“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
As I’ve been reflecting on this verse over the last week, there are two words that stood out from among the rest: prisoner and received. A word or two on each of those follows:
First, let’s tackle received. Time and again, as the gospels describe it, Jesus seeks out and calls those who become his disciples. This refers to the obvious: whether it’s fisherman washing their nets beside the sea, or a tax collector sitting in his booth. That seeking out and calling, however, went way beyond the twelve we normally consider. As we follow Jesus’ public ministry, over and over, we see him taking the initiative and extending a call to those who may or may not have been seeking him first.
- Jesus called the children to come.
- Jesus called the teachers of the law over to him.
- Jesus called the two blind men.
- Jesus called the crowd.
- Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree.
- Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb.
- Jesus called sinners.
- Jesus called a woman crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.
When reflecting on this called life, it’s crucial to remember that, before we ever understand, discern, answer or live into a call – we receive it. In our particular tradition, this is part of our understanding of prevenient grace. Just as God claims us as daughters and sons long before we ever know what that means, Jesus is calling us to follow Him before we ever seek Him out.
Paul, understood by most to be the author of Ephesians, knew what it felt like to receive that call out of nowhere. Acts 9 records a trip to Damascus, in which Paul (known then as Saul) was hoping to arrest any followers of Jesus who were apparently causing quite a ruckus in some of the synagogues there. Instead, Jesus shows up, and Paul takes a very different route – not just that day, but until the end of his days.
I hope that I never forget, when I say that I am seeking God’s Will and God’s Way, simply simply when I am seeking God’s face in worship and devotion, God has always sought me out long before.
Second, let’s chew on that word, prisoner, for a bit. Not only did Paul know what it was like to receive a call he hadn’t sought out. He knew what it was like to live out that call in circumstances and settings he never would have chosen. If Paul wrote Ephesians at around the same time he wrote Colossians, he would have been in prison in Rome. Paul’s post Damascus-road life had been less than stellar from a personal standpoint. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes some of the challenges he faced throughout his life of following Jesus:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones,three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:25-28)
I believe that those of us in the Church can sometimes paint too rosy a picture of the life surrendered to following the call of God to follow Jesus. We can give the impression that, once we have responded to Jesus’ gracious invitation, we will have a constant sense of fulfillment and purpose, and that all the necessary doors will be open to us, and marked clearly so that we choose the right ones through which to go. I remember hearing a newer believer remarking to me that life actually seemed harder since she started trying to follow Jesus. I could almost hear Jesus say, “I never promised you a rose garden,” but I was conscious of the ways that we sometimes talk as though – once we come to Jesus, everything in our lives will suddenly straighten themselves out. Paul knew better, and so should we.
Finally, I think Paul’s encouragement to the Church is this – even when you find yourself in a situation you didn’t choose and wouldn’t have chosen, still live a life worthy of the One who has called you. For those of us who have received a particular call (more on that next week) to vocational ministry, we can sometimes wish ourselves away from a current ministry assignment – so that we can really answer God’s call. But what if God wants you to follow the call, not at the next place, but right here and right now?
Too many of us, pastors and laypersons alike, keep looking for the “perfect church,” or the “right appointment.” Sometimes , though- just sometimes – I believe God is telling us to focus on loving the place and the people right in front of us in ways that help them become the church God wants them to be. And maybe God is calling us to write a letter of hope from what may seem like a prison, not by committing words on a page, but by the way we are living in front of those whom God has placed in our path.
If we do that, I believe we might stumble into the kind of witness Paul asks for later in his epistle. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
That’s the view from here for today…preaching in the mirror, friends.