It is the morning after St. Patrick’s Day and I find myself musing about what this great Christian hero would teach us. I invite us to get past green rivers, green beer and the wearing of the green for there is a towering Christian who stands both behind, above and beyond the legends.
I wrote about his background and the great extent of Patrick’s witness to Christ and the Christian faith in an earlier blog (A Witness in Honor of St. Patrick - March 17, 2016). “His story is a compelling witness to the Christ as Lord of his life and to his love in Christ through the Holy Spirit even for those who mistreated and harmed him.
Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for six years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past the life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel. Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in a.d. 432.
For 28 years until his death in a.d. 460, he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches and he ordained perhaps 1,000 priests. “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions. He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery. Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 23).”
I write to challenge us to take the heroic story of Patrick beyond admiration or even imagination. This hero of the Christian faith reaches across the centuries to teach us. We may readily ascertain the following lessons from Patrick:
- His allegiance and obedience to Christ as Patrick’s Lord and master ranked far above his own comfort, personal desire or safety. To use an older parlance, Patrick was Christ’s man first, foremost and always. This is the fullest meaning of Christian discipleship.
- His understanding and expression of Christian love extended far beyond simply those who loved him. His return to the very people that had enslaved him demonstrated a capacity to love even those who we might ostensibly call his enemies.
- He lived the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ through towering concern to share the faith with those who did not know Christ as Lord and Savior. What we today call evangelism was baked into his bones as a core non-negotiable activity of faithful discipleship.
- He exemplified orthodox theology of the Christian faith “delivered once and for all to God’s holy people.” (Jude 3) Patrick’s theological emphasis in the Trinity is striking. The Christian faith movement he left behind is saturated in trinitarian language. The famous “St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer” opens with the verse
“I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.”
- He fused what we call evangelism with social justice and mercy. In the language of today, Patrick’s faith was holistic. He did not and would not recognize a separation between an explicit sharing of Christ and calling for allegiance to Christ with engaging in the deeds of love, justice and mercy.
- He respected Celtic culture without embracing those elements of it which were contrary to the Christian gospel (i.e. tribal revenge killing, worship of false gods, infanticide and human sacrifice, etc.). He didn’t set himself apart or above those he was seeking to reach but lived among them.
- He built new faith communities. Patrick always exemplified the Wesleyan emphasis (long before Wesley!) that the Christian faith was social and not merely individualistic. This was demonstrated repeated in founding church and monastic communities.
- He was courageous in his witness to Christ physically, intellectually and emotionally. One scholar writes, “the apostle’s willingness to endure continuing danger for his mission would have fueled ‘the authentic sign.’” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 58) Put differently, he walked the walk. Patrick was authentic and credible. He did not stand on rights or privilege.
- He embraced God’s creative work in nature. Much has been written about how Celtic Christianity under Patrick’s founding influence embrace the beauty and holiness of nature’s creation. They were true “stewards” of creation. The shamrock as a symbol of Celtic Christianity is but one of many examples of their respect for the environment and God’s blessing through nature.
There is more, much more that could be said, much more that deserves to be said. For now, I invite us as St. Patrick’s Day fades the review mirror to take courage from him, be inspired by him. Patrick is a true hero of the Christian faith.