Today is the Feast of St. Patrick. Normally Sundays would trump a saint’s day except when it is the day of the Patron Saint of the Parish. In that case the Prayer Book allows us to use the collects and lessons of our saint’s day. So here at St. Patrick’s we are going to step away from Lent just a little and celebrate Patrick’s feast.
St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”This gives us a precedent to look at the lives of the saints of God and see what we can learn from them to make us more effective followers of Christ. As you can imagine we have much to learn from St. Patrick.
But let me begin by giving you some historical context. The Celts had been in Ireland about 1,000 years before Patrick came on the scene in the 5thcentury. They were a pagan people but they were far more aware of the supernatural realm than secular Westerners are today. They had a high view of creation, believing it to be soaked in the supernatural, and they saw thin spaces everywhere where this world and the other world are in contact.
Additionally, as a people who were dependent upon nature, they had a high regard for the sun as a source of life and for water, particularly as found in rivers and wells. Trees also held a special place in their worldview since the tree roots go to the underworld while their branches reached to the heavens. In trees you could see the cycle of life of growth in the summer, death in the winter and then rebirth each spring.
In Patrick’s days there were no towns in Ireland. People gathered in tribes and were ruled by kings who acted as family heads and lawgivers. They were however united by a common tongue. Nevertheless their social constructs were undergoing change because Rome had been sacked in 410 and troops were withdrawn from Ireland in 420. Since the Irish could no longer look to the Roman Empire for help, their kingdoms began to consolidate north and south to become more self sufficient.
Enter Patrick. We forget that Patrick was not Irish. He was born in the region of northern England and southern Scotland. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon but he was not very religious. At 16 he was taken into slavery by Irish marauders and for 6 years he served as a herdsman in Ireland. Probably between boredom and loneliness he began to pray and it had a profound affect on him. He said, “I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me and my faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to one hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.”
One night God spoke to him in a dream and said, “Look your ship is ready.” So 22 year old Patrick made his way to the coast, talked his way onto a ship and returned to his homeland.
There is not a lot of information about these next years. He studied for the priesthood, most likely in Gaul. Surprisingly there is evidence that the Coptics also had an impact on the Celtic Church. But since an envoy from the Pope did not come to evangelize Britain until some 200 years later, it is questionable if Patrick was a Roman priest. The Celtic Church did not submit to Rome until the Synod of Whitby in the 7thcentury.
At around age 46 Patrick had a dream in which an Irishman came to him and said, “Come and walk among us.”So once again Patrick left his homeland and for the next 31 years ministered among the Irish. He knew their language and loved and respected many things about their culture. In fact he became so united with them that he began to refer to himself as Irish, even though technically he was not.
His ministry was beyond fruitful. He baptized thousands, ordained priests and promoted a form of monasticism that itself was so missionary minded that they planted churches in Scotland and England. The foundations that he laid were so secure that two centuries after his death virtually all of Ireland had been converted to Christ. As our culture in the West moves further post Christian there are lessons to be learned from Patrick concerning ministering to an increasingly secular and even hostile world.
First we can see the foundation of prayer in Patrick’s life. It led to his conversion and it was the underpinning of all that he did. It was prayer that opened Patrick’s heart and mind to not only hear the voice of God but to receive power to obey and return to the people that had enslaved him. It was his connection to God through prayer that gave Patrick an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God. He believed that God had ordained a plan for his life and Patrick’s intent was to be God’s obedient servant. This belief that we are a part of a Divine plan is evangelistic because it speaks to the yearning of every human heart to believe that our lives matter, that we are significant. The Gospel tells us we are so significant that the Son of God would die for us. That is indeed Good News.
Second, while Patrick believed that He was a part of God’s plan he was brutally aware of his own shortcomings, as is evident in his Confessions. And yet because He believed that God was in control he knew that the Lord could even use his shortcoming to His glory. St. Paul certainly taught this. He said that the Lord spoke to Him and said “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (NLT). The lesson here is that we should not worry that we are not qualified to serve the Lord because nobodyis. Just serve Him anyway and depend on His mercy to fill in the gaps.
Third we can see how St. Patrick was grounded in the Scriptures. He was embarrassed by what he believed to be a lack of education but in his brief Confessions he makes over 500 biblical references. Now remember this is the late 5thcentury so it wasn’t like he had access to a Strong’s Concordance or could do a Google search for a biblical passage. He read and studied the Scriptures so thoroughly that it became a part of how he thought and even, who he was. St. Paul commanded Timothy to study to show himself approved, “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the world of truth.”Obviously St. Patrick took that command seriously.
Patrick set the example of being a student of God’s Word for those who came after him. What is amazing to me is that in his day the Irish did not yet have a written language. Nevertheless over the next two centuries not only did the Irish establish great libraries but over half of the biblical commentaries in the West were written by the Irish.
Let’s pause with this history lesson. So far there is nothing St. Patrick’s models for us, that with the help of God, is beyond our ability. I’m not suggesting that we learn to pray through the night as Patrick did or that we make it a goal to quote over 500 verses off the top of our heads, although that would be nice. But who among us could not grow deeper in prayer and in our knowledge of Holy Scripture? The truth is that we make time for the things that are really important to us. This season of Lent invites us to adjust our priorities and move in a direction that will build our souls.
Fourth, we should consider St. Patrick’s model in how he ministered to the Irish. He followed in the footsteps of St. Paul and that is why he was so successful.
You will recall that when St. Paul went to Mars Hill he saw all manner of statues to the gods but there was one statue that was to an unknown god. Paul could have gone Old Testament on them and called on fire to burn them up as idolaters. But rather than condemning them he commended them for being so spiritually oriented and then he in essence said “Let me tell you about this unknown god”and he preached to them Christ and Him crucified.
In a similar manner, rather than Patrick condemning the Irish for their love of nature, He introduced them to the One who created what they loved. When he met two daughters of a King and they asked him to tell them about his God he said, “Our God is the God of all people, the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and the rivers, the God of the sun and the moon and all stars, the God of the high mountains and of the deep valleys…”He goes on for another paragraph connecting God to nature before he tells them about Jesus. In this way he was showing respect for their love of nature and their beliefs, but then like St. Paul, he filled in the blanks. The two sisters believed and were baptized.
This is the perfect day for us to model St. Patrick here. Our society is so divided and folks are so insulting and hateful towards one another that evangelism, rooted in respect for the other person’s views, will be like breath of fresh air. I’m not suggesting that we dilute our beliefs to be more acceptable to others. Rather I am saying that with love and respect we begin where they are and then gently and lovingly fill in the blanks.
To be honest it fries my bacon when someone says, “I’m not very religious but I’m spiritual.” A large part of me wants to challenge them and say, “You have not idea what you are even talking about.”But how is that kind of confrontation going to lead them towards Christ? Following Paul and Patrick what I should say is, “I’m grateful to hear that you are a spiritual person, tell me what that looks like in your life.”And then guide the conversation to the only One who can cause them to be born of the Spirit in order to become the truly spiritual people that they believe themselves to be.
A final point where I think the life of St. Patrick is worth our consideration is in how he saw the mission of the church. As one author put it, Patrick believed that it was essential for the Church to be centrally focused on the sacraments, faith, scripture and ministry but NOT focused upon organizational structures. The lack of rigid organizational structures gave later generations of Irish the freedom and flexibility to improvise, adapt and overcome as they faced new challenges and ministered to new people groups.
What followed Patrick were monastic communities. They were not so much like we think of monasteries and convents today where folks are cloistered away from the world. They were more like Christian communities that accepted both married and celibates and men and women. St. Bridig was a significant leader in this movement.
These communities were involved in education, caring for the poor and elderly, farming and crafts. Their involvement in education also led them to foster children, which deeply connected to the Irish values of family and hospitality. All of this came together to lead to the conversion of Ireland, to drive out the metaphorical snakes, i.e. paganism.
While I am convinced, through the Scriptures and the teachings of the church Fathers, that Bishops are essential to the Church, I must admit that I share St. Patrick’s indifference to organizational structures. Because of our fallen nature it is too easy for them to quickly move from servant to master. I’m reminded of President Reagan’s saying that the 9 scariest words in the English Language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”Church structures easily become the same as the government. I’ve served on numerous ecclesiastical committees over the years and as the old spiritual puts it…. “Give me Jesus., you can have all this world, Oh give me Jesus”
What is the application of this final point? I think that the greatest flexibility is found in the local parish. We are that local monastic community that can and should get ministry done. We don’t need to wait for the Diocese to create an Evangelism Committee to develop an Evangelism Seminar to bring in an Evangelism expert, who typically has written a book but has never done it. We already have the Great Commission. Between the oversight of our Bishop and the leadership of our Vestry we have all the governance we need to do the Lord’s work. We need to move from “Why isn’t the Diocese doing X,Y,Z”to “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,Y,Z?”And then we need to move from “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,YZ?”to “Why aren’t I doing X,Y,Z?”
Patrick didn’t wait for a committee to give him permission to evangelize the Irish. Jesus had already told him to go and so he went. And as far as St. Patrick knew in his day, he had literally gone to the ends of the earth. So let’s follow Patrick’s devotion, courage and obedience as he followed the Lord.
Today is a great feast day. I encourage you to eat, drink and be merry. And then I encourage you to get back to it on Monday to return to a holy Lent. Amen.