By Linda Rex
I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.
In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.
What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)
When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.
I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.
This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?
And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?
Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?
We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.
Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.
This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.
We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.
Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB
by Linda Rex
This Sunday is the last day of Advent, and the topic for the day is Love. What crossed my mind this morning was that one of the most difficult things God asks us as humans to do is to love the unlovely.
At one point in our team meeting Wednesday, we were looking at the sermon Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives. It seems that Jesus gave a lot of “impossible” imperatives, including praying for and doing good to those who use and abuse us. We all know how impossible this is for us as humans—we have enough of a challenge just loving those who love us back.
And we agreed that that was Jesus’ point. We can’t just naturally love the unlovely. It’s not in our nature to do it. Apart from the grace and power of God, we will not and cannot do this impossible task he is asking of us.
Anyone who lives in a painful and difficult marriage can attest to the fact that it is very difficult, if not humanly impossible, to love someone who is critical, selfish and even downright abusive all the time. It is very hard to love someone who dumps a truckload of emotional baggage all over you whenever they get the chance. Loving the unlovely is not a job for sissies, that’s for sure.
But that doesn’t make it any less a requirement for us as human beings to love one another. God’s two great commandments include loving God with all we are, and loving our neighbor as our self. Loving our neighbor and loving God, Jesus said, is the fulfillment of the law.
So why would God ask us to do something we cannot of ourselves do? Could it be that God never meant for us to try? For in the scriptures we see that God, from before time, always meant to send his Son, to stand in for us, to take our place. God always meant for us to love him and love others, within the context of a relationship—the eternal relationship he had and has even now with his Son.
Here at Christmastime, we celebrate the coming of the Word of God into human flesh—the Father’s Son given as a gift for all humanity. This gift is so precious, because in Jesus, God gives himself. God gives us his love—through a Son who lived died and rose again—and through the Spirit Jesus sent from the Father to transform human hearts by faith.
It is by the love of God within through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit that we are able to love God and love one another the way we ought to. It is as we live in loving relationship with God and each other that we are able to be the people God asks us to be. It is not something we have to try and figure and work out on our own by following a lot of lists of do’s and don’t’s. They come in handy as guideposts, but they do not transform human hearts. Only the Holy Spirit does that. He is the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.
Finding the will and power to love the unlovely comes only from God. It is God’s gift to be able to love both with grace and with truth. There are times love has to be tough and times when it needs to be gentle. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us in discerning what is needed and empowers us to do it in a timely way. And it is God through Christ and in the Spirit who gives us grace when we fail to love as we ought to love—something that will happen, since we are still very human and very faulty.
We need to see our loving of God and of others as a participation in Christ’s loving his Father and loving of others in the Spirit. It’s not something we do on our own. We were never meant to.
So this Christmas season, as we find ourselves in situations in which we are with people who are difficult to be with, or around people who are very unpleasant to be around, let’s remember that we are called to love the unlovely in the midst of a relationship with God who through Jesus and in the Spirit loves the unlovely in our place. We just get to join in with what he’s already doing. We can be alert to the possibilities of doing the impossible, because we are in Christ and he is in us through the Spirit.
Dear God, thank you for never asking us to do anything you are not already doing yourself, and for never asking us to do it on our own. Thank you for the most precious gift you have ever given—the gift of yourself—in your Son Jesus, and in the gift you sent through him, the Holy Spirit. Thank you for not only giving us forgiveness, but for giving us all new life and the ability, through Jesus and in the Spirit, to love the unlovely people you place in our lives. Amen.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16
“…the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:5