One of my brothers is a skilful ceramic artist, and from time to time I have invited him to participate in a service of worship where he sets up his pottery wheel in the sanctuary and begins to centre the clay and form it into a vessel of beauty. He does this as I tell the story of the Prophet Jeremiah going down to the potters shop to watch the potter at work and there find inspiration from God. Becoming a potter of this standard meant years of learning under a Japanese master potter in Kyoto, and then practising. Much like a child learning the piano or violin, or a ballerina learning to dance, it often takes years to master the skills, build the muscles that contain the memory needed before what looks like effortless art appearing before our eyes. A skilful artist in any field makes their art look so easy and graceful, but behind that ease and grace are years of learning.
However there is also something else behind that skill and grace, and that’s ambition; the drive to excel, to make something of their lives, to be the best that they can be. Within the church some might get the message that ambition is something to avoid, after all Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek’, and in our Gospel reading today where James and John voice their ambition to have privileged positions beside Jesus in the Kingdom of God, we find Jesus pointing them in a very different direction. To be great they need to learn to serve, and behind that teaching to ‘serve’ is an even bigger word, the word ‘love’.
Does this mean that Jesus teaches us not to be ambitious? Does it mean that ambition in itself is sinful? Should we never aim high and dream big dreams, or strive for excellence in our lives (which is different from trying to be perfect)? I don’t believe so.
The story of Saul persecuting the early church is an account of misplaced ambition, of a man driven by his ambition using all his energy and determination to see his goal completed. But all that ended on the road to Damascus where Saul’s life was turned around and he was led to faith in Jesus. What is striking about Saul after his conversion is how his earlier natural traits of ambition, vision and drive stay with him – though they are transformed by the Holy Spirit. Now he is driven by a desire to share the good news and does that with such vitality and energy for the rest of his life.
The big question is what motivates our ambition and what do we do with it?
We live in an ambitious world. We want to know who is the best, fastest, smartest, strongest, loudest, longest, and richest. We live in a world of self-promotion where we are encouraged to push ourselves forward and claim our achievements. TV programs like ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’, or ‘Survivor’ feed that tendency in us promoting the idea that to get on in life we need to be first, to win not lose. The world of ambition can be ruthless, and Jesus once said about that, ‘What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?
However, Paul’s life was transformed by his encounter with Jesus along with his ambition.
Paul was now determined to build up – not destroy, to love – not hate, to serve – not seek privilege or honour, and he did so with great passion and energy. God plants his vision and hope within us and invites us to use our skills and natural tendencies to bring that vision and hope to life in our lives and those we touch. I believe God wants us to live to the full following healthy and wholesome dreams and visions that build one another up in faith. Paul’s greatest ambition was to honour God not to seek glory for himself. What motivates your ambition?