Today is the feast day of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 340-397), so I took a few minutes this morning to reflect on his life and read again some of the details of his ministry in Christopher Hall's Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity 1998). I was reminded of a couple of things this morning as I considered his life.
Ambrose was a well-educated Roman, a Christian trained in the classics, but not in theology beyond his catechises. He was appointed as a young man (age 36) to be governor of an Italian province, which included the city of Milan, and gained a reputation as a man of good character and impartiality. As a result, when he went to Milan to keep the peace in the dispute over who should succeed the Bishop Auxentius, who was an Arian (one who held to the heresy that Christ was not fully God), those on both sides of the theological dispute proclaimed their desire that Ambrose become bishop.
Ambrose had no desire for the post, and he went into hiding in an effort to avoid calls for his appointment, but to no avail. He reluctantly took up the task and entered into a lifelong study of the Scriptures, preaching, and writing. Augustine came to the church through the life and preaching of Ambrose, first being drawn by his kindness, then drawn by his exegesis of Scripture that enabled Augustine to see the truth of the gospel.
The life of Ambrose reminds us that we usually have no idea of the tasks for which God is preparing us. He was a fine scholar and good governor, but had little preparation for life as a bishop. Yet God prepared Ambrose, through his faithfulness in his vocation as regional governor and his diligence in his study of Greek, to be the right man for the job and a faithful student of His Word. More than one commentator has pointed out that Ambrose's knowledge of Greek and his classical learning laid the most excellent foundations for his role in ministry.
We so rarely know why--in the long term-- we are studying or experiencing or facing the things that we are stuck with at the moment. Why is God putting us through this? Why would I need to learn this? As the life of Ambrose so richly suggests, God graciously equips us now for the tasks he has created for us to do later in life (see Eph. 2:10). This is a good reminder that we ought to be faithful in the apparently little things that we are called to learn.
The story of Ambrose also reminded me that my manner and kindness are as important as my theology. Not more important, but just as important. As Hall points out, "Interestingly, it was not Ambrose's ideas that first attracted Augustine, but his character." Ambrose's theology was crucial as well, and had he not effectively proclaimed the truth, Augustine might still be a Manichean. Yet it was his kindness and character that made Augustine's heart receptive to his words.
I thank God today for the ministry and life of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and I pray that I might, like him, be faithful in the small things, winsome but unyielding in the proclamation of truth, and reluctant to seek positions of power and influence.
(My facts are from Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, pp. 102-108).