You may have noticed over the last two years here at Arbor House, that we don’t celebrate a lot of holidays. Perhaps a better way to put it is, we are very particular in what holidays that we do celebrate. So while most churches would celebrate Mother’s day, Father’s day, Memorial day, Arbor day, etc. we choose not to. And for some of those there are particular reasons. For Mother’s day we recognize that this can be a particularly difficult day for some women who are unable to be mothers. We also know that there are, myself included, those who find Father’s day to be difficult because they either never knew their father or did not have a good relationship with their father. But early on here we made a conscious decision about what holidays we would celebrate. We are a church that seeks to be shaped by the church year, which is markedly different from the calendar year. We want our lives to be shaped by the rhythms of the church and not by the rhythms of society. And so when it comes to holidays we choose to celebrate, as a part of our time together on Sunday morning, we intentionally choose the holidays of the church.
That does leave us in a bit of a gray area this morning, because it is, of course, St. Patrick’s day. It is a day named after the former bishop of Ireland, who brought Christianity to the Celtic people. So it is supposed to be a day to remember and celebrate the work that God did through him. But culturally it is far from that. St. Patrick’s day has become a day to wear an oppressive amount of green, pretend to do a “good” Irish accent, and get riotously drunk, just like Patrick would have wanted.
St. Patrick’s day has become a day to wear an oppressive amount of green, pretend to do a “good” Irish accent, and get riotously drunk, just like Patrick would have wanted.
So while culturally the day has drifted far from a church holiday I think it is worthwhile task to take a look at Patrick’s life this morning and see what we can learn from it. But first it is probably necessary to address the issue of sainthood. As protestants we do not have as developed a theology of sainthood as our Catholic brothers and sisters. And we have our reasons for that. We don’t venerate or pray to the saints, but a side effect of that is, we as protestants, often have a short memory. For everything else that sainthood is, it does provide the opportunity to remember people of great faith who have gone before us. So I’m not saying that we adopt the Catholic theology of Sainthood, but I think we would do well to remember the stories of ancient Christians. And so this morning I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the life of Patrick and the Celtic Church.
Before we get to what we can learn from Patrick and the Celtic Church, I think it would be helpful to briefly summarize his life. Patrick lived in Britain, until the age of 16 when he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland to live as a slave. He was a slave in Ireland for six years, and it was during this time that he cultivated a spiritual awareness. He worked as a shepherd and used the time he spent in the field in prayer. He claims that during this time he would pray as many as 100 times a day. This time also developed in him an awareness of the natural revelation of God, that is, that God makes himself known to us through creation.
After six years of captivity he had a dream wherein God told him it was time to go home and that the ship was ready. He left, travelled 200 miles to the shore, and found his way onto a ship that was destined for Britain. After returning home, he entered the priesthood. After a time as a parish priest, and at the ripe old age, for the time, of 50 he had another vision. In his confessions he writes:
“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victorious, and he carried many letter, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Focult, which is beside the western sea — and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.””
Patrick was able to convince his local bishop and the pope to consecrate him as a bishop to Ireland. Up until this point Ireland had been outside of the reach of the church. It was a land of “barbarians” and no serious missionary effort had yet been made to the Irish shores. Patrick, now the bishop of Ireland, returned to the land where he had once been a slave, accompanied by a cohort of priests, nuns, and seminarians. Their ministry to Ireland was wildly successful, to put it mildly. There are estimates that Patrick, himself, baptized thousands of people. They planted churches, established communities, and ordained Irish priests. Naturally, they also faced difficulties, Patrick was beat and imprisoned for a short period of time. He tried to reach the man who used to own him as a slave and the man locked himself in his house and burned the house down, because he feared Patrick had come to take revenge. It is hard to overstate the legacy that Patrick’s missionary efforts had on the people and nation of Ireland. He is the patron saint of Ireland and even has a mildly heretical trinity analogy attributed to him, the three leaf clover.
What can we learn from Patrick and the Celtic Church?
It is a worthy question ask at this point, what can we learn from Patrick and the Celtic Church about what it means to be the church and to be Christians? There are three lessons that I want to highlight.
The Roman model vs. the Celtic model of Church and Evangelism
First, the model that Patrick and the Celtic church used to reach the people of Ireland was different than the model used by the Roman church.The Roman model of evangelism was the following (and this was only for people who were civilized enough):
The relationship between the church and the potential convert began at the presentation of the Gospel. At which point the person would make a decision to follow Christ and would then be admitted into fellowship in the church through baptism. The emphasis was on the presentation of the gospel through preaching or speech.
Patrick turned this model on its head. The Celtic model followed these three steps:
- Ministry and Conversation
- Belief, Invitation to Commitment
The potential convert was first invited to be a part of the community of faith, and they were invited to participate in the daily life and ministry of the community. While they participated in the community there was space for them to explore the Christian faith and to ask questions about Christianity. Questions were encouraged. After a time the person realized that they had become a Christian and made a commitment to the church through baptism. There was not necessarily a moment were the person was asked to make a choice for conversion, instead the person recognized that a change had occurred during their time with the community and chose to make a commitment to the church. The emphasis was on the demonstration of the Gospel. The person who was new to the community came to understand Christianity through the preaching, but perhaps, more so through the lives of those in the community.
The person who was new to the community came to understand Christianity through the preaching, but perhaps, more so through the lives of those in the community.
The model of church that was the standard for Patrick and the Celtic church is certainly applicable for us today. We should be a church that is open and welcoming to people who are outside of the community of faith. They should feel welcome and a part of the family. They are not outsiders, they are beloved by God, and so we love them too. We should then represent Christianity, not just through our words, but through our actions and our lives. We should be the image of God, reflecting his love and life to those around us. And lastly we should be a place where questions are embraced. It is common for evangelicals to draw lines in the theological sand. We stake out our position and if someone is outside of that then they are outside of our community. But this takes for granted the journey that we have walked to get to where we are. Others are in different places and wrestling with difficult issues of faith and so we should create spaces for people to ask questions and earnestly seek after God.
Christianity is Always Translated
The second lesson that we can learn from Patrick and the Celtic Church is that Christianity is always translated. In opposition to the Roman model of Church, Patrick did not necessarily seek to civilize the people before he Christianized them. Instead of translating the people for the church he translated the gospel for the people. One rather morbid example is human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was common in the Celtic tribes during the time of Patrick. But he saw this as an opportunity to teach the people the core beliefs of Christianity, namely, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He explained to them that Jesus was a sacrifice on their behalf for their redemption. And so they did not need to offer human sacrifices anymore because Jesus was the final sacrifice.
Christianity is always translated. What does that translation look like today? In Patrick’s day he was explaining the basics of the Christian faith to a group of “barbarians” who had had no contact with Patrick’s faith prior. We do not live in that world. We live in a time and place where christianity is a well known entity. If it is accurately known that is a whole other question. But there are few in america today who do not have at least a basic concept of what Christianity is. As we are going to talk about Thursday at the Fed Talk, Evangelical has largely become more of a cultural label than a religious group. And so the challenge for us today is not to introduce people to Christianity and to Jesus but to reintroduce them. Chances are the view that they have of christians is skewed. While Patrick was able to do this with words that may not be a luxury that we have. Because people think they know about Jesus and his followers they may not want to hear what we have to say so we will have to follow the Celtic model of church and show them.
We have to be the love of Christ to a culture that has largely forgotten.
Care for Nature
Lastly, the Celtic Church has a long connection with the natural world. There is the story about Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland (although, scientist think there were likely never any snakes on the Irish Island). There is another story where Patrick rescues a fawn and carries it over his shoulders back to its mother. Another Celtic Church leader befriended a couple of otters. And still another had a badger which would bring him a salmon to eat every day. While it is unclear if any of these stories are actually true, what is clear is that there is a deep respect for nature as a part of their faith. They recognized the earth and the animals as God’s good creation and also as a means of coming to know God, the natural revelation that Patrick felt as he was an enslaved shepherd.
This is, sadly, something that is often lacking in the western evangelical church. Nature is often viewed as being disposable and solely for the use of humanity. Some even reject that we can and have done harm to creation. This, of course, overlooks the biblical precedent, the earth being cursed as a result of Abel’s blood being spilled and Jeremiah telling the Israelites that they are going to be ejected from the land so that the land will have an opportunity to heal. We have forgotten that the first task given to humanity was to guard or keep the creation God had just made. And as a result we also lose the ability to experience God in creation. This is not a manifesto against technology and innovation, because those are also important and biblical pursuits, but they have often been done at the expense of creation. Now I’m not an industry leader who could make grand decisions to care for creation, but Melissa and I have discussed various ways that we can be better stewards of creation. We are thinking through how we can be more responsible, how we can reduce the amount of waste that we generate. It is unfortunate that these considerations are often disconnected from the church, because caring for creation is a very biblical task.
Questions for Reflection
We should be a church that invites all people to be a part of our community. How do we do this?
We should be a church that views our Christian faith as being holistic and engaged in every part of our lives. What does this look like in our daily lives?