“Walk worthily of the calling by which you were called”
Prepared Remarks by Gerald Pillay
Vice Chancellor and Rector of Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool, England
Sunday, May 3, 2015
Dimnent Memorial Chapel
This is a rich text with very important messages for all who graduate today from this distinguished College we call Hope. It is about how Christians should live in the world.
Our first universities in the west both in Europe and here in the US were church foundations. Many of these old universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Sorbonne, Harvard, Yale, etc.) have lost or marginalised their founding Christian vision. But places like Hope College remain part of the oldest university tradition and seek to keep alive a distinctive education philosophy informed by Christian moorings.
In this text the Apostle Paul says to you who are graduating from Hope College today, ‘Therefore, I beseech you’ - an old English word for ‘I appeal to you, I entreat you.’ He has spent the first half of the epistle telling us about the meaning of atonement, redemption and salvation; now comes the ‘therefore’ - what this theology means for real life on a daily basis in the real world: the world of work, the world of public life, a world of new challenges, of trials and of exciting new opportunities. ‘I beseech you,’ he says, ‘to live worthy of the calling by which you were called.’
Vocatio is the Latin word here from which we derive the word ‘vocation’ – it means ‘calling.’ This word ‘calling’ is wrongly used for ‘vocations’, when we mean ‘jobs’; as in ‘vocational training.’ You may not know what your jobs will be – you may not yet know how you will earn your daily bread -but that job is not necessarily your calling. Your job could be your calling if it helps you to be faithful to that for which God has called you.
Blessed are those who have found their calling! We have seen so many bright, talented and even very wealthy people remain unhappy and discontented when they miss their calling. One applies for a job and is interviewed for it. But one cannot apply for ones calling. For that you need to hear yourself being called. When you hear, you answer the call. Like Samuel:
1 Samuel 3:5-14 (NLT)
5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go back to bed.” So he did.
6 Then the Lord called out again, “Samuel!” Again Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you, my son,” Eli said. “Go back to bed.”
7 Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before. 8 So the Lord called a third time, and once more Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” Then Eli realized it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went back to bed.
10 And the Lord came and called as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel replied, “Speak, your servant is listening.”
The ‘hearing’ is a personal encounter that requires you in your busy and active life to be still and find time to contemplate; quiet-time to pray and to listen. Sometimes God uses the wise counsel of friends or family; sometimes He uses circumstances and events through which we must struggle. To know your calling requires discernment; more than the head knowledge or the high skills training that one gets by successfully gaining a degree in a subject or discipline.
As one commentator paraphrases Paul’s words: ‘I appeal to you to set out on life’s walk in a way worthy of the calling in which you are called’. In other words, take care that your actual tone and bearing answers to the great in-bred conviction that you belong to God.
That ‘calling’ is to be marked by three distinctive characteristics, to walk life’s way in ‘lowliness’ usually translated ‘humility’; not being ‘high minded’, not having a bearing that is self-important. Humility is one of the important virtues and gifts of Christian character. For the Greeks and the classical Roman world adopting a humble stance was recognised as acceptable where necessary, but was not considered a virtue – a good in itself. The Greeks and the Stoics, especially, considered courage, justice, temperance (self-control) and prudence (cautiousness) to be the fundamental virtues. Not meekness and patience and humility: that world exalted competitiveness and pride in pre-eminence (dominance and discipline.) Stoicism praised unflinching resolve in adversity. Nietzsche the atheist philosopher, rejecting a middle class Western value system, spoke of the ideal being ‘Übermensch’ – the self-reliant, overman; (as Safranski describes) the ultra aristocratic Übermensch who combines ruthless warrior pride and the artistic brilliance that defined the Italian Renaissance. (That is the ideal man that inspired Hitler and the Nazis.)
Our Lord teaches us something far more radical - that strength exists not in dominance or self-will but in gentleness and humility.
Now don’t be mistaken, the Gospel doesn’t expect us to debase ourselves; meekness is not weakness; meekness is a Christian virtue, weakness is not. We are talking here about a new value system.
Remember the man in the parable who is in major debt to the king but instead of imprisoning him, the king frees him from the huge debt – he redeems him. However, that same man finds the person who owes him much less and puts him into prison. To walk in humility, is to walk in deep gratitude knowing how greatly we have been forgiven and how graciously God deals with us. Humble before our God we act graciously towards each other. That is why we don’t count how many times we should forgive others; it is because we have been forgiven beyond measure.
Meekness it is not an apathetic, feeble or a timid personality. It is a disciplined maturity and a strength we learn from Christ himself who gave up glory and power and took on the form of a servant - a slave.
‘Forbearing one another’, says Paul, ‘allowing for each other’s frailties’ and ‘taking the other person’s side against yourself’; to ‘see yourself through their eyes.’ How hard that is! You will find several texts where this word ‘long suffering’ is used to describe God’s patience with us. It means ‘a habitual refusal to make quick and hasty judgements’ and ‘to lose one’s temper over unimportant things.’ It is this largeness of view that trivialises the unimportant and prevents us ‘sweating the small things’, and helps us not to make mountains out of molehills. In other words, the whole attitude of these texts is to encourage a proper harnessing of one’s ego and to place ourselves in the perspective of God’s incalculable grace.
Paul says that this ‘forbearing - the merciful, forgiving patience towards other people’ is to be a forbearing in love. English has only one word for love. Hellenistic Greek, in which the New Testament was written, had at least four words for love: they had a word for the love that a man or woman feel for each other and to whom he or she is attracted sexually; that word is ‘eros’, from which we get the English word ‘erotic.’ It is what ensures the human race perpetuates itself. * They had another word ‘storge’ for the commitment and love one has for one’s country (enough to go to war and die for) and for one’s team. There was a different word (philia) for brotherly love, the love we feel for each other within the congregation, for each other within a family. Then there is the word ‘agape.’ Nowhere in Greek literature is this word ‘agape’ used as it is used in the New Testament where it describes the love of God for us. This extraordinary, distinctive usage of ‘agape’ describes the completely unconditional, undeserved love that God in Christ shows for us—full of grace, no strings attached. It took the laying down of His life for the world; it is self-sacrificial love that is redemptive.
It is this word ‘agape’ that is used when we are exhorted to love our enemies. How is it possible to love one’s enemy for whom one feels revulsion? You see, agape is not based on how we feel, neither is it based on what we get out of it, nor is agape a contractual calculation for some end or another. Agape has no benefit in mind: it is completely unconditional. This is the love that God shows us and we are called to show to each other.
When you have agape, then all these other forms of love are deepened. Agape will stop eros from being manipulative, or something that waxes and wanes with moods and changing tastes whether one is still good looking or not, or whether, when one is old and frail, one is still attracted to the other. Agape deepens eros. Agape stops storge becoming patriotic madness and obsessiveness. Being a fan (from fancier) is one thing but being a fanatic is something else. Agape also deepens philia so that we still maintain the bonds of friendship and fellowship beyond what we may feel; so that we still love and care for each other even when we are peeved, provoked or annoyed. That is the agape Paul is talking about. Agape that deepens and preserves and enriches everything we do in the world.
Paul then ends with this admonition: ‘do this all in the bond of peace.’ Too many relationships at home or work or in the public square are often truces, ceasefires; bouts of calm between conflicts. Peace, as it is used in the New Testament, is not the absence of war or conflict which counsellors, mediators, human resource managers and other experts try to find ways to manage. The peace here is the peace that one feels every time one come to confess one’s sins and to attend communion. To hear God say to you again and again ‘You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter.’ It is a peace that comes when one is in perfect fellowship with God. At communion we achieve reconciliation and koinonia (oneness) through sharing the sacraments. To be at peace with God is the peace that passes all understanding.
This is the kind of peace one needs in facing the world as you now do: a lifelong purpose not driven by self-interest but driven by a deeper calling. The peace that comes from God is a peace that ensures complete and perfect fellowship.
You are ambassadors of Hope. You are urged to walk worthy of the calling that you have been called. To walk humbly and to be longsuffering; to walk in love – agape that enriches all our pursuits and ambitions. To be at peace with God so that, in a world riddled with troubles of all kinds, we may be truly peacemakers.