A Word to Guide Life

by Richard Paul Poethig

This October 2017 we celebrate an event which changed the course of religious history 500 years ago. Martin Luther challenged the practices and belief of the Roman Catholic Church in which he was an active priest. His thinking established a new road to travel in abiding by the life and teaching of Jesus. Among Luther’s teachings he provided words to guide one’s life.

Luther was an Augustinian monk. One of the words crucial to Luther changed the role of the priest in the life of the faith. His awakening came when he confronted the status of the religious orders in the light of the Scripture. In his reading of Scripture, religious orders were not superior to the common folk. The word Luther saw as describing the faith of all believers was the German word “Beruf.” In English this meant “calling.” For Luther the same religious calling was open to the dairy maid as it was to the monk. From this understanding came the major breakthrough of the Reformation – the priesthood of all believers.

If Luther’s word had moved to it ultimate conclusion it would have dramatically changed the institutional Church. If all people were “called” there would have been no separation between those in church orders and ordinary believers, the “laity.” The church would have been an equally called and blessed community – there would have been no hierarchical order.

In a deepening and widening understanding of “calling,” individuals would have not only a place in God’s community, but also a revelation of the special talent with which their genetic inheritance had endowed them. This genetic inheritance was also written into their sexual orientation. It was a responsibility of both the individual and the community to encourage and to enhance the fulfillment of this genetic inheritance.

The word “calling” had meaning in the thinking of the Reformer John Calvin. Calvin expanded on the word “Beruf” used by Luther and provided a word which had impact in the outcome of the Reformed movement. Calvin used the Latin word “vocatio” to describe the relation of the believer to the world. “ Vocatio” translates in the English to “vocation.”

For Calvin the sense of vocation engaged people directly in the events of their world. This was the center of Reformed theology. To be called was not just within the church community, but to be called was to live the faith in the midst of your daily encounters in the community. A believer’s vocation was to pay attention to what was happening in the world. They were to be actors for justice and fairness in the conducting of community affairs.

This was true in the governing of the community of which they were citizens. If a magistrate governing a community was unjust in office it was in the citizen’s vocation, or calling, to bring the magistrate to justice or to see him/her removed from their position of authority.

This is the heart of the social message of the Reformed faith.