I saw the Lord - epiphany and vocation

Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

This morning, we heard three Bible readings from the lectionary for this Sunday, one from the First Testament, and two from the New, all clustered around God calling people to service and discipleship.

I'd briefly like to revisit the passages, drawing out the main threads, and setting out the pattern that I see across all three. Then I'll offer some reflections on what this pattern could mean for us.

Isaiah: I saw the Lord, seated on the throne. Isaiah has a vision. It's a glorious vision, a picture of something that is beyond description or language, though he makes an attempt. It's a vision that takes the prophet out of his normal perspective on the world and into a new realm, confronted with the wondrousness and otherness of God. His response? He's afraid. And particularly what he's afraid of is himself. In the light of what he's seen of God, he recognises some truth about his own limits, his own weaknesses. He has 'unclean lips.' He needs cleansing, restoring, forgiveness. God gives him these things through the coal on his mouth, followed by a commission. Isaiah responds in willingness to God, saying 'here I am, send me.'

Paul: In the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul is setting out the basics of the Christian faith – Christ crucified, buried, and resurrected. And he's doing this by appeal mostly to Jesus' resurrection appearances to a whole range of people, including himself. Paul is also setting out his calling as an apostle. He considers himself an apostle by virtue of his Damascus road experience. Paul's calling directly springs from having seen the risen Christ for himself, after the other apostles. The pattern repeats here – Christ appears to Paul, who, like Isaiah, immediately recognises himself as 'unfit' – in his case because of the fact that when he met with Jesus he was persecuting Jesus' followers. However, he has an experience of God's grace, and so takes up his vocation as an apostle.

The gospel passage is the famous 'fishers of people' story, Luke's version of the commissioning of the disciples. The shape of this story is that Jesus goes out in the boat to teach, and then guides the local fishermen into a miraculous catch – too many fish for the nets to handle. This is an epiphany moment. For these fishermen, Jesus' teaching and his authority over the fish of the sea, causes  scales to fall from their eyes, as it were, and they see Jesus as more than an ordinary man. Their experience of him in this moment is as one connected to the Source, someone whose life is luminous with the Divine. This is their moment of vision, like Isaiah's experience of God in the temple, and like Paul's encounter with the risen Jesus. True to form, Simon Peter is the first to twig to what's going on. And true to the pattern, his response is to feel very uncomfortable with himself. Recognising himself to be in the presence of the holy, he is conscious of his own sin, and his own ordinariness. However, Jesus responds in grace, telling him not to be afraid, and commissioning him into his new role, to catch people instead of fish, and all those who were present set out to follow Jesus.

So, you see the pattern here – vocation, or commission, is something that, in these stories, comes from a vision of God. There's a glimpse of God, a sense of the More, the indescribable, a moment where the shape of reality twists a bit to reveal the light shining underneath the surfaces of things. This leads to a sudden honesty about self. In the presence of the Holy One, they see themselves in the light, and are painfully aware of the unlikeness between themselves and God, their flaws and their limits. And then there's grace, cleansing, raising up, words of forgiveness and assurance. And from this place of renewed wholeness, there's a sending or a calling, a vocation that emerges from the restoration of vision and connectedness.

This pattern causes me to think about the search for vocation, the desire that many of us have to know what to do with our lives, and to know that this connects with who God is, and who we are in our truest and best selves.

I don't believe that the pattern I have described from these Bible passages is a blueprint for how God always works, or some kind of divine order that we must follow like a set of instructions. But this morning, I want to explore it as a shape that might tell us something about what we can expect in God's dealings with us, particularly in this area of calling and sending.

Two observations. In these passages:
1.Vocation follows an experience of the Divine, an epiphany
2.Vocation follows a true, and not always pleasant, glimpse of self

Let me unpack those briefly.

Firstly, grounding vocation in our experience of God.

I don't know about you, but I tend in the opposite direction from this. When I try to work out what I ought to be doing with my life, I generally start with looking outside myself at what's happening around me – my needs, my community's needs, and the needs of world, and then acting – or rather, reacting. My sense of vocation is formed primarily by my view of the world, rather than my view of God, or my relationship with the living Christ.

I suspect that many others have a similar approach. A pitfall in this approach is that in the end we tend to hitch our faith to an existing set of political or social ideas. God gets co-opted into our commitment to socialism, capitalism, anarchism, or whatever other -ism.  And when we seek God in the midst of that, we are actually seeking for God to confirm for us the decisions we've already made about what the issues are, and what side of the fence we've taken in response to them. We might do great work, we might help a lot of people, we might even influence the world for the better, but we're not necessarily acting out of vision.  And while we might use Christian language, what we're doing may or may not bear any relationship to the essence of the Christian faith – unless we've already been deeply formed by our connection with Christ.

That's one potential problem with starting with the world around me, rather than God, in seeking my vocation. Another is that it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the need in the world. There is so much I could do to 'love my neighbour.' It's hard to know how to begin. It's hard even to define what 'need' consists of, unless my vision of the world is shaped by a prior vision of God, who God is, and what God desires.

My wondering based on this morning's scripture passages, is whether seeking God for God's own sake, and prior to all else, might open up a sense of vocation in the world that has genuine leverage in the world as God sees it.

Have you ever had the experience of a small thing being so right in time and place, that it actually has consequences beyond all expectation, and blossoms into a whole flow-on effect of goodness and change? I wonder if activity that flows out from the reality of an experience of God is more likely to produce that kind of fruit. I suspect it would also be more sustainable, or as Paul puts it in the passage we read from Corinthians, 'I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.' I don't think that it's possible to sustain a life of genuine service in the world unless it's undergirded by actual experience of God, in an ongoing way. The alternative is either burnout, or a shift away from serving others, to providing only for our own enjoyment and comfort.

Maybe what we really need is to learn how to create spaces for experiencing the presence of God,  and hearing the story of God, so that our practices in the world are simply extensions of God's grace. Maybe what we need is for God to grasp our imaginations with images and stories and visions that trigger surprising, and gracious actions outside the box of our conditioned responses to life.

So, vocation follows epiphany.

Secondly, grounding our vocation in a true understanding of ourselves.

I think we all have a picture of ourselves, who we think we are, what we believe our talents and our interests to be. We're all also driven by compulsions and habits that say more about our fragile egos,  and the things that have influenced us, than they do about who we really are. I think that often, we mistake our drivenness for passion, and assume that our compulsions are the same as our actual gifts and talents.

It's hard, given our complexity as people, to know how best to seek our calling in the world, whether that's our work or other ways we live out our faith.

And, many of us seek God for the sake of finding our vocation, rather than seeking God because God is worth seeking. In this case, the God we seek, and the self that we bring to the seeking, are heavily conditioned by our hopes and expectations, and our need for meaning, and for answers.

In the Bible passages we heard today, the experience of God, or the epiphany of Christ, living and risen, leads to a sudden honesty, and clarity about the self from the person who has the experience. A true experience of God may not confirm us in who we already thought we were. It's more likely to shake us up, and make us uncomfortable.

We need to be willing to experience the God who is beyond our ideas of God, and to be willing to receive a glimpse of our self beyond our cherished ideas about ourselves. In finding ourselves, warts and all, we are open to God's grace and healing in our brokenness. Maybe only then can we be commissioned into the tasks that are uniquely ours to do in the world.

Vocation follows first hand experience of God, vocation follows truth about God and the self.

Two tiny final thoughts:

How do we genuinely seek God, without grasping after elusive spiritual experiences?
And what do we do if God remains silent and hidden? Is it a case of inertia in the meantime?

Firstly, I think it's important to stress that when I talk of an experience of God, I don't necessarily mean ecstatic visions. I simply mean that intangible sense of the numinous, the sense of things being contained in God's love, and glimpses of grace in the midst of ordinariness. Genuinely seeking God means finding within ourselves the part of us that longs for God, and giving that part permission to open up to God. It means allowing ourselves to come face to face with Christ in prayer and meditating on scripture. And pursuing practices that develop the muscle of recognising God in the midst of life – practices such as contemplative prayer, hospitality, worship, gratitude, and Sabbath.

And secondly, I am never one to counsel inertia! In the midst of this intangible process of opening up to the presence of God, and allowing our vocations to develop through that experience, we have reason, we have each other as advisors, and we have skills of discernment and decision making, all of which can help us to take steps toward living satisfying and meaningful lives. I guess what I'm talking about this morning is another layer, maybe a deeper layer, of calling that comes from making room for God to come to us, showing us who God is, and who we are. What follows from that might be major shifts of direction, or we might find ourselves wonderfully confirmed in the choices we've already made.

The important thing, I think, is to seek God for God's sake, to seek a first-hand experience of God,  not as a means to a peaceful or fulfilling life, but because in the end there is nothing else worth seeking.