I will never forget being in Sydney in March many years ago and being part of a huge green party. A city on the other side of the world from Ireland was awash with shamrocks and Guinness hats.
St Patrick’s Day is a national holiday in Ireland and a celebration famous across the globe. But many people probably know a lot less about the person the day remembers.
St Patrick was not actually Irish. He grew up in Roman Britain in the 5th Century. We don’t know a lot of details about his early life but he probably lived in the region of Cumbria. Aged 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland.
For 6 years he was forced to work as a slave looking after livestock. Despite the hardship, in his autobiography Confessions he writes about the significance of this time in his spiritual development. His family were Christian but at the time he was not a believer. But during his time of forced labour, he spent time reflecting and praying and came closer to God.
After 6 years, inspired by a dream, he managed to escape his slave-masters. He travelled to coast and persuaded a ship to carry him to Britain. Now in his early 20s, he returned home.
He committed to studying Christianity and became ordained as a Priest. He experienced a vision of the voices of Irish people calling him to return:
“We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Return to Ireland
Patrick decided to return to Ireland as a missionary. In a country dominated at that time by paganism and druidism, many did not accept him or welcome his message. As a foreigner too he faced insult, ridicule and threats. He refused to accept gifts from kings which left him without protection and he was imprisoned on more than one occasion.
But alongside these hardships, many responded to his message of Christ. He baptised thousands of people, established churches and ordained countless priests and founded many monasteries. His impact on the whole country was profound.
Against the grain
Reading about him this morning, I was struck by his decision to return to a foreign country where he had previously experienced such difficulty and trauma. It is an example of the power of the gospel to motivate people to do what is counter-intuitive and to go against the grain of what you would normally expect.
It reminded me of others who have taken radical decisions for their faith. Of Martin Luther King’s decision to turn down safer job offers from Northern US universities and return to Alabama as a pastor. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to leave an academic job in New York and return to Germany in 1939 to join the opposition to Hitler.
Both men would die aged 39 because of decisions they made due to their faith. But, like Patrick, their influence has been immense.
It also makes me reflect on my own journey. Whilst I have made plenty of mistakes, I have never regretted the risks I have taken in seeking to follow Jesus. When I look back, the decisions most questioned by others and most risky, have also proved to be the most rewarding and valuable.
Ultimately, our true beliefs are shown in our actions and concrete decisions. Beliefs only become faith when we put them into practice.
The story of St Patrick challenges me about how I act towards those I find difficult. How seriously do I take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
It is easy to be kind and generous to those we like. But that kind of love leaves the status quo unchanged. It takes no risk and does not transform situations. Being a child of God means loving others in the way God does.
We take risks when we chose to reach out to those who are difficult to help. Or when we show concern to those we owe no commitment. Or when we are kind to those who actually dislike us. This kind of love shakes things up and disrupts the way things are.
This is the kind of love God offers us all through Jesus. It is called grace: unearned love, forgiveness and acceptance. It can transform our deepest hurts, redeem the worst situations and inspire us to show that kind of love to others. Freely we have received and freely we can give.
This is the good news that transformed Patrick’s life when he was a teenage slave. And it can do the same for us today.
Happy St Patrick’s Day!