Fourth Sunday of Advent

We commonly think of calling in terms of vocation.

The Ark of the Covenant
"The Ark of the Covenant," Gwyneth Leech. Image by Lawrence Lew, O.P., via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 18, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

We commonly think of calling in terms of vocation.

An overwhelming number of resources offer help for discovering your calling, from Oprah to Forbes to the Huffington Post to at least five TED talks, and countless Christian websites and books. There is a common denominator in these: the key to discovering your calling is to know your passion.

The letter to the Romans opens with a greeting (Romans1:1-7) that offers a concept of calling that is more fundamental than even discovering your passion. Paul tells these Christians that he is “called” to be an apostle (kletos in verse 1), and that they are “called” to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy (kletoi, twice in verses 6-7). This double calling of Paul and his audience both frames the introduction and sets the agenda for the whole letter.

In between this frame (Romans 1:1 and 6-7), Paul gives the qualifications for his calling by explaining the gospel he is commissioned to preach (Romans 1:2-5). The ideas in these verses have a knock-on effect. Paul introduces himself as a servant — or slave — of Jesus Christ whom God has called to be an apostle, which means he has been set apart for the gospel that comes from God (verse 1).

Then Paul explains more about this gospel: it was promised beforehand in the scriptures about God’s son (verse 2). And then he explains more about this son: he was born of David’s seed according to the flesh but appointed Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection from the dead, so that he is now Jesus Christ our Lord (verses 3-4).

Finally, Paul returns full circle to his qualifications: this Jesus — the man who lived and died as one of us but became Lord though resurrection — is the one through whom Paul received grace and apostleship (verse 5). For Paul, the key to discovering his calling was to know the risen Christ. Christ revealed himself to Paul and powerfully took hold of his life to dispatch him to preach to the Gentiles, and so to preach to this very Roman community (Romans 1:5-6; see also Acts 9:17; 26:16-17; Galatians 1:11-17).

These opening verses of Romans not only tie the coming of Jesus to Paul’s calling, but also to the calling of the Roman Christians. Paul contrasts two modes of Jesus’ existence, one through a birth that is kata sarka, and the other through a new birth according to the Spirit of holiness by means of resurrection from the dead (verses 3-4). That Jesus is “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” establishes a Jewish context for Paul’s gospel, but also a material context; he was born as a man with a physical, human body.

On the other hand, the phrase kata pneuma refers to the Holy Spirit who creates new life. By his resurrection, Jesus has gone from one mode of existence to another. Though “flesh” (sarx) is neutral here, referring the human body, this contrast anticipates Paul’s antithesis between “flesh” as “sinful nature” and “Spirit” later in the letter and is suggestive of a new, defining existence not only for Christ but also for believers.

Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:15-16 provides a helpful analogy. There, he highlights the correspondence between Jesus’s death and resurrection and the believer’s as the basis of a new way of living. He concludes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh (kata sarka); even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh (kata sarka), we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (verse 15).

Believers are to see each other in a new way — as a new creation — because they identify with Christ. Paul develops the same sort of idea in Romans, laying the groundwork in Romans 1:3-4: while death decisively ends life according to the flesh (mortality), the power of the resurrection generates new life. This resurrection power also generates a new way of holy living now. Believers have died and risen with Christ so that they might be transformed in their daily habits (Romans 6:4, 13-14). The Holy Spirit that raised Jesus (Romans 1:4) dwells in believers to replicate the life of the risen Christ in and through them (Romans 8:4-11).

Because of the death and resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul can renew his initial call to his audience (to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy) by imploring them to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy (hagian) and fully pleasing to God (Romans 12:1-2). The key to discovering their calling is, then, to know the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit for holy living. The call to holy living is a call to offer their body for the body of Christ, that is, to love others in humility just as Christ did (Romans 12-15).

Traditionally, the fourth candle of the advent wreath represents love. God showed his love for us in sending his son, born of the flesh as the son of David and born anew in power through resurrection from the dead. Jesus showed his self-giving love for us in his life and his death. As Christians, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy by the same power that raised Christ from the dead.

It is not wrong-headed to pursue the discovery of our particular calling or vocation. Indeed, we ought to be diligent and responsible and passionate about how we use our God-given gifts. But we are fundamentally called to be Christ’s and to be holy, and we express that holiness through a Spirit-empowered way of life marked by self-giving love, which drives every other pursuit.