What it means to have a Christian Vocation
Onesimus: Return despite the natural right for freedom
Philemon: Forgive despite the legal right for punishment
Anyone paying the slightest attention to the media recently knows well that there has been plenty of social and political unrest lately. It’s a heated and polarizing election year for our country. The topic of race relations has seen a steady rise. Most recently, the choice of a professional athlete to sit during the national anthem has caused a great stir. These events awaken discussions and opinions about what is proper, especially in the way we practice our freedoms and respect others.
It’s pretty fitting that we think of these things during Labor Day weekend too. At first glance, we don’t often associate polarizing topics with Labor Day. Labor Day is a relaxing holiday, a time to take break from the every-day stress. But, we should also take time around Labor Day to consider our occupations. What is it that we do in life and what kind of impact do we have through it? That question essentially is the same one discussed through all of these highly emotional political topics of the time. No one seems to doubt the freedom that we possess to speak our minds, but it’s the exercise of that freedom in the proper manner that is so polarizing. What kind of activity crosses the line and why does it?
As we think about that in our given occupations, we shouldn’t forget to look deeper as well. What we do in life is much bigger than just a job title or a wage bracket. Though we often forget this, God designed labor to be about much more than punching the clock day after day and drifting along through life. As we consider the impact of our labor on our lives and the lives of others, we understand it more as a vocation than just an occupation. A vocation is a calling. It is something that defines what you do but also, who you are and what your value in this world is. No matter what your job is, you have a vocation from God. Perhaps, our nation struggles with so many stressors and arguments because we set up so many high expectations for occupation, but not for vocation. On Labor Day weekend, this morning, consider your calling from God, as we read an example of this in a letter from Paul:
Philemon 1:10-21 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother-- especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
The letter to Philemon is far from the most impressive book in Scripture. It’s only one chapter long, 25 verses in all, most of them printed out before you. Philemon was a prominent Christian in the early Church, most likely from the town of Colossae. He was certainly a beloved friend of Paul’s, perhaps even brought to the faith by Paul. Paul took the time while he was in prison to write this very personal letter. But, the letter itself doesn’t speak about Philemon that much. It’s more about another person by the name of Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave from Philemon’s household. Like most slaves on the run back then, Rome was a convenient destination for Onesimus. There he could fit in among the crowds.
But, in God’s bigger plan, it was also in Rome that Onesimus would come into contact with Paul. Through this seemingly random occurrence Paul was able to share the gospel with Onesimus and help him see the folly of his ways. The purpose of this writing to Philemon was to notify him that Paul was sending Onesimus back, and that Paul requested Onesimus be received with forgiveness and mercy. From the way the letter reads it sounds like Onesimus not only left his master, but stole some of his goods along the way. Even despite this, there was more than sufficient legal backing for Philemon to dole out a strict punishment.
Onesimus was a slave, but perhaps for our understanding the term “servant” would be more appropriate. We tend to have a particularly negative impression of slavery because of our nation’s history. However, slavery in this context and at this time was quite different. The slave was still considered to be the master’s property but he wasn’t normally treated inhumanely. Slaves in Roman culture could often own property and possessions, enter into contracts, and own slaves for themselves. The normal age of discharge from slavery was 30. Most non-Romans would enter into slavery in the hope of one-day become a citizen.
Sounds pretty different from our typical view of slavery; but at the same time, it’s clear that any institution of slavery is against the very way that God created mankind. It’s very clear that all people are fashioned by God from conception and carry the remnant of His image that was originally bestowed upon Adam and Eve. All people have equal access to God’s grace and salvation through the universal Savior, Jesus Christ. Anytime an institution is set up that unfairly subverts someone under another, sin is involved.
Paul’s plea to Philemon was difficult because there were several considerations to be made. On the one hand, Philemon had every legal right to severely punish Onesimus. If possessions had been stolen the punishment could have been even worse, perhaps even death. On the other hand, surely Onesimus could make the case that he had a God-given right to freedom, no matter what man said about it. These are the tricky questions that confront us at times, and vocation is at the heart of the matter. If we fail to consider our situation in life in light of God’s word and His calling for us, we will end up choosing whatever suits our intentions best, regardless of the consequences.
Paul’s letter is an appeal to Christ-centered vocation. He wanted both Philemon and Onesimus to see the Spirit-sanctified response that would flow from the gospel and seek the preserve the gospel for others. Despite Onesimus’s natural right to freedom as a created child of God, Paul sent him back to his master to fulfill his legal debt of service. Onesimus’s vocation, in the present time, was to serve Philemon. That was God’s calling for his life. The best way Onesimus could serve his Lord and Savior was to bear this burden as an act of love for Philemon and as a testament to the power of salvation in Christ.
Anytime we faithfully follow the vocation that God has put in our lives, especially when it may be an unfair calling from a human standpoint, we give glory to God. We point others to the power of His kingdom and the amazing change that Christ’s grace has made in our lives. But, the opposite is true of when we resist our vocation. When we choose to complain, or to neglect our responsibilities through laziness or indifference, we make the choice to serve ourselves. Both our fellow neighbor and God suffers when we do this.
On the other side, Paul wanted Philemon to recognize his vocation as a gracious master. Rather than think first of his relationship to Onesimus as master-slave, Paul wanted Philemon to think of his servant as a fellow brother in Christ and co-heir of salvation. Although, Philemon had every legal right to seek recompense, Paul asked him to move on and to show forgiveness. In truth, it was a plea to recognize Onesimus as a human and not as property. With Paul’s encouragement and the Spirit’s blessing, we have no doubt that Philemon followed through with this request.
If only we would recognize the same principles in our vocations. We may have God-given freedom to do something, but if we can serve our neighbor better by refraining why wouldn’t we willingly give that up. We may have legal precedence for a belief, attitude, or action, but if it takes away from Jesus what’s the ultimate goal? These are questions which are difficult to face and answer, and many of the struggles we have as a nation are about living in one’s vocation, a calling from God.
One of the unique things about Christianity is that God calls us to difficult things. It’s part of the guarantee we have by believing in Jesus. Life is sure to be filled with hardships. As Paul wrote to the Romans, the Christian is a “living sacrifice,” dedicated to point others to God’s word and work of salvation. Be assured, no one enjoys being the sacrifice. It’s not an outwardly noble calling. But, that’s what it means to follow Christ. To carry His name is to carry His cross. To carry the cross is to be a living sacrifice.
Take confidence, that no matter what your vocation is or will be, you have the strength to accomplish the task through Christ. When Paul wrote those famous words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he wasn’t talking about any odd activity that we try. He was talking about those things to which God calls us. Our vocation. We have this promise in Jesus because He was the ultimate sacrifice. He was the only one to perfectly deflect all the hatred and evil of the world and bear it to the point of death on the cross. He followed His vocation, the task that He was called to by His Father in heaven, however unpleasant it was. He empowers you now to do the same.
Yes, life as a Christian can be tough, but it is also the most rewarding. Setting aside the ultimate reward of eternal life in heaven for a moment, we have plenty of opportunities for joy and happiness in life. There is a deep, intrinsic joy to fulfilling our duty before God and our fellow neighbor. Where does that come into play in your life? Your vocation is found in the place that you presently occupy. It may not be where you want to end up, but it is where you are now. For the Christian, God is working through you now because you have a vocation. It is not just pastors or teachers who have a calling. All Christians do. God puts others in our lives, parents, friends, relatives, pastors, to help us see our vocations. Use the advice they give you. Like Solomon wrote in our Scripture reading, be the wise one who is willing to listen to advice and even to admonishment.
Keep these three things in mind, though.
1) Your vocation is not your occupation. There is a difference between what you do for a living and what God is calling you to do in this world. Life is about much more than finding a “practical” career that will yield an outwardly prosperous life.
2) Your vocation involves sacrifice. Both Philemon and Onesimus were called to give something up, something that they had every right to, in order to show love and mercy to others, and to let the light of the Gospel shine in their lives. We’re following Jesus here, it’s not a surprise that we’ll be called to sacrifice something.
3) Your strength and power is in Jesus. The Christian worldview works because Jesus died on the cross and rose again for victory over sin. You are assured of a calling from God today, whatever that station in life may be, precisely because you are first a redeemed child of God who is destined for life in heaven. The reason we seek to recognize our callings in life, however humble and unseemly they may be, is because they are all a fruit of the Gospel. When sins are a forgiven, there is a natural desire to share that gift of mercy and love with others, no matter what the personal cost of freedom may be. Jesus give us the ability to do this.
What is your vocation? You have many. You are a son or daughter. Some of you a father or mother, husband or wife. You are members in this church, part of a bigger community of believers who believe and confess God’s truth. You are a citizen of the United States of America. You have a responsibility to your fellow citizens, and a spiritual obligation from your Heavenly Father to all people. Sounds a bit daunting when we start to list everything. God has high expectations for us. But, in a greater way it is exciting. Think of the impact you can have right now! At home, at school, at work, at church. You can serve one another and your enteral, almighty God. You don’t have to wait until you are someone more important or more qualified from the world’s perspective. You have a vocation now.
Martin Luther famously wrote about this letter, “we are all Onesimus’s.” We have all squandered our relationship with our Lord. We have run away, tried to hide in the shadows. But God calls us back to the light of His grace. He doesn’t need to use some supernatural miracle. He uses His everyday Word as it comes to us in our everyday lives; in our callings here on earth.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.