"Treasure In Clay Jars" series


Read text 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:1. When I first heard the language of “being called to ministry,” I thought it strange. I was not accustomed to this language. I believed that my choice to be a minister was simply a choice of a career no different than choosing to be a lawyer, an engineer, or a banker. When some would ask me how I was called to ministry I did not understand what they meant. “Well, one of my professors from the Bible college called me before I moved there. Is that what you mean?” No, that’s not what they meant.

My uneasiness with a sense of calling was due to the fact that I wasn’t exposed to such a way of describing things, but also because I had an aversion to seeing my life as a minister as somehow different and distinct from those who chose another vocation. But I am no longer uneasy talking about a calling. In fact, I think this way of describing ministry and vocation is much better than the secular way we use a very spiritual word.

What is vocation? This word is now associated with business and career. We tend to think of vocation as one’s chosen career. I recall hearing this word as a teenager in reference to the vocation technical program at my school. That program was designed to teach skills that could lead to a career.

But the word vocation comes from the same root word from which we get the word vocal, as in voice – a voice that calls out. Before our language and culture was split up into secular and spiritual components, one’s vocation was the same as one’s calling. A vocation is a calling by someone and toward someone or something. A vocation is not just a career choice, it is “a career that is chosen for us.” And the implication behind the word is that God has chosen the occupation for us. What do we mean when we say that someone has missed their calling? We mean that this person has chosen to follow one vocation when they are obviously called to another. We mean that a person is not living out the life God has envisioned for him or her.

Who Follows God’s Call? I am no longer uneasy talking about calling because in rediscovering the meaning of the word I am convinced that calling is not just for “clergy.” The term “calling” has been used in a restricted way and limited to ministers, missionaries, and other church leaders. Everyone else is left to a secular career. But that’s not an accurate. In the truest sense of the word vocation, everyone is called by God to follow God. It is true for ministers, missionaries, doctors, lawyers, millwrights, welders, teachers, plumbers, and police officers. Everyone is called to follow God – even non-Christians are called to follow God, they are simply missing their calling.

I am no longer uneasy talking about calling because the word is vital to understanding what church is all about. The entire church, as a community of people, has been called to follow God. In the text we read, Paul is clear that we have “this ministry” because of God’s mercy. It isn’t something that we choose. We do not take a test to qualify. God calls us to participate in his mission because of his mercy.

The Hebrew term translated “to call” is used to describe the people of God who are summoned to participate in God’s purposes for the world. The Greek terms used in the NT describe calling as a summons to holy living and service to others. In fact, the term calling is rooted in the word for church – “the ekklesia” which is “the called out.” The church is called and sent by God so it is right for us to say that the church has a vocation.

Questions We Ask So That We May Follow God’s Call (Our Vocation): We understand the church’s vocation in general terms easily enough. We follow God’s call by participating in his mission. But how shall we be faithful to that vocation in our immediate circumstances? That is a little more challenging, but it isn’t hopeless.

Our situation is similar to Robert Scott and his team of explorer’s searching for the South Pole. At one point in their journey the weather was so bad that the white haze blended with the falling snow so that the horizon was no longer visible. They had a compass to show them which direction was south, but they could not aim toward a fixed point. They thought they were going forward but soon found they were traveling in a circle when they came upon their own tracks. Their solution was to use the compass to tell them which direction to throw snowballs out in front of them. The snowball gave them a fixed point to head toward. After more aiming, throwing, and following their artificial horizon point, they made it to the South Pole.

We might discern what it means for us to follow God’s call by using our general understanding of the church’s vocation to follow the fixed points we cast out ahead of us in our surroundings. To do this we need to ask four questions and determine how we should answer these in a way that keeps us faithful to the mission of God.

Where Are We? We need to be aware of our local setting. We expect that missionaries in Vietnam and Laos must be thoughtful in how they follow God’s call in those nations. But we also have to be thoughtful. Where are we? What does it mean for us to be faithful in our location? We are across the street from a growing university. We are in the most culturally diverse region in Arkansas. Our city and the surrounding cities are challenged by increasing poverty. How do we follow God’s call and live out our vocation in this place?

When Are We? Of course we need to qualify this place with “at this time.” Anyone who has lived in this area for very long will tell you that a lot has changed. And no doubt there will be many more changes ahead. It is irresponsible for us to come up with a single response to how we shall be faithful to God’s call in this place and assume that will last forever. Think about the historical roots of this congregation. Before there was a West-Ark congregation there was Park Hill, then Midland, then Windsor Drive and College Terrace and then those merged to form West-Ark. Decisions were made at various stages to respond to changing times. Would the members of Midland Blvd ever have foreseen that there would need to be an Iglesia de Cristo? Maybe not, but they knew how to be faithful to their vocation in their time and those who are part of this congregation now know that our WHEN is in the 21st century when the Hispanic population in this area is growing at an astonishing rate.

Who Are We? All of this change over time and place may make us anxious that we are somehow tampering with the gospel truth. It’s good to think about that, but let’s not get overly anxious. A clay jar from Mexico in the 18th century may look very different from a first century B.C. Greek clay jar – but we recognize them as clay jars. Remember that we are conformed to a pattern and are not a reproduction. We look to the first century church for wisdom, but we are not the first century church. That was a different where and when. We are the 21st century church in Western Arkansas. And we are God’s people. Each generation, including our own, must reflect on our identity in Christ. We are baptized and we worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper. We are shaped by these traditions, but we must adopt them as our own if we are going to be faithful. And the generation after us must do the same.

Why Are We? Bring the other three questions together causes us to reflect on WHY we follow God’s call. God has a purpose for us. One of the reasons that the Purpose-Driven material as been so successful, I think is because it addresses purpose – that’s a powerful concept. Too often we amble through “church-life” without purpose and uncritically accept things as they are. But joy and hope will carry us through even the toughest times if we have a purpose that gives us passion.

In the text we read that “as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more.” We are following a path to become more like Christ. We have a vocation thanks to God’s mercy. Why do we live like we do? Because we are following God’s call and he is calling us to become more like the treasure he has placed within our clay jar lives.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 19 February 2006

Treasure in Clay Jars
Lesson Two: Pattern 1 – Feb. 19, 2006
“Following God’s Call”

What is this lesson all about?

  1. Your group will explore what it means to have a “vocation.” (We’re talking about God’s call, not a career!) God’s calling for the church is to participate in his mission and live within the reign of God. That may look different in individual lives or the local setting of a congregation, but in general the call is the same.
  2. Your group will explore what it means to be faithful to God’s calling.
  3. Your group will discern God’s specific missional identity for each person and for our congregation.

Getting Started:

  1. Open by asking everyone to talk about their vocation. (If someone’s vocation is well known to the group, ask that person to tell how he/she decided on that vocation).
  2. Explore the meaning of the word “vocation.” We typically talk about someone’s chosen career. Point out that the word “vocation” comes from the same Latin root from which we get words like “vocal.”
  3. Before the modern worldview divided our lives into spiritual and secular activities, everyone’s vocation was considered a calling from God. Does this insight change the way we would answer the question “What’s your vocation?”

Searching the Word:

  1. Read Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 28:16-20.
    • What does this text tell us about the vocation of disciples?
    • We have called this text “The Great Commission.” What do we mean by that shorthand title?
    • How does Jesus’ charge shape the future mission of his disciples?
  2. Read 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:1.
    • What is the reason we have been entrusted with the mission (“this ministry”)?
    • How does this text make us aware of God’s calling?
  3. Scripture tells us that as clay jars we display the glory of God. It is not about us, but his all-surpassing power (2 Corinthians 4:7) Using the theme of disciples being God’s vessel as clay jars, we want to develop a missional identity as the church in the 21st century.
    • Definition: The word “missional” denotes every member of a congregation living as a missionary and minister in the settings where we find ourselves.
    • We have emphasized that it seems more accurate to say that the mission has a church rather than the church has a mission. Would you agree? Why or why not?
    • Pattern one speaks to the importance of a congregation developing an identity around the mission of God. Being a missional church is all about a sense of identity, shared pervasively in a congregation that knows it is caught up into God’s intent for the world. It comes from having heard the still small voice of God that says, “You are mine. I have called you to me. I join you to my compassionate approach to the whole world for its healing. You are witnesses to what I have done and what I will yet do.”

Making It Real: Exploration and Response
[This section includes two possible activities. You will need to decide which would be best for your group. If your group wants to take the time, you may do both. Whichever you choose, it is important to encourage learners to integrate the mission principles of scripture with the current missional identity of the congregation.]

  1. Distribute handouts made from attachment 1 – Where/When/Who/Why Are We?
    • Ask group to respond to the “Where Are We?” question, in reference to our congregation. Record responses on attached sheet. (See Attachment 1.)
    • Following the same pattern, discuss the “When Are We?”, “Who Are We?”, and “Why Are We?” questions and record responses.
    • What common responses did people give?
    • Do these help you discern our congregation’s missional calling?
  2. Divide the class into two groups. Assign each group one of the scenarios describing Church A and Church B. (Attachment 2 & 3) Each group will read the scenario assigned to the group and discuss it using the following questions:
    • How realistic is it to expect Christians attending a regional congregation to move into the neighborhoods near the church building?
    • What are essential commitments a congregation needs to adopt to minister effectively to the people in their vicinity?
    • In way ways is this congregation living out the mission of God as described in scripture?
    • Allow 10 minutes for group discussion, then bring the two groups together. Assign one person from each group to summarize their scenario and observations for the rest of the class.
  3. Conclude with a prayer for the congregation to continue maturing into the mission of God.

    Attachment 1

    Geographically, Socially, Culturally

    In the flow of history and change

    Living out the gospel in our homes, workplaces, recreational venues

    Welcoming God’s call, entering God’s coming reign

    Attachment 2

    Church A

    When Church A outgrew its facilities in one neighborhood in Detroit and moved it to another, it assumed that many of the members would now move into the new neighborhood. The new building was once a grand Packard showroom in a half-mile-square area that had once been housing for management in the hey-day of Detroit’s automotive industry. Now the housing had become run down, and the area was know for its drug dealing, alcohol consumption, and downward economic spirals. Families were mostly broken ones. Despair had become the normal way of life. But the members of Church A knew that the divine intent was to bring healing and deliverance to this neighborhood, and the fortunes that landed them in this facility were not an accident.

    Henry Lewis, the preacher for Church A, believed in the mantra of “Love everybody” in whatever context you find yourself. That means, when you establish your worship center in the middle of a new neighborhood, your new neighbors are the obvious prime candidates for the same “love everybody.”

    From the moment the move was confirmed, the idea of “loving everybody” from a comfortable commute didn’t seem to make much sense to the people of Church A. At least half of the families found homes in the new community and lived alongside the “everybodies” that God was sending them to “love.” One of the staff members was among those who left a comfortable house in the suburbs to move to the Packard community.

    Shortly after the move, a new staff member, was added for worship and community development. He had been taught that the three Rs of Christian community development were relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. He quickly joined many of the other staff and elders in relocating to the new location. If Church A was to be the healing presence of Christ in this neighborhood, anchored in this new worship center, it would be so as a community of new neighbors sharing life as other neighbors saw and experienced it.

    Attachment 3

    Church B

    Church B, in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn had experience a severe decline by the late 1950’s. Originally a congregation of German immigrants, the character of the community had chanced. Increasingly Puerto Rican immigrants lived there along with many Jews. When the preacher arrived there, he knew he was ill-prepared for ministry among poor Puerto Rican immigrants. His first instinct was to seek permission to live in an apartment among them. His own sense of vocation was formed by reading about how God entered the human condition and in fact took up residence among the poor of Israel. That vocation has passed to the new congregation that formed and flourished. It is now a large vibrant Hispanic congregation. Their reason for being is to be “present with Christ in the Lord’s Supper and present with the poorest of the poor.”

    Church B’s understanding of its vocation is rooted in Philippians 2:5-11 – God leaving behind power and glory to take the form of a peasant in a land of poverty. Small group leaders meet together on Saturday mornings for reflection and discussion, where the focus of worship is the life-giving and life-saving sacrifice of Jesus. After their worship time they share lunch with a group of formerly homeless men who reside at a church facility. Obviously, this church seeks to be what it believes. It’s vocation is to be the living incarnation of Jesus Christ. In other words, they say, “We are Matthew 25.”

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 19 February 2006

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