by Frank Luke
FCF: The fallen world needs to be reached with the Gospel in ways they will respond to.
This is St. Patrick’s Day and thus an excellent day to talk about the missionary we celebrate. He has had more enduring success than almost any other missionary in Christian history.
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain, somewhere around AD 415. Though his parents were practicing Christians, he had rebelled and considered himself a pagan. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. When he was 16, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland. Sold to a druid who raised sheep, Patrick now learned to pray. His master often left him with only minimal food and water for days at a time. He found relief from his cruel master only in continual prayer. He wrote later that he often prayed 100 times a day, and almost as much at night. Then he felt the love and fear of God surround him. Patrick reported that after six years as a slave, he heard a voice from heaven telling him it was time to flee. He escaped first to France (because that’s where the boat was going) and finally returned to Britain after training for the priesthood. Planning to live a quiet life in service to the God who saved him, he followed the family footsteps to become a priest in Britain.
God had other plans and called Patrick back to Ireland as a missionary when he was 45. Some have called Patrick the Apostle to Ireland. Indeed, when God called Patrick to missions, it was through another dream. Like Paul’s dream of Macedonia, Patrick dreamed of a Christian man who handed him letters written by the Irish. As he read the letters, he heard a voice of many Irish men saying, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.
There were a few Christians there, but not many. With six years living in Ireland as a slave, Patrick knew what the Isle was like and knew it would take a different approach to convert it to Christianity than had worked on the continent.
As the first missionaries moved throughout the empire, such as Paul, Peter, and others, they went to places where the people spoke one of the languages they knew, Greek. They went to places where everyone shared the same laws and had the same respect for law and order. This was in the main part of the empire. The missionaries to the German tribes faced many of the same problems Patrick did, but their solution of making the tribes Roman before making them Christian was not something Patrick could wait on. The Roman army had abandoned Britain before his capture! The church had no army with swords. Patrick went alone with his prayers.
He knew that what worked in the civilized empire would not work on the untamed frontier. As I said, when Patrick arrived as a missionary, he was one of a handful of Christians in Ireland. However, one century after he died, only the small kingdom of Munster in the south of Ireland was still pagan.
The biggest threat to Patrick’s work were the druids. They had power. Patrick knew this. The people in Ireland knew this. Patrick confronted the druids and preached that their nature gods were demons. The people feared the gods of Ireland (and they should, they were not nice gods), but Patrick turned that fear into hatred of the demonic. Like Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al, Patrick took on the druids with their nature gods and won. The bell he used to drive off the demons in one such encounter is preserved today in the National Museum of Ireland.
In another, Patrick stood alone against a powerful druid. The druid called up a thick fog and asked Patrick to do the same. Patrick challenged the druid to send away the fog. To the druids surprise, he could not. With a few words of prayer, Patrick asked God to drive away the fog. As the druid realized Patrick’s God was more powerful than his, he trembled in fear. Patrick asked God to strike the druid dead, just as the Israelites had slain the prophets of Ba’al.
As you can imagine, church with Patrick was not just a motivational speech at a business meeting! So many of our Christian churches today have left behind the miracles and prophecies to be little more than a Sunday morning club. For many church goers, the Sunday morning is all they have. They don’t really think about Christ in the week. This is sad and grievous. That one can be changed, freed from sin, and then think so little of it boggles the mind.
Patrick preached the mysteries of God, miracles of the Spirit, and the love of Jesus against the demonic. For his work, he was named a bishop of Ireland and then archbishop as Christianity spread throughout the Emerald Isle and the need for other bishops grew.
What man intended for evil, God used for good. A former slave, Patrick was the first Christian make ending slavery a part of his ministry. He was so against it that he stepped outside of his boundaries as a bishop in Ireland to excommunicate a Christian in Britain for organizing a slave raid.
He strove to end the slave trade in Ireland, and almost lived to see it happen. Thanks to him, the kingdoms of Ireland were the first places in the West to outlaw slavery and trading slaves. In his life, he did see human sacrifice in Ireland ended.
How did Patrick bring Christianity to this pagan isle? He had three prongs to his approach.
He Did not Let the Bad in His Past Stop Him
Christ commands us to keep going past the bad and not let it define us. He said,
Luke 6:27-28 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
And Peter repeats that.
1 Peter 3:8-9 To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; 9 not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.
Like Christ, Patrick loved his enemies, blessed those who cursed him, he did good to those who hated him.
We can think of little more wrong to do to a person than to enslave them. In the ancient world, slavery was simply a part of life. Don’t get me wrong, it was recognized as a bad thing and no one wanted to be a slave, but all nations had slaves, sometimes of their own people. It’s estimated that in the first century, one quarter of the people living in Rome were in fact slaves.
Christianity was the first religion to teach against it. Starting with Paul’s letter to Philemon when he says, “I trust you will do even more than I say,” Patrick was the first to face it head on. Between Paul and Patrick, St. Augustine had written against it. John Chrysostom in Constantinople had preached against it in a sermon entitled, “Should we not make it a heaven on earth?”
Christianity allowed slaves to marry. Roman law said a slave’s owner could sell him without selling the rest of the family so they could not marry. When a slave was buried in a Christian cemetery, nothing on the grave would indicate the person beneath had been a slave. For most the mark of slavery endured beyond the grave, for the Christian, their past had been forgotten.
When a slave, Patrick had a harsh and cruel master. Patrick was often left alone with the sheep for weeks at a time, forced to look for his own food after the provisions ran out. Patrick’s master was also a druid priest, no wonder that Patrick left his paganism behind while in slavery.
Like Joseph having been a slave, Patrick took his curse and used it to better others. Had Joseph allowed his time in prison to make him bitter, he would not have saved all those nations during the famine years.
I can easily see Patrick deciding against ever returning to Ireland. The worst years of his life were spent there, but he returned good for evil and blessed those who cursed him.
What is the good that we can do to those who wrong us? How can we bless those who curse us?
He Started Where They Were
1 Peter 3:15-16 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.
The prior missionaries to Ireland kept making slow progress because the Irish could not comprehend the Trinity. To them, it sounded like one God with three faces. They had a god with three faces in their pantheon, and he was not a nice man. Other Irish simply thought the trinity to be nonsense.
I can concur with them that the Trinity is hard to understand. In fact, it is simply impossible for man to grasp all the nuances and complexities of it. However, the main part of it is easy to grasp. There is one God who exists as three persons. The Father, Son, and Spirit are all God but none of them are the same. Much ink has been spilled trying to parse out the relationships and how they work together. The exact nature of how it all works is a mystery.
It’s okay that we don’t understand all of it. What matters is that God has revealed it this way. There are many things in Scripture which are hard to understand. However, we need to be ready for those who have questions about this or any other part of our faith. But don’t be too concerned that we can’t answer them all.
Patrick found a way to explain the Trinity to the Irish in a way they could at least begin to grasp the concept. Once that assent was given, they were able to follow the rest of the way. Patrick used a beloved Irish symbol to explain it, the Shamrock. He showed them that all parts of the Godhead were part of the same plant but the three distinct yet identical leaves were joined together.
We might not be called upon to answer a question about the Trinity at first. We might have to answer a different question when bringing someone to the faith. What if they ask how we know that Christ physically rose from the dead? How do we know it wasn’t merely a spiritual resurrection they talk about?
We know this because they don’t describe it that way. If the writers of the New Testament intended for us to understand a spiritual resurrection without a physical body, they would not have spoken so much about the body! All of the Gospels record the empty tomb. What is the first thing there that says it wasn’t a spiritual resurrection? The tomb was empty! If it had been a spiritual resurrection, the body would have still been there.
When the Jewish leaders tried to say the resurrection didn’t happen, the Apostles answered by saying, ‘Then bring out the body.’ They couldn’t. That was all that had to be done to stop Christianity in its infancy. Bring out the body.
In All Things, He Let Christ be Seen
When Jesus was challenged to name the greatest law in Mark 12, He quoted this in verse 30. “AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’” He was quoting from a well-known passage in Deuteronomy known as the Shema, which is Hebrew for “Listen!” The full passage goes like this:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
When ministering in Ireland, St. Patrick also wrote down a prayer that he prayed daily. More than anything else he wrote, this prayer sums up his approach to faith and the ministry.
“I bind unto myself today the strong name of the trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three. I bind this day to me forever by power of faith in Christ’s incarnation, His baptism in the Jordan river, His death on the cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spiced tomb, His riding up the heavenly way, His coming at the day of doom I bind unto myself today. I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to harken to my need, the wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard. Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me; Christ to comfort and restore me; Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of a friend…
I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three, of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word; praise to the God of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord!”
There are nine verses to the prayer like this. When you repeat something like that multiple times a day, every day, it gets in your head.
Patrick lived a life modeled after the heroes of the faith. Like Joseph and Paul, he was unjustly sentenced. Like Daniel, he took the faith into a foreign land. Where he went, he introduced people to Christ. Everything in his life revolved around Christ and making Him known. It wasn’t enough for Patrick to just show his faith by being different. He proclaimed his faith in everything he did.
He had to be ready at all times. The enemies of the faith were always at war with him. To be Christian in those times was not easy. Patrick knew that believers, new and old, needed one another, so like the missionaries before him, he planted churches wherever he went. He started monasteries and communities around them because Ireland didn’t have many towns or villages then.
We don’t know how Patrick died, but we know that he died on March 17, around 490. After living a life in service to God, he died where he had been most used by God.
The thoughts of that prayer come from Scripture and ask what it means to love the LORD with all you have and how to put that into practice in your life. How can you be Christ’s hand to those who need you? How can you be God’s wisdom to those who need to be taught?
When you need protection, Christ will be before you and behind you. When you need comfort, Christ will comfort and restore.
How will you show Christ to all who need you?
Because of his work, not only was Ireland converted, but France regained it’s Christianity after missionaries from Ireland went there. Missionaries from Ireland’s churches went to Scotland and eventually to Norway (ironically, taken as slaves just as Patrick had been). Because one man obeyed the call, Christianity thrived in places it had never taken root before.
Patrick and Paul faced great persecution and trials in preparation for their faith. Most Christians will not go through all of this. We won’t be struck blind to get our attention. We won’t serve as slaves to a cruel druid. But we will need to serve.
The question you have to ask yourself is this: “Will I be found faithful to the work God has called me to do regardless of the opposition I face?”
Will you? Whatever God has in store for you, will you do it no matter the cost? We live comfortable lives here. Would we be willing to give it up for Christ?
It’s easy to say yes in our minds. Yet, when it came down to it, how hard would it be to give things up for Christ’s sake?
I want to open the altar, now. Take the time to come and pray that God will strengthen you in your walk, to prepare you for everything He wants you to do. No matter the cost, follow.
Please visit Frank Luke’s blog where this article is also posted.
Photo credit: Sudley House