manner of ways – many people live faithful lives as Christians in workplaces or in family life; sometimes people may have a specific sense of vocation for a particular aspect of Christian life, for example prayer, or works of charity, or ministry with children, or flowers or music or hospitality or administration or any number of other things. The God of the bible is a God who calls: over and over again we read stories of people being called to serve God in a particular way in a particular place and time.
Peter’s first mistake in this story is to try to decide for Jesus what Jesus should call him to do: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. The initiative comes from Peter, not Jesus. Perhaps Jesus complies with Peter’s request hoping that Peter will learn something from the experience. This continues to be a temptation for Christians. We all form our own ideas about what we think God should call us to do; we might want to walk on the water, but God might prefer for us to help keep the ship afloat.
For the overwhelming majority of us, vocation is something we must live out with others. The call to be a hermit is a rare one, and even hermits tend to live their lives in relationship with a religious community that supports them at the same time as leaving them alone. In our gospel reading, we heard how the disciples travelled together in a boat. When Peter saw Jesus, he separated himself from the other disciples, getting out of the boat and attempting to walk to Jesus alone, and he quickly found himself in trouble. This is a good image for the kinds of difficulties that can arise when we attempt to write others out of the story of our faith and our vocation. In much contemporary Christian culture, people are fond of talking about their personal relationship with Jesus, or of Jesus as “my personal saviour”; while this is not wrong, it is not enough. Of course Jesus calls us into a relationship with him; but he also calls us into relationships with others. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, as He and the Father are One; S. Paul teaches that we are the body of Christ. Vocation is not about me and Jesus and never mind everyone else; we cannot find our own way to Jesus across the water while leaving our brothers and sisters behind in the boat. This of course is one of the reasons why Covid-19 has been so difficult, and why it is so good to be back together in church again.
In our Old Testament reading, Elijah, like Peter, has left everyone else behind to run to God; Elijah had good reason to run, as he was fleeing the threat of death. The voice of God comes to him when he is alone in the mountains. The idea of finding God in the sheer silence is one that often appeals to us. And it is certainly true that we sometimes need to be alone and quiet to hear God’s call – Jesus himself leaves his disciples to spend time alone with the Father in today’s gospel reading, and on many other occasions in the gospels. But what is often missed in Elijah’s story is that the still small voice of calm sends Elijah right back into the midst of the community that he had run away from, with all its dangers.
Like Peter, and like most of us, Elijah cannot live out his vocation as a private relationship with God; as difficult, as dangerous as it may be, his vocation requires him to be amongst his people, to be a sign of God’s presence in the midst of the bloody chaos. Most of us, thankfully, will not have to live amongst the sort of violence that characterised the Israel of Elijah’s day; nonetheless, the thought that we can run to God in the mountain, and work out our vocation alone with God, leaving the mess of our lives and relationships behind, remains beguiling. And whilst we may from time to time need to seek God in quiet and silence, we must also be ready for the still small voice of calm to tell us that our vocation is precisely to stand with others in the midst of the mess, not to escape from it.
Vocation is for all; it is not something that the clergy can regard as their personal property, nor is it something that the laity can delegate entirely to the clergy. Jesus calls all of us to follow him; he calls all of us to witness to his love for humanity in word and action, and to serve him by serving others. Of course he calls different people to do this in different ways – some as priests, some as deacons, some as musicians, churchwardens, Sunday school teachers, and so forth. Some serve Jesus through a ministry of hospitality; others serve Jesus as friends, in family life, in their professions and hobbies. But Jesus calls us all. Vocation is not only an individual matter – it is something that we must live out as a Church, as communities, as families; vocation can be uncomfortable – it can lead us to doubt and question ourselves and our priorities, and it can lead us to people and places we might prefer to avoid. But it can also lead us to grace and blessing, as both Peter and Elijah discover: they may misunderstand the roles the God wants them to fulfil, and they may feel to weak to fulfil them, but in their misunderstanding and in their weakness they both encounter the power of God’s presence.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit