By Richard Niell Donovan
Paul starts his letter to the Romans by identifying himself. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” he says. Paul clearly wants us to know who the boss is. Jesus is in charge. Paul is only a servant—a person under orders—someone who does what he is told.
But then he gives us the other side. He says that he is “called to be an apostle.” Paul might be doing what Jesus has called him to do, but Jesus has called him to a high and holy calling—an apostleship. Paul claimed to be the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9), but we know better. Most of us could name a few apostles—Peter, Paul, James, John, Judas—but who else. Some of us could come up with another name or two. Few of us could name all the apostles if our lives depended on it. Peter and Paul—those were the two greatest apostles—few people would argue about that.
So Paul starts out by saying that he is a servant, and then he says that he is an apostle. He is a man under orders, doing what he is told—but he is also an apostle.
There is no inconsistency in that. Paul is indeed a man under orders—a man who does what Jesus tells him to do. But Jesus has CALLED Paul to be an apostle—has CALLED him to do great things—has CALLED him to take the gospel to new places—has CALLED him to write much of the New Testament. By becoming the humble servant of a great Lord, Paul has become great himself.
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When I was younger, I was uncomfortable with the word, “called.” I felt called but would not use that word, because I had not heard a voice from heaven.
But, whether I wanted to say that I was “called” or not, I received lots of affirmation for my call to the ministry. People thought of the ministry as a high calling. They believed that anyone called to ministry would live an important life—would do important work. I hoped that they were right, because I wanted my life to count. I didn’t want to go through life just eating—to gain strength—to work—to make money—to buy food—to eat. I wanted to make the world better. It was hard to imagine that I could actually do that, but it was something to hope for.
But I wasn’t altogether happy about my call. I wanted to be a fighter pilot—or a racecar driver—or a rock star. If I couldn’t be one of those, a job that paid well—like a doctor or an engineer. I had a friend who was studying to be an engineer. As he neared graduation, big companies courted him—flew him around the country—wined and dined him—promised him an exciting and prosperous future. My life had none of that glamour. Nobody was promising me an exciting and prosperous future.
But at some level I understood that I had been called to take orders from Jesus. I had been called to be a servant instead of a star. While I couldn’t be a rock star—or even an engineer—I felt a sense of purpose in the calling to which I had been called. That didn’t mean that I was happy about it. It didn’t mean that I didn’t have misgivings. It simply meant that I understood that there was something substantial in my calling.
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: That is my story. Consider telling the story of your own call.)
But somewhere along the line, I began to understand that other people were called too—and not everyone was called to ministry.
• I grew up in a church where one of the men had been called to be the teacher of an adult Sunday school class. He had a gift for teaching the Bible. During the week he ran a grocery story. He was proud that God had called him to be part of the chain that put food on people’s tables.
• I was glad that God called our family doctor to be a physician. I knew that he would take my ailments seriously, and I knew that he would do what he could.
• I was glad that my mother was called to be a mother. She did other things too. She worked while I was growing up, because we needed the money, but she thought of her primary work as raising two sons. My brother and I were blessed by her calling.
• One of the men in our church had studied for the ministry, but had quit to work in the post office. I felt sorry for him—felt that he had accepted second best. In later years, I revised that opinion. I think that he went where God wanted him to go. I think that God called him to be a postal worker. He worked every day with people whom I, as a minister, would never see. I think that God had special things for him to do in the post office.
It might seem as if I am digressing from Paul’s story—Paul, called by Christ to be an apostle—but I am not. In our text today, Paul talks about his own call, but he also tells Christians in Rome that Christ has called them too. By inference, we learn that God has called us too.
Paul told the Romans—and us—that we “are also called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v. 6). He says that we are “called to be saints” (v. 7). Those two statements—called to belong to Jesus and called to be saints—are pretty general. They don’t tell us what kind of job we should take. But if we belong to Jesus, we can count on Jesus to help us make right decisions—not only with regard to jobs, but with regard to other things as well.
There are some jobs to which Jesus would probably not call us. I say “probably,” because sometimes Christ surprises me. But I could not in good conscience operate a roulette wheel at a casino. I could not in good conscience sell pornography. I could not in good conscience promote tobacco sales. I could not in good conscience sell poorly made or overpriced products. I could not in good conscience try to persuade people to take on excessive debt. I cannot imagine Christ calling a Christian to do something that would hurt people.
If we belong to Jesus, we should be listening for his call—asking for his direction every step of the way. We should let him guide our decisions. We should ask his guidance in determining who we should marry—about the kinds of entertainment in which we participate—about money—not just how we make it, but also how we spend it, how we save it, and how we give it. If we belong to Jesus, we should be praying and listening for his call with regard to every important decision.
If it seems that I have quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’—so be it. Christianity is a “Come As You Are” party—but it is not a “Stay As You Are” party. Christ comes into our lives to change us—to help us to become all that we can be—to guide us—to mold us—to make us into new people. But that requires that we become a “servant” people—ready to listen to Christ’s call—ready to obey—ready to accept Christ’s plan for our lives rather than our plan.
Some people find it difficult to reconcile themselves to that. After all, we want what we want. In her book, The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander tells how that works. She says:
“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady
who could well have offered her helplessness to God,
but she had a grievance with Him
because He had not permitted her to be eaten
by a cannibal for the Faith;
she could not accept herself as a sick woman
but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet.”
I know how that old lady felt, because I have often chafed at Christ’s plan for my life. However, I can tell you this—Christ has been a sure guide. I might not have always been a sure follower, but Christ has been a sure guide.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that we are called to be saints (v. 7). The Greek word is hagios. It means holy—set apart to do God’s work—consecrated to God’s service. We can imagine consecrating a chalice to God’s service—a chalice that will be used to serve communion wine. We have no problem thinking of a chalice as something holy, because we use it for holy purposes. When Paul says that we are called to be saints, he is saying that God wants each one of us to be consecrated for holy service, just as that chalice is consecrated for holy service—set apart for God’s service.
He is not speaking here just to the clergy. He says, “To ALL who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (v. 7). If he had been addressing that letter to us, he would have said, “To ALL who are in (your town), beloved of God, called to be saints.” God calls ALL of us to be saints—holy—consecrated to God’s service.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a saint? Saint Bob! Saint Bill! Saint Emily! Saint Sue! (PREACHER: Use some names from your congregation—but not Biblical names like James or John). Paul says that we are all called to be saints—hagios—holy—dedicated to God—set aside for God’s service.
Have you ever thought of your job as part of your saintly service? It can be. God calls people to all sorts of jobs. God calls people to be CEO’s, and he calls them to be secretaries. He calls people to be pastors, and he calls them to be Sunday school teachers. He calls people to be physicians, and he calls them to be plumbers. Sometimes God calls us to one vocation for part of our lives and to another vocation for another part. There are lots of people in seminary today who felt a call to ministry in mid-life.
But your first calling isn’t to be a CEO or a secretary—a pastor or a Sunday school teacher—a physician or a plumber. Your first calling is to belong to Jesus (v. 6). Your first calling is to be a saint (v. 7)—hagios—holy dedicated to God.
I invite you this week to reflect on your calling. What has God called you to do? What has God called you to be? Pray about it. Listen for an answer. Whatever it is—wherever it is—dedicate yourself to being a holy presence there—a servant of God and a servant of all whose lives you touch. Then you will truly be a saint—hagios—holy—set apart for God’s service.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.