Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In the Episcopal Church, St. Patrick isn’t celebrated on a Feast Day but he is listed among the Holy Men, Holy Women. But since this Sunday is March 17, I do want to talk about him in the context of Paul’s letter to Philippians.
Let’s get one thing out of the way now. There will be no green wine or wafers at the Eucharist.
St. Patrick’s ministry has been overshadowed by green beer, corned beef and cabbage, and the legends of shamrocks and expelling snakes, although in my mind anyone who expels snakes deserves sainthood. But it his evangelism and witness which transformed Ireland in the 5th century that led to his beatification.
After his kidnapping, subsequent forced labor for 4 years, Patrick escaped and developed a life of devotion and strong faith. A humble, gentle man, with total trust in God, he traveled in Ireland for 40 years, baptizing and converting Druids and pagans to Christianity.
Patrick’s life has some parallels to Paul’s. Both had conversion experiences that turned them to Jesus. Patrick had a vision where he was given letters. In them, he read 'We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.' (from The Confessions). In these words, he discerned a call to evangelize Ireland.
Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. For 3 days he fasted and prayed before he was tended by Ananias.
These experiences led them to self-examination, a deep faith, and commitment to Christ. They became proclaimers of the Gospel which invited others into relationship with Jesus. It wasn’t solely their words that drew people to Christ; it was their very being, how they lived out the Gospel.
In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer of General Thanksgiving that is used in morning and evening prayer. There is a portion where we ask God to help us devote our lives to his work.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
It is this life that Paul wants the Philippians to imitate, where their lives are deeply committed to being witnesses for the sake of the Gospel.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us...Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
And If time travel were possible or there was a mail box like the one in The Lake House, Patrick could have written his own letter to the Philippians asking them to “join in imitating me.”
What does Paul mean by “imitating me?”
In prior verses of Philippians, he tells them
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come or see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. (Philippians 1:27-28a)
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind [understanding] be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:4-5)
Let the same understanding be in you that was in Christ Jesus – an understanding and life of evangelism and witness and care for others.
It is the same life that Jesus understood in his own ministry and asked his disciples to follow. Jesus didn’t glorify himself but gave all glory to God. As their teacher, he taught by example not through power or command. He had a practice of leaving the crowds and at times even the disciples to take time for prayer. He washed their feet as a servant. He healed and cared for the left out and the left behind. He emptied himself in love and humility on the cross.
Patrick and Paul developed habits, consistency in their spiritual discipline. One of them was prayer. Paul writes in Romans and Thessalonians about praying without ceasing. Patrick wrote in The Confession, a sort of autobiography:
"The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same. I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain."
Most of us have not had visions or been knocked off our horse by a blinding light, but I suspect some of us have had conversion experiences. Others have been early and long-time followers of Jesus, and some of have wandered and found the way back to him. Regardless of how we have gotten to this place on our spiritual journey, we are to be witnesses and to share the Good News of Christ Jesus.
The work of evangelism and witness is like pulling weeds. It is not one and done. It takes diligence and attentiveness to our own spiritual health or we won’t be able to tend to God’s work. We won’t be able to help others deepen their faith or show others the way to Christ. Our ability to achieve what Paul is asking depends on our own spiritual discipline.
How do we tell if we are in fact following Jesus? It isn’t enough to call ourselves Christians and show up on Sundays for worship. There are times when we need to be honest with ourselves and take a close look at what we are saying, thinking, feeling, and doing. Are we being who we are, God’s beloved and Christ’s own? Are our relationships wholesome? How are we living the commandments? Do they only apply with certain people or in certain situations?
What about our prayer life and our service to others? Do we come with joyful and grateful hearts? Or is it because we want to be seen or out of obligation like the Pharisees? What if we examined what gets in the way of us really living as if we were here to make God’s kingdom a reality on earth as in heaven and we actually started being different?
How do we show Jesus to others? What can we say or do that helps someone see God in our world, even in times of loss and difficulty? Where can we go and when should we go to heal and care for the left out and the left behind?
Is there someone watching your life, to imitate you? Is there a pattern for them to follow that is worthy of the Gospel?
What are the answers to those questions for you? Although all of us are called to be disciples, each of us has their own path to follow.
We have this season of Lent to find the answers. Using this time for self-examination, and prayer can help us find the ways we can best imitate Patrick and Paul and Christ. Deepening our relationship with God and strengthening our life in Christ are ways of discipleship. Let’s find the same understanding that was in Christ Jesus – an understanding and life of evangelism and witness and care for others.