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For the past six weeks, we have engaged in a communal conversation about vocation. Bloggers and readers, professors and seminarians, pastors and parishioners: together we have shared our faith-filled thoughts and concerns about vocation with a lovely combination of passion, personal stories, and theological reflection. I can’t help but wonder if, in doing so, we are somehow living as communio vocatorum—the communion of people called together to participate in God’s work in the world. The question remains: What is that work? What is the essence of that work? In a word: LOVE.
One of the most beautiful passages in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (at least in my estimation) is titled, “The Being of God as the One Who Loves.” On the basis of this passage, I’d like to make a few points relevant to a reconstruction of vocation:
- God is the One who loves. The essence of God is love. This love is manifest in God’s seeking and creating fellowship (koinonia) with us. God’s loving is a taking of us up into koinonia with God and therefore with one another.
- God’s koinonia-creating love is not conditioned by our talents, capacities, or even our faithfulness to God. There is no nothing we can do to earn this love or make ourselves worthy of it.
- It is God’s pleasure to love us. In fact, we are the objects of God’s desire. So if God has a purpose, it is passionate loving (i.e., the ongoing act of love).
- The origin and telos of God’s being is love. In Godself, God is a fellowship of love; in relation to creation, God is a fellowship of love. We, by virtue of God’s overflowing love, then, exist in and act out of a union and communion (koinonia) with God and with one another, which is characterized by loving.
Whatever we have to say about Christian vocation or about human vocation more generally, we begin with this: our vocation is to love. Our vocation comes from God’s loving, points toward (witnesses to) God’s loving, and joins God’s loving of all creation. This is the essence of our work in this life: participating in God’s communion-creating love.
A twenty-three-year-old man who returned recently from doing mission work overseas put it this way, “I think we may not be able to change the whole world . . . but what God wants to do in each of our daily lives is have us invest in the relationships he has given us. [God] is having us invest in the intimate relationships that are close to us, and then having it continue on that trickle down of God’s love to others. That is God’s master plan.” A forty-five-year-old woman expressed a similar sentiment: “For me purpose is perhaps more of a sense of connection, being a part of the tapestry with one another. Nurturing one another no matter who it is.” In fact, 74 percent of the parishioners whom we interviewed for our grant, Christians Callings in the World, said (again and again and without any prompting) that God wants them to have relationships marked by authenticity, openness, trust, support, care. What gives them purpose, meaning, and identity? Where do they find God? In caring connections that extend beyond their family, friends, and church to embrace the stranger.
The communion-creating love of God, in which we participate, has a missional thrust. For the Church exists “only in the most genuine attachment” to the world Church members enter into I-Thou relationships with members of the world, encountering them as joint heirs with Jesus Christ. “[T]hose who are genuinely righteous are not ashamed to sit down with the unrighteous as friends . . . those who are genuinely holy are not too good or irreproachable to go down ‘into hell’ in a very secular fashion.” Thus the church cannot avoid any dark corner in the world. A compassion parallel to that of its shepherd, which results from the power of the Holy Spirit in its midst, impels the church to act. It cannot close its eyes to suffering or its ears to cries for liberation. If it fails to live in this kind of solidarity, the church denies its koinonia with the incarnate one. “It manifests a remarkable conformity to the world if concern for its purity and reputation forbid it to compromise itself with it” (CD IV/3.2, 774-778).
While there is much more to say about this work of love, I think this approach to reconstructing vocation helps us address some of the concerns that we’ve all been talking about over the past six weeks. This normative vision of vocation judges and calls for the transformation of many manifestations of work (including the work we do in our jobs). If our vocation is the communion-creating work of love, then it places our focus on people, the people whom we work with. If our work severs us from communion, reproduces isolation and alienation, then our work needs to be put-to-death and resurrected by the One who is Love. If we find ourselves caring for others in the very ordinary routines of life, and if that care witnesses to God’s love, then we are fulfilling our vocation. We have only to open our eyes and see it as so.