Saturday, June 24, 2006

Servants of God

What does it mean to be a servant of God? In this week's lectionary passage [1] St Paul give us his CV and asks us to judge whether he has lived up to his calling.
As I listen to it again, I think he would have felt very much at home in the modern job market. He's not at all reticent about his achievements. Instead, he recognises the pressing need to go out and sell himself, or – as he puts it – to commend himself and his team to his readers. He wants them to know exactly what his team has done and the commitment which this has demanded. It could be called 'boasting', but St Paul calls it 'speaking frankly' and 'openly', and he urges his readers to do the same.
I think St Paul is not just describing his own work, and the work of his colleagues. He's also setting out a pattern for all kinds of Christian service. And it's not a pattern which applies only to people who are working as ministers or missionaries, I think it's a pattern for everyone who is a disciple of Jesus, because Jesus has called us all to become servants of God.
So what does it mean for us to be servants of God in the places where we live and work? St Paul says it calls for endurance.
Being a Christian is like taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Young people who are working towards the various awards are asked to stretch themselves and put themselves to the test, above all in the expeditions which are the culmination of each stage of the scheme. Not long ago one of my sons took part in the silver award and – by the end of the three day expedition – another member of his team was suffering from hypothermia. They achieved the award only because they drew on their own experience and training to make the right decisions to get them safely out of danger. If they had made the wrong decision, not only would a Search and Rescue team have been scrambled to look for them but – also – one of the team members might have died. They were being put through hardships and afflictions to test their endurance.
The trouble with a great many Christians is that we tend to see our faith as an insurance policy, when we should think of it as an endurance test. We hope that God is going to save us from harm, not put us in danger, forgetting – of course – that Jesus Christ himself had to face the supreme test of being crucified for doing what he knew to be God's will. And we are servants of Jesus Christ. Can we expect life to be easier for us than it was for our master?
Not long ago I saw a TV programme in which Christians were fervently praying that the weather would be sunny at someone's wedding – and, of course, encouraged by that kind of example and by the story of the stilling of the storm, people are always jokingly asking me to ensure fine weather at events like the Beeston Festival Mela. However, Christianity is not a protection plan. It doesn't promise us that we can avoid storms and calamities. It doesn't guarantee us a life of peace and tranquillity. Instead, what we are offered is peace IN the storm. When we are in trouble, Jesus will be with us to reassure and encourage us, and to strengthen our resolve. He will give us the resources we need to endure to the end.
This doesn't mean that God will never rescue us from danger. But it does mean that we will only be rescued so that we can fight another day. Our mission as servants of God, should we choose to accept it, is to go on struggling to do what is right.
For St Paul and his companions, this meant enduring beatings and imprisonment. Even in the inner city of Leeds we would hope to avoid that fate, and we must continue to work to avoid things like riots from taking place. But we must expect sleepless nights, affliction and hardship. Those things are part of what it means to be a disciple, not just here but anywhere. They come with the territory.
St Paul goes on to describe a more attractive kind of test which we must face as disciples of Jesus. He asks if we can mirror the character of Jesus in our own behaviour and demeanour. It's just as big a test as any physical ordeal.
A story is told of an argument between John Wesley and another famous preacher, George Whitfield. Wesley was arguing that a mutual friend had attained the state of Christian perfection – which is to say that the man they were talking about was a perfect mirror of the attitudes and behaviour of Jesus himself. 'Take me to him and I'll prove he isn't perfect,' said Whitfield so Wesley took Whitefield to meet the man. But, immediately, on entering the room, Whitefield snatched up a jug of cold water and threw it in the man's face, whereupon the man responded with some choice – and most unChristlike – remarks. So much for Christian perfection!
Actually, I think the story is apocryphal. I'm sure George Whitefield would never have done anything so unkind, even to prove a point. But it's a reminder that being like Christ is a mighty test of our endurance. Night and day we are called upon to be examples of purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love and truthful speech. If we could really be those things, even for part of the time, we would be wonderfully effective servants of God.
The trouble is, of course, that whenever we lapse from the Christ-like standards which we are called to live by – whenever we are impure, ignorant, impatient, unkind, worldly, deceitful or untrue – we give powerful ammunition to anyone who would like to oppose us. They can point at us and say, 'See how these Christians actually live. See the difference between what they do and what they say!'
And, unfortunately, there ARE people who would like to oppose us. Someone wrote to me not long ago to say that, despite the good work we were doing in Beeston, he still believed that all religion is basically dangerous and misguided. And he is the son of a famous Methodist minister! People like that are only too happy to treat us as impostors, as people on the road to nowhere – leading ourselves and others to destruction rather than to salvation.
Fortunately, on the other side of the equation, we have the power of God to help us. And we have weapons of righteousness to strengthen us as we try to what is right – the Spirit of God within us, the Scriptures, the prayer and support of the Christian community, the tradition of the Church, Sunday worship and midweek fellowship. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be knocked down, but – so long as we rely on God – we can never be knocked out.
Being a servant of God can seem like a thankless task. It's not a route to material riches. It won't guarantee us a good time. But it does remind me of what one of my children once said on Christmas Day. At the foot of his bed was a little sock with a few tiny presents to open – some chocolate coins, a little toy, that kind of thing. Downstairs, another pillowcase full of gifts was also waiting for him, but he was too young to know that. Nevertheless, he turned to us after opening the contents of the stocking and said, 'I have everything I need!' If only we had known he would say that, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and money getting ready for Christmas!
However, that's exactly what St Paul says about being a servant of God. It gives us everything we need. Even when they seem to have nothing, servants of God possess everything.
[1] 2 Corinthians 6.4—13

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