Lord, give us a heart for your word and a word for our hearts. Amen
When I first learnt to drive, I remember taking my first of, ahem, four driving tests. I was so nervous for my test, and struggling to concentrate or indeed do anything right. The test instructor was really lovely and could see I was nervous. I remember him saying, as we drove past the cinema in Yeovil in Somerset, ‘Please don’t worry, just imagine I’m not hear’. This comment sent me into a complete panic as I said ‘oh no that’s worse, because I have never driven alone before!’. Shortly after this I managed to go straight over the middle of a humped mini roundabout, got some air and caused the instructor to swear in fright use the emergency brakes and he ended the test early. Does anyone want a lift after the service? No?
I often do this – when faced with a test or something similar I seem to have a knack of snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as I lose my confidence. Recently I experienced this again doing my first taekwondo exam, completely losing my cool as I tried to remember which way to kick, although I hasten to add I did pass with a merit. Confidence in ourselves and our abilities is something we can all severely lack at time, isn’t it? What is fascinating is our self confidence often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy doesn’t it? As Henry Ford, the founder of ford cars said, Whether you think you can or think you can't, you are right. Our confidence in ourselves, despite all the evidence to the contrary, often defines whether we succeed or not. For many of us in church, we can feel called to a particular position, or a particular role for example reading or leading or serving and think ‘well I can’t possibly serve or do in that way because I am not qualified, I am not clever enough, I’m not good enough.
So the natural question is, what does qualify us for service for Jesus? What qualifications must we have to serve Him and each other in the church? There are two distinct temptations that get in the way of following our call.
In our second reading Paul in his letter to the Philippians speaks about what qualifies him as an apostle. He lists his accolades. He says ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Paul was the model church goer. Educated, zealous for God, a Pharisee, a member of the chosen race and part of an important tribe, blameless in his righteousness. Paul had every qualification going and every reason to be confident in what he was doing as he hunted down Christians, even though he was so clearly wrong. After his Damascus epiphany, where Jesus calls to him, he realises just how worthless all his qualifications and accolades were and here is able to say that wonderful line Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. Everything this privileged man had been given, his qualifications, his good upbringing, everything he regarded as a loss not a gain, in the light of Christ. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ he says.
You see, the first temptation that hits us when thinking about how we need to serve God is that we are not qualified. When we think we need so many qualifications, when we think we need certain skills, when we think we need something before we get on with serving each other and our community we really are forgetting that we have everything we need. Everything we have achieved, any qualification we have is as nothing to fact we have a relationship with Christ.
The only qualification you need is a relationship with Christ. We are invited to entirely trust in God to provide what we need to achieve what he calls us to do. When I was called to the role I am in now, you can be assured the only qualification I had for the role was my relationship with Christ. I went to study for ordination and I didn’t even have RE GCSE. I didn’t need it, because God equipped and provided. So you may have no confidence in yourself. Well, fine, but as a Christian we are to have confidence in Christ who doesn’t need our skills but just our willingness to follow Him. After all what is impossible for people is possible for God.
The second temptation many face is to be too comfortable in our faith and stop striving to follow God. There is a temptation to not progress our faith, to not gain understanding of God or deepen our relationship. A temptation to coast along without stepping forward to learn more of God. Seneca, the famous philosopher renowned for his rhetoric and wisdom famously said in the last year of his life in a letter to a friend ‘I am still learning’. We, as disciples of Christ, are encouraged to keep learning, to keep following and striving right to the end of our lives. Paul, at the end of our reading says this I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;[i] but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
St Paul didn’t get his call on the Damascus road and think, right then no need to do anything else. Rather he go up and got on with what God was calling him to do. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to follow, and if we stay still, we won’t be following any more. None of us arrive this side of heaven, no one can stand still. The wonderful thing is, that the more we follow, to more we discover the love of God and the blessings He bestows on us. To be a disciple we are encouraged to strive forward even when its tough. The wonderful thing is, is that a deep following of Jesus leads to deep joy.
My friends, if you remember nothing else, be confident. You are the beloved of God who has called you to be His ministers here in Cleveleys. Be confident not in your own ability but be confident in Christ who has called you. There is this wonderful prayer in the ordination service which has always stayed with me, and it is such a shame it is only used for ordinations because frankly it is perfect for all believers. After you have agreed to do all the impossible things that you are asked to do as an ordained minister, the bishop says You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. We are servants of Christ from whom we receive everything we need to serve Him today. So my prayer for you, as you strive to follow Christ, is that you will have the confidence to trust Him, that your hearts may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the scriptures enlightened as you follow the call of Christ, that if you let it, will lead to blessing for our community and the whole of Cleveleys. Amen