Sunday, March 02, 2014

Good Old Saint Pat

The only holiday of note in the month of March is St. Patrick's Day, known in the Roman Church as the Feast of Patrick.  He was fabled to have driven all of the snakes out of Ireland, his color is green, and he is connected with the shamrock, which he is said to have used to teach the concept of the Trinity to the Irish peasants.  Here in America, the holiday is associated with Corned Beef and Cabbage, although that is an American Irish custom.  The day is connected with green beer because green is the color associated today with the holiday, and beer is enjoyed as a special dispensation for the holiday during Lent from the normal fastings and what-not that used to mark Lent, particularly among the Roman Catholics.  "The wearing of the green" originally referred to wearing a shamrock in one's lapel.  By the by, the original color associated with St. Patrick was, I am informed, blue.  There is even a color known as "St. Patrick's Blue".

What Patrick is really known for is missions.  Born in England, he was captured by some Irish pirates and made a slave in Ireland for about six years before he escaped and worked his way home.  He then became a priest, and felt drawn back to Ireland (reported to have had a vision calling him back to Ireland) to teach the pagans there the Christian faith.  He was Bishop of Ireland and a general missionary there for over thirty years, until his death.  Although he did not have the most successful mission to Ireland (according to the internet), he did capture the hearts and imagination of Ireland and has become the patron saint of the Emerald Isle.

If we want to celebrate St. Patrick, we can do no better than to celebrate Missions.  He may not have had any real effect on the snake population, since no one knows of any history of snakes in Ireland, but Patrick did spend a good portion of his life sharing the Gospel with people who did not want to hear it.  He wasn't numerically the most successful missionary, but he was faithful and persistent, and is credited with planting three hundred churches and baptizing thousands.  He credited his ability to work among the Irish to his captivity and slavery in his youth, where he learned to speak the native language, showing how God can use even our misfortunes to good effect.

He also demonstrated that one does not need to be visibly, outwardly successful or effective, as our world measure such things, to accomplish significant things for the Church.  After all, we are not the power in the church.  God and His Word is.  God grants success, and He alone determines what is effective for the spread of the Gospel.  The best we can do is be willing to confess Christ, and be steadfast in that confession.  God doesn't ask us to win great victories or be outwardly successful in our endeavors, He only asks us to be faithful and to do what He gives us to do - and say what He gives us to say.

We modern Americans live in a time not so very different from the times of St. Patrick.  Oh, the technology is different, and we are far more prosperous in the things of this world.  But people are still the same, and our culture is rapidly becoming every bit as pagan as the world of St. Patrick.  The biggest difference between his world and our is that many in his world had not yet heard the Gospel and the world around him was on the 'upswing', if you will, toward Christianity.  Our culture has heard the Gospel, and a couple of horrendous distortions of it, and our society is on the 'down-swing' away from the Christian faith and into a profound paganism.

The comforts of our age, and our culture's long encounter with and battle against the Gospel, have silenced any sense of sin or consciousness of the brutality of the godless world around us.  We can often watch horrifying conflict in other places on earth and not even recognize that there is real pain and real human suffering going on.  It seems to far too many of us, many times, as though the troubles of the world distant from us is a movie.  Our comfort continues.  Our food remains.  We can flip off the TV and it is as though nothing is really happening, and if it is, it is happening to someone else and seems oh-so-much-less than real.

We have often placed death in a hospital or nursing home, or a hospice facility.  Severe sickness is hidden in a hospital.  Pain is muted and medicated into a stupor.  Until it comes calling for us personally, many people can turn a blind eye to the grim reaper and so when someone talks of sin and its consequences, it is far too easy to pretend that any concern over it is overblown and hysterical.  Confessing Christ and proclaiming Law and Gospel in such a world is a difficult task.  Speaking, of course, is not the challenge.  The challenge lies in getting the world around us to listen and to care about something that seems so unreal and distant to them.

That is where the example of St. Patrick can be of help.  He went where he was not particularly wanted - at least not as a Christian.  The Irish pirates that kidnapped him wanted a slave, but they had no apparent desire for a missionary.  Patrick also had to have some personal issues with going back to the place where he had been a slave.  He felt called to do so, none the less, so he went.  He went and he preached and he endured beatings and abuse, and slowly his work prospered.  He was not as famous, or as appreciated, during his life as he was after his death.  God did what He wanted to do, and at his own pace.  Patrick was charged with being faithful, and, to a large extent, it appears that he was faithful to what he believed.

Part of the problem that the church has in our society today is that the spirit of humble faithfulness is not all that common.  We crave success, with all the trimmings we have come to identify with success.  People seem oh-so-impressed with the fancy, wealthy-looking preachers on TV.  Some of them even preach about how their success is a sign from God, and try to tell others how to emulate them.  It should be clear that what they are proclaiming is not Christ, but themselves and outward, worldly success.  They say, "If God loves you, He will abundantly bless you!"  If that were true, one would have to wonder about Jesus Himself.  He did not have the trappings of worldly success.  He had scorn and persecution during His life, and false imprisonment, torture, and an ignominious death at the end.  He had no fancy suit, no expensive wrist-watch, no stadium thronging with adoring fans, except when He was feeding them a free meal, and that outdoors!

Our schools seek men of academic respectability, and certification by the world rather than men of faithfulness.  Sometimes the two can and do go together, but not as often as our leaders like to suggest.  We simply like to look good to the world around us based on standards that have nothing to do with what the Church is about.  Similarly, congregations sometimes seek to hide their identity and mask their confession to keep from offending people who are responding to God's Word from the flesh just as the Bible teaches us the flesh will respond.  They don't want to hear about sin, so we stop making confession of sin - and the absolution - part of the public worship.  People don't understand what "Lutheran" is, so some churches drop the name to avoid offending.

On the other hand, our leaders are sometimes quite willing to step into the public limelight and do things that deny our doctrine and mute our confession because it makes them look good in the eyes of the world around them and dresses them up in the appearance of compassion and what-not.  Joining with non-Christian religious leaders in a community service during a time of crisis may look good and feel all compassionate, but at the precise moment that people need the clear comfort of the Gospel, such leaders are proclaiming by their actions - and sometimes their words - that the Gospel is nothing unique and has nothing to offer them that the pagan religions cannot give them.

The problem seems to be that for many, the concern is for how we look to the world around us and not for the welfare and salvation of others in that world.  The so-called great commission in Matthew does not command us to go, as so many quotations of it make it sound, it commands us to make disciples by Baptizing and teaching once we have gone - that is, wherever we may find ourselves!  It says, literally, "having gone, make disciples". 

Nowhere are we commanded to come up to the expectations of society in accomplishment or prosperity, or to look good to our neighbor - except that we be decent and honorable in the sight of all men, as far as it depends on us.  The modern desire to look successful or respectable in any way other than being moral and godly is just one of the desires of the flesh that actually works against the Spirit and the spirit-worked desire to confess Christ and the Gospel.  The Gospel is the power of God to the salvation of all men - the Jews first (as Paul says it in Romans 1:16) and then the Gentile - everybody else.  We will not make the difference, if the Word of God is being used and confessed.  The Word of God will.

Our part is to confess that Gospel both in what we do and in what we say.  We need to live lives that reflect the Gospel - and set us apart from the world around us.  If we try too hard to 'fit in' with the world around us, they will not see any difference.  They will not see Christ or what difference being a Christian makes, because, as we try so hard to look like the world around us and win their respect by being what they want us to be, being a Christian will make no difference in us.  We have no call to be deliberately strange, as snake-handlers are, for example, but we do have the call to live as God's holy people, and in a way that reflects what we believe, that is to say, the hope that is in us.

St. Patrick demonstrates the power of a consistent, faithful confession of both  life and lip.  While we are not all called to become missionaries in a foreign land, we are all called to live out our confidence in God, to show what forgiveness means and what difference it makes in life, and to be the sort of people that we know by the Word of God that we ought to be - patient, kind, decent, compassionate, forgiving, and so forth.  Just run through the lists that appear in the New Testament of the gifts of the Spirit or the characteristics of the Spirit as opposed to the flesh and you will see that the same sorts of things pop up in each list, "love, joy peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control".

The need here is not a legal need for salvation, the sort of thing you must do in order to get into heaven, but the need of the world around us to be able to see Christ through us and distinguish us from the unbelieving, pagans around us.  We can talk endlessly about the joy of salvation, but if we reflect no joy ourselves, the talk doesn't make much sense to anyone.  We can speak about peace, but if we are never at peace ourselves, we won't be very credible.  Forgiveness as the gift of God makes no sense if it is proclaimed by someone who never has any for anyone else in their life.  If you don't appear to enjoy being God's child or have any happiness that you are a Christian, what about your conduct would make anyone who sees you want to be a Christian, or to share in that Gospel you confess?

The power of Easter is tremendous.  It is the power of resurrection from the grave.  It is the power of the knowledge of the love of God for us - and we can all use that knowledge when times get difficult.  It is the ultimate answer to every fear - particularly to the greatest fear of mankind - the fear of death.  If God is for us, who can possibly be against us?  Oh, we know who the enemy is, but the victory is already won, and has been given to us.  That is the power of Easter.

And, like St. Patrick, we have the charge of God to share the news of that victory both by how we live and then by what we proclaim and confess.  The grace of God is one of the few things that you cannot diminish your possession of by giving it away.  Now, don't misunderstand me.  Patrick was a Roman Catholic - although very long ago, before many of the errors and abuses that Luther tried to set right had been developed - and I am not endorsing Rome's myths about him or every Roman doctrine, but one thing he surely did right was set the example of sharing the Gospel and confessing Christ.  So, if you want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, have some Corned Beef and Cabbage, and maybe a little green beer, and think about sharing the Gospel.  Do missions right where you live, among the people you live among.

Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish

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