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St Patrick the Irish Evangelical

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney.]

St Patrick’s Day is a Saint’s day. There is nothing wrong with celebrating saint’s days, though there is nothing particularly right either. As our Apostle says: “One man esteems one day as better than another while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Legendary stories make it hard to know the truth about early saints. We do not know anything about some saints, like St Valentine, and what we know about other famous ones, like St Nicholas, is contradictory and confusing. Even for some Biblical saints there is very little information, like St Matthias or St Bartholomew.

There are a number of difficulties regarding our interaction with saints. One is rightly identifying a saint through some canonization process. When all Christians are saints why do we pick on some particular ones to declare as true saints? If it requires some ongoing influence in the world—such as answers to prayer and working miracles—there is the danger of incipient polytheism in the celebrations of saints, for they are turned into a heavenly court of patrons to whom we can pray and look for divine protection. Another problem is praying to the dead prior to canonization of the saint. For if he or she turns out not to be a saint, to whom were we praying? It seems to be a form of idolatry to call on the name of somebody who is not the Lord—especially if it turns out that they were not even one of his people!

However, the problems of saints and saint’s days should not stand in the way of remembering with gratitude, those whom God has used in the past to spread the gospel and contribute to the welfare of the world. We are to remember our leaders and in particular “the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

So what do we know of St Patrick? Not much, but a lot more than we know of St Matthias. The central elements of his life story are not really in doubt; the details of the events are difficult to be certain about.

He wasn’t Irish but British, born sometime around 390AD into a Christian family. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a presbyter. However, it was not till the 16 year-old Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and forced to tend sheep as a slave in East Antrim that he took an interest in Christianity. Prior to that he spoke of his life as having “gone away from God” and not listening to “how we could be saved”. Late in life he described his conversion in his days of slavery:

“The Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance.”

After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped back to Britain to be reunited with his family. He trained for the ministry and was made a bishop before returning in 432AD to spend the rest of his life in Ireland. He went in response to the Lord’s direction to be a missionary bishop and never felt free to return to his home or visit his relatives. For about 30 years he travelled around Ireland preaching the gospel, baptizing thousands, ordaining clergy, negotiating with tribal chieftains. In so doing he turned the whole land away from paganism. As with any leader, especially a Christian evangelist and missionary, he faced a deal of opposition and false accusations.

In his last days he wrote his “Confession”, which tells of his life, his belief, his work and his defence against attacks. It is not a long document: about 7000 words organized into 62 paragraphs. In it we see something of the heart of the man—his understanding of the gospel, his passion for the lost, his awareness of his own frailties and his great confidence in God. It is peppered with Biblical quotations and allusions, over 500 according to some scholars, as he explains himself and his mission.

He knew of his forgiveness, and knowing it he wrote:

“That is why I cannot be silent—nor would it be good to do so—about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”

It was not just the response to God’s blessings of forgiveness and salvation, but also his understanding of the Christian gospel. For as he goes on to explain his missionary endeavour he wrote:

“This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father.…And his son, Jesus Christ, whom … The Father gave … all power over every being, both heavenly and earthly and beneath the earth. Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God. He is judge of the living and of the dead;…He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen, to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ.

This is the one we acknowledge and adore—one God in a trinity.”

St. Patrick would not want us to pray to him as if he has the ear of God. He knew our Father would listen to anyone who comes in the name of Jesus. But we should thank God for St Patrick; rejoicing to learn from a brother who believed the same risen Lord Jesus in whom we trust and preached the same Gospel that we preach.

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