How the Irish were born again
March 16, 2014 First St Johns Church, York, Pa
A Celtic Benediction: “The vitality of God be mine this day, the vitality of the God of life. The passion of Christ be mine this day, the passion of the Christ of love. The wakefulness of the Spirit be mine this day, the wakefulness of the Spirit of new birth. The vitality and passion and new birth of God be mine that I may be fully alive this day.”1 We make our beginning in the Name of God the Father…who have a new vitality, a new passion and have been born into new life in Christ said … AMEN.
Cead Mille Failte a hundred thousand welcomes, it is truly right and salutary that we should remember the Saints, and of course today who else but St Brendan? ah mean St Bridgett? ahhh ok St Patrick, there got it. So many of the saints we know and don’t know were led to dedicate their lives to bring God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ into places that were spiritually dark. Our Old Testament lesson today is about Father Abraham, Yahweh tells Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s “house”, the Hebrew word tyIB; meaning not just a house, our world today is so transient, I’ve lived in 14 different houses in my life, they were buildings to live in. In the Hebrew it usually has the meaning of the paternal household, probably a place that’s been lived in by the same family for generations. A place that could almost be a family museum, a place where there would be many nuclear families, all dependent on each other, a very familiar place. Unlike us today, we need a bigger place, we need a smaller place, most people would live, raise their families, be with generations of the same family and die at this place. Yahweh, picked Abraham up and moved him out of his family home to start a long journey, that would take him many places and finally put him in the land that Yahweh had promised. This was a land that was unknown to Abraham, a land where they had many different “gods” and practices and Abraham is bringing a new God to them that he himself is new to. York was a new place to Margie and me, still relatively Christian, certainly American, but a place where I was driving by GPS for at least the first year we were here. Much more welcoming a place then Abraham or Patrick encountered.
Greg Tobin writes: “The Apostle of Ireland was not a native of that land, but a Roman Briton, born and educated in the westernmost sector of Britain and Wales. His great-grandfather was Odissus, a deacon; his grandfather, Potitus, was a presbyter, or priest; his father, Calpornius, was a deacon, as well as a decurion, or local magistrate responsible for the collection of taxes. Patrick’s mother … was Concessa, possibly a niece of St Martin of Tours. The family was well-enough off by any standard, for they lived at a villa, or estate… He says in the Letter that in later life, whether figuratively or literally, ‘[I] traded my noble birthright.’”2 Tobin points out also that this was one of the greatest periods of the Christian church, since this was about the same era of Pope Celestine, Pope Leo the Great, St Augustine and St Jerome, also one of the most challenging, because Pelagius who raised many heretical teachings lived at this time. Like Abraham, Patrick claims to have received a divine call. Patrick was kidnapped as a result of an Irish raid in Britain and after years in slavery escaped and returned to his home. He claims his escape was facilitated by angelic direction. From there though he studied at Auxerre in Gaul where he was ordained a deacon, with “…the goal of being appointed bishop to the Irish Christians”. He returned to Britain and had another dream, some have claimed it was an angelic vision: “…whose name was Victoricus, coming it seemed from Ireland, with countless letters. ..I read the first words of the letter, which were: “The Voice of the Irish”. And as I read aloud the beginning of the letter I imagined that at the same moment I heard their voices – … and thus did they cry out as one: ‘We ask you, holy boy, come back and walk among us once more.”3
There was probably a small number of Christians in Ireland, but Ireland was dominated by pagan worship, mostly Druidic and it seems that worship included human sacrifice. It was an evil form of worship. Tobin writes: “Patrick was appointed to succeed Palladius as bishop to the Christians in Ireland in 432. In Ireland he eventually converted the High King, the Ard Righ, … and triumphed in many confrontations with druidic priests.”4 Like Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal another confrontation of the remnant of God against the pervasiveness of paganism.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but we are the remnant in what is becoming a very pagan society. I don’t say that to insult, that is what it is and a lot of people who are involved in that will tell you they are pagans. You may have lived in this area all your life, you may not have had any vivid kind of guidance such as a dream or an angel, but in your lifetime, society has moved from being very Christian. So even though you might never have moved, the local culture has and as strange as Philistine to Abraham or Ireland to Patrick, your contemporary society could be as alien to you. Too often though we approach the contemporary culture as if it were like York of years past. Our expectations are that everyone knows and everyone acts he same. We expect everyone to be a certain way for them to be part of the church. George Hunter writes: “The perspective of the ancient Roman Christian leaders (and that would have included Patrick) can be baldly stated in two sentences: (1) Roman Christian leaders assumed that a population had to be civilized “enough” already to be Christianized, that is, that some degree of civilization was a prerequisite to Christianization. (2) Once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected in time to read and speak Latin, to adopt other Roman customs, and to do church ‘the Roman way.’” How about if I insisted everyone read Greek in order to be a good Lutheran. The problem is this, because we’ve had a particular understanding through our lives, we think everyone has that same perspective. I can tell you I had to change my life when I became a Christian, it was a challenge, and as the husband and father, I had to disciple my wife and children, as all Christian men should. We live too safely, remember the movie Jaws, the grizzled old sailor, when he realized what kind of shark they were dealing with? He said: “Looks like we’re going to need a bigger boat.” That seems to be our solution, we need a bigger boat/whatever that may be. The boat may be going down, but we feel that we have enough of a life preserver to feel safe and if other people can’t get with our life preserver, too bad for them. We have to put the best face on what other people do. What a new person in church does/doesn’t do is hardly ever disrespect, just unfamiliarity, no one wants to upset anyone, but if there’s no reason to do what they’ve always done differently they will continue to act the same way. Much the same thing can be said about long time Christians. Hunter notes that our idea of evangelism/discipling is one on one, often kind of confrontational, “this is why you need to be a Christian what’s wrong with you?”. I find myself doing a milder version of that a lot. “…Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team – by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry and witness… the Celts believed in the importance of the team. A group of people can pray and think together. They inspire and encourage each other. The single entrepreneur, the Lone Ranger is too easily prey to self doubt and loss of vision.”5This is something that we have had to relearn and return to in contemporary Christianity. It is all about the group, the Body of Christ. Jesus is our primary example, using every opportunity as they traveled around Israel to teach His disciples what He expected them to teach their disciples, what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.
When a woman gives birth, it’s a process, a baby takes time to development, so it is with the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of the Spirit, Jesus refers to “the wind blows where it may”, the Greek word pneu/ma which means wind and spirit. We refer to the study of the Holy Spirit as pneumatology, and so Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit with Nicodemus. Jesus is saying that it is what Jesus will do, He will be the atonement, the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that it will be the Holy Spirit who will chose those who will be born again, that they will be born again in the Spirit and because of that we know that we are born into the Kingdom, sons and daughters of the Father. You probably notice that this is in terms of a small group, not just the acts of Jesus‘ sacrifice, but the acts of the Spirit to bring rebirth and the acts of the Father who adopts us as His children through His Son Jesus.
We can chose then to continue to follow the failed model that dates back to the Roman Church which expected people to change and adapt on their own, or we can chose the model that St Patrick established, being in relationship, being part of a group, helping to show people Christ instead of trying to hound them into the Kingdom. Something I have to work on, but I can’t do that as an individual, it requires a group and that is what we are establishing here as Christ’s disciples. It’s not just me that people interact with, it’s not just those who are “supposed” to … It’s everyone, and you, and I, have no idea how the Holy Spirit will use what we do for someone to be born in the Spirit. So we do the ordinary things of life with those we meet, as a disciple of Christ, with those the Spirit brings here or another area of your life and you model to them what a Christian disciple is, don’t get upset with what they do or don’t do, just as Patrick did for the pagans of 5th century Ireland. Take some time now and think about who you can include in what group to disciple someone in Christ, pray study and journal over it.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Shalom and Amin.
1J Philip Newell Celtic Benediction p 53
2Greg Tobin The Wisdom of St Patrick pp 21-22
3George G Hunter III The Celtic Way of Evangelism p 17
4Tobin p 25
5George Hunter p 47