It is almost Reformation Sunday. We’ll deck the sanctuary out in red, sing “A Mighty Fortress,” and celebrate with some young people as they affirm their baptism. All this because more than 500 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther pointed out the problems he saw in the church he loved.
Martin’s legacy is a complicated one. He’s neither a hero nor a villain, at least not entirely. He is to be praised for his determination to get the good news of Jesus Christ into the hands and hearts of the people around him: through his work translating the Bible into German for the very first time, through distributing the accessible, readable small catechism, through standing up against leaders who used religion to manipulate the faithful. He is also to be judged: for siding with the wealthy rulers who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of desperate peasants seeking food and just rule, for his anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim writings that helped justify the Holocaust. In short, Martin demonstrated his conviction that we are all sinners and that through God’s grace alone, we are also all saints.
Martin, as I mentioned, was a monk. Only, he didn’t stay that way. As his ideas about God’s grace developed, he realized he had to leave the monastery and become something else. This was a problem– because Martin and everyone else believed that being a monk, nun, or priest was a special calling from God, even more special than any other work. They used the word “vocation” to describe this calling. (No big surprise there: vocation is just a Latin word that means “calling.” When it sounds like church people are using fancy words, it’s usually just a normal word in a different language.)
Martin started to expand his definition of vocation. He realized that if God could call Christians to be monks or nuns, God was equally determined to call Christians to be teachers, farmers, bankers, soldiers, and nurses. Each and every job is dignified by God calling Christians to work diligently and faithfully, with none more valuable than others. Unfortunately, this realization has led some Lutherans to think that vocation is only about our jobs.
Lutheran theologian Marc Kolden challenges that view, writing that vocation “refers to more than mere dedicated service in one's occupation. It refers above all to the whole theater of personal, communal, and historical relationships in which one lives.” Your family relationships? God has called you to them and expects you to live them out as lovingly and patiently as you can. Your citizenship? God has called you to a particular place and time, and calls on you to engage as a Christian in the society around you. As a shopper, neighbor, committee member, coach, club member, friend, or in any other role you fill, God calls you to that vocation: to be faithful, loving, patient, generous, and Christ-like in every moment.
Martin also realized something else about vocation that’s really important: vocations don’t last forever. The vocation of being a student ends with graduation. The vocation of a particular career ends with retirement. The vocation of a particular leadership role ends when the term is completed. No matter how dear a vocation may be, it will not last forever. Martin understood that vocations are part of God’s Law: in other words, they are needed to keep order and restrain sin in this life, but will not continue in the next life of the new creation.
But if your vocations are gone, what is left? Only the most important thing: you, called by name, baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. You could lose everything: your job, your family, your property, your reputation, your memory, your strength; and still you would not have lost yourself. You are Christ’s, and Jesus will not lose a single one of those who are his own.