During the Fall semester at Lipscomb University, I teach a class entitled “Nursing as Kingdom Vocation.” There I intend to cast a vision for those pursuing nursing as a career that their chosen path is a ministry in the kingdom of God. As nurses, they will participate in the mission of God (missio Dei) as God’s ministers. I want to briefly unpack this theological notion in this post—and hopefully say more about vocation in the future.
Missio Dei and Human Identity
God created with a purpose. Creation has a goal. God is actively pursuing that goal. This pursuit is the outworking of God’s mission. Broadly, the missio Dei is to draw humanity into the circle of the Triune fellowship, unfold the full potential of the creation and fully enjoy what has been created. God delights in, rejoices over and communes with the creation, both humanity and everything else. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with glory, that is, to enjoy and rest in the creation and each other with mutual delight.
Given this mission, God created humanity with a special identity. Theologians, following Genesis 1, call it the imago Dei (the image of God). Our human identity is that we are the image of God. We were created to image God in every aspect of our lives. We were designed to be like God. Moreover, we represent God in the creation.
This identity, however, means more than we are simply reflections of God though that is an important and essential dimension. It also means that we are co-workers with God. We are co-rulers over the creation—humanity is given “dominion.” We are co-creators in the creation—we are, for example, to procreate. We are junior partners in the divine mission. This is our missional identity. We are co-missionaries with God. The divine task is also our task. We were created with this identity for the sake of this mission.
With this identity, we are called, as participants in the missio Dei, to pursue the glory of God within the creation and human communities. It is part our mission, then, to develop the full potential of the creation, lovingly care for the creation, and to gratefully enjoy the creation. It is part of our mission to pursue familial, social and communal shalom, righteousness and love which is the presence of God within the world.
Our creaturely identity, then, entails a calling—a vocation (from the Latin vocare). We are called to engage the creation and each other toward the embodiment of shalom, joy, and righteousness. This vocation is rooted in our creaturehood, our ontology. It is our place in the creation.
Given what theologians have historically called the “Fall,” the creation is filled with violence, hatred and injustice. The creation is burdened, groaning and frustrated. As a result, God intends to make all things new. (Note: not make new things, but make all things new!)
God, thus, is engaged in new creation. It began with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father—new humanity has emerged, transformed body and life, the beginning of the renewal of creation itself and the reconciliation of all things.
Broken humanity becomes redeemed humanity which is recreated in the image of God. This redeemed identity is an extension of our created identity. Redeemed humanity is a participant in the redemptive (as well as creative) mission of God, that is, to reclaim, renew and restore the creation as the place where God dwells with humanity.
This mission is holistic—it includes every dimension of what it means for humanity to live with God upon a renewed earth as a community participating in the Triune love of God. Human society is to become what Israel was intended to be—a community filled with shalom, justice, and righteousness; a community that fully embodied the love of God.
As image of God, our vocation is to develop, care and love the creation and enjoy the perichoretic life of God. As redeemed humanity—created anew in the image of God, our vocation is to renew, restore and reclaim an alienated, groaning and broken creation (including humanity) in partnership with God.
Vocation in the Kingdom of God
Vocation is a rather ambiguous word. In Christian history vocation has sometimes been limited to professional ministry, that is, preachers, pastors, monastics or priests. Thus, only a few had “spiritual vocations” or were authentic ministers in the kingdom of God. At other times, as in the present, vocation has been so secularized that it has lost all spiritual meaning. Vocation has been gutted so that it is purely secular.
Neither is the divine intent of creation. Every human person, because they are created in the image of God, has a vocation. They are tasked with participation in the missio Dei. As images of God, every human being is a royal priest or priestess upon the earth. Humans, both male and female, serve God in his temple which is his creation.
This means there is no “secular” work that is disconnected from our missionary identity. Every work—no matter how “secular” it is conceived by others—that serves the mission of God is sacred work. Every vocation is a sacred calling when that vocation participates in the mission of God.
Human beings, however, are called into multiple kinds of works or different vocations (using vocation in the more common sense of different career paths). While we all share the broad vocation of participating in the mission of God, this mission is pursued through various “vocations.” Every human being has multiple relationships into which they are called—they are called to embody the mission of God in family relations, in social relations, in communal (even political) relations, etc. All of these are “vocations” as we are called to pursue the mission of God as family members (whether as father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) or laborers (whether as machinists, educators, lawyers, etc.).
We, as participants in community, choose particular kinds of vocations or careers. As images of God, we choose these careers (vocations) as means to love God and love our neighbors. We choose these careers as means by which we participate in the kingdom of God in order to pursue the mission of God through these vocations.
These particular vocations, as conceived through the matrix of the kingdom of God, are particular means by which we partner with God in the missio Dei. Medical professionals partner with God in healing. Financial counselors partner with God in reconciling justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Professionals in the legal community partner with God in pursuing justice. Environmental biologists partner with God in preserving and caring for the creation. Computer programmers partner with God in bringing order out of chaos. And the list could go on and on.
Partnering with God toward the fulfillment of the mission of God is ministry in the kingdom of God. Nurses, counselors, biologists and, yes, even lawyers are ministers—they are missionaries. Their vocations are missional.
It is the nature of the present age, however, that broken people use their vocations for their own self-interest rather than to love their neighbor. But this is exactly where kingdom people model, bear witness to and actively pursue the redemptive missio Dei. Kingdom people use their vocations to love their neighbors. They are a redemptive presence in their world through their vocations. God is present in them working toward the goal God has for humanity and the creation.
Within God’s creation, everyone is a missionary. Everyone has a vocation. And every career path—specialized vocation—is a ministry in the kingdom when it participates in God’s mission.
The sacred/secular distinction removes the sacred from God’s creation, reduces human vocation to self-interest, and undermines our identity as imagers of God.
Our identity is that we represent God in the creation. Our vocation is to participate in the mission of God. Our careers are specialized vocations that partner with God in that mission.
When we pursue those vocations we both proclaim and enact the good news of the kingdom of God!