Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It may come as a shock to you, but St. Patrick was not Irish. He was British, and a citizen of the crumbling Roman Empire. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon, but Patrick rejected his family’s faith. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates. He was sold into slavery to a cruel master who left him cold, hungry and alone. Patrick spent his days tending to pigs and flocks of sheep in the wilderness. This gave the young slave time to think about spiritual things. He started getting up early to pray, and, before long, it was what he lived for. The Holy Spirit was moving in his heart, showing him his sin and calling him to a deep love for God and people. After he had endured six years as a slave in Ireland, God sent Patrick a vision urging him to escape and make a run for it. Amazingly, he made the 200 mile journey to the coast and found a ship to take him back home.
Patrick hugged his parents and settled back into British life. But he didn’t settle long. After a few years, he had a dream in which the people of Ireland begged Patrick to return and live among them. Patrick told his parents he was going back to Ireland. His parents find this inconceivable. Why would Patrick go back to the very people who had enslaved him? Why give any more time to those who stole six years of his life? What could have possibly motivated him? And what can we learn about it?
What Motivated Patrick?
Patrick went to France where became a monk, and eventually a priest. He asked repeatedly to be sent to Ireland and was denied. Decades past, but Patrick persisted in requesting to go to Ireland. Finally, after waiting, praying and petitioning for most of his life, at the age of 60, Patrick was consecrated as Bishop and sent to Ireland in 432 AD.
When Patrick finally went, he went as a missionary to the lost, not really as a Bishop to Ireland’s small Christian community. In years to come Patrick would face ridicule from church leaders who did not appreciate his ministry as well as persecution and hardship from pagan leaders who sometimes threw him in jail. But Patrick persevered. He stayed and served for over thirty years until his death. Patrick traveled throughout the island and tirelessly preached the Gospel to eager ears. He made countless converts, established hundreds of Churches, recruited clergy from France and Britain, and founded many monastic communities. Thanks to Patrick’s influence, the Irish Christians — known as the Celtic Church — led the way in evangelising Europe for a hundred years following his death. By the end of his life, Patrick could write, “In Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God.”
So what motivated this evangelistic Zeal? It was our Gospel text which was Patrick’s main motivation. Patrick tells us in his own words. “The one and only purpose I had in going back to the people from whom I had earlier escaped was the gospel and the promises of God,” he writes. Patrick said that he “travelled everywhere” to preach and baptise because he had “sword to God to teach the nations.” He was convinced that “believers will come from the whole world.” Patrick was committed to reaching the lost “in the farthest ends of the Earth.” And in the 400s AD, Ireland was the farthest ends of the Earth.
Our Great Commission
Are you thankful that someone obeyed God and preached the gospel to you? I am. Without God, my life would be totally different. Imagine what life would be like for you. Even more, imagine what the country of Ireland would be like if the gospel was never reached there. So, when you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, remember what it is all about, and that is “the Gospel and the promises of God”. Jesus gives his followers some tasks, tasks which will spread his Almighty authority to over the world. The first is to make disciples. Jesus called the fishermen by the sea of Galilee, and trained them up as ‘learners’, imitating his way of life and coming little by little to understand his Gospel-message. We have the responsibility of calling men, women and children to follow Jesus, and training them to understand and follow his message and his way. Evangelism—announcing God’s good news, focused on Jesus, to bring people to faith and obedience—remains central to the way in which Jesus’ authority is brought to bear on the world. He doesn’t give you an option here. This isn’t the great suggestion.
The second task is to baptise them. Baptism is not an optional extra for followers of Jesus. Jesus himself linked baptism to his own death. Baptism buries us in the death of Jesus. The baptismal font is the tomb in which we are buried with Christ. It’s the only thing you can do with the dead. Give them a decent burial. God buries the sinner in the death of Jesus in the water of Baptism. In His Baptism, Jesus joined Himself to us in our death; in our Baptism we are joined to Jesus in His death. We are united with Christ in His death and His life. We are crucified with Christ, His body is our body.
The third thing they must do is to teach. The Christian faith is handed down from one generation to the next, from one believer to another, from the Church in its ongoing mission to disciple all the nations by baptising and teaching. This is how the Christian faith is handed on and came to us – discipling, that is, baptising and teaching. This task remains unfinished in our own day. If Christians around the world gave as much energy to it as they do to learning so many other things, worthy in themselves but none so important as this, we would make more headway with the gospel than we usually seem to do.
Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller a quirky magic act, is a avowed atheist and fairly outspoken about it. He incorporates his atheism into his act and is pretty merciless in his criticism of religion in general and Christianity in particular. But an incident after one of his shows really rattled him, and he made a little video about it the next morning. Apparently, a man came up to Penn Jillette after a show and handed him one of those little pocket Bibles the Gideon’s distribute – Psalms and the New Testament. All the man said was something like, “This is very important to me and something I believe very deeply, and I think you should take another look at it for yourself.” He wasn’t aggressive or hostile, just very honest and plain, and it really impressed Penn Jillette, the atheist. Penn said this in his video:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytise. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, and you think, ‘Well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward’… How much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize?” This is coming for a die-hard atheist. Does it make you think? It sure made me think, long and hard. And wonder whether I do, in an apathetic sort of way, hate my neighbour. It made me repent too. “How much do you have to hate someone not to share the gospel with them?”
But Jesus never leaves people simply with a list of commands to keep. The three instructions he has given are held in place by the promises at the beginning and end of the passage. The reason we are to do these things is because he already possesses all authority; the promise which sustains us in the task is that he is with us always and for ever. He is Emmanuel. God-with-us. There is no greater personal promise than that. The presence and the authority of Jesus are specifically attached to his command to fulfil the Great Commission. Christ says I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Your work, your life, not matter how lonely it may seem at times, no matter how unnoticed, or how thankless it may be – it is a work in which Christ our Lord is with you. He has said so – right there in the text. He doesn’t leave you or forsake you. He does not depart from his Church but is always involved with it… and He has all authority. Jesus holds “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He received it from the Father. He’s “the man in charge.” With His authority, He authorises His Church to make disciples of all the nations, as many as He died for, everyone without exception. Disciples are made by baptising and teaching. In this disciple-making, Jesus is present – “Behold, I am with you always.” So, when you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, remember what it is all about, and that is “the Gospel and the promises of God.”
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.