Patrick of Berniae

Patrick of Berniae

We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day earlier this week. This is one of those sort of second rate holidays in this country: we wear green, in some places we have a parade, and we eat things like Irish stew or shepherd’s pie or soda bread—we celebrate all things Irish, basically—but we do not really know much about it other than that. But St. Patrick’s Day was originally a commemoration of the life and death of Patrick of Berniae, who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. He is an interesting figure.

Patrick had a very religious upbringing. He, however, was not particularly devout; as a young man, he practically renounced his faith. But when he was 16, while out working in his father’s field in Roman Britain, Irish militia raided the land. He was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland for 6 years as a herdsman. During that time, his faith grew, and he prayed daily. One day, he escaped by stowing away on a ship, traveling more than 200 miles home. He eventually became a Bishop in the church. In the latter half of his life, Patrick became a missionary to the land in which he had been a slave.

One legend states that Patrick relied on a simple illustration to teach the doctrine of the Trinity or Godhead, the Father, Son, and Spirit as one entity: he used a shamrock, or 3-leaf clover, to explain the nature of God. Each leaf is separate and distinct, yet part of a whole. By making that simple comparison, he persuaded many. Thus, Saint Patrick’s Day is supposed to be a celebration both of the life of Patrick himself and of the birth of Christianity in Ireland.

We would, no doubt, disagree with much of what Patrick taught. But I think we have to admire his success. He faced a great deal of opposition, being imprisoned and beaten at times. Ireland was a field where others had tried and failed.

We are not likely to be responsible for bringing Christianity to a country that rejected it for centuries. But we are all similarly responsible for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world around us: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:18-20).

This mission was given to every follower of Jesus, not just to preachers or missionaries. It belongs to the whole church and to each one of us individually. And it is not optional—if you belong to God’s family, then this mission is mandatory.

The Greek verb translated “go” here is actually not a command, but a present participle. It would more literally be translated “going.” In other words, we aren’t commanded to travel the world. In fact, the only imperative in these verses is “make disciples.” Essentially, Jesus says, “Wherever you are going, make disciples.” No matter who we are or where we are, we can do that; we must do that. We ought to share the gospel of Christ with those around us.

That said, although we have the same faith in Jesus and the same responsibility to share it, we don’t always do that in the same way. Some of us might be most comfortable with an intellectual approach, where we use reason and logic to persuade others. That’s essentially what Patrick did with the polytheists of Ireland. I think of how Peter encourages us to prepare for such opportunities, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).

Others of us might use the invitational approach. Think about Phillip in John 1: he doesn’t argue with Nathaniel or give a reasoned defense of Jesus. He simply says, come and see. We can all make an effort to invite friends or relatives to church with us.

Or we might consider the interpersonal approach, telling others about the difference the Lord has made in our own lives. Paul does something like this in Acts 22, recounting his life both before and after he came to faith in Jesus. Sharing our own story is an essential part of sharing our faith.

This is difficult, and sometimes it is hard to see results. Some of us have probably been practicing one or all of these methods without success. Jesus warned us that not every heart is fertile soil. But our responsibility is to keep planting the seed to the best of our ability. Let’s all continue to practice these methods of spreading the good news, whichever suits our talents and the situation best.

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