Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick Saves Western Civilization

Surely you realized what I would write about today!

It’s St. Patrick’s Day.

Patrick is one of history’s most beloved and influential figures.

Thomas Cahill claims that he saved Western Civilization by evangelizing the Irish.

Maybe so, but Patrick’s contemporaries would have laughed out loud.

He was a poorly educated victim of the Irish slave trade, under the constant suspicion of Church authorities in Britain, and was known for little more than wondering around the villages of Ireland praying for sick people and starting churches.

The greatness of Patrick consists in the bold step he took to preach the gospel outside the network of educated, Latin -speaking middle and upper classes of Europe. Not since Jesus had anyone purposefully visited the “fly-over” zones of the world to share the gospel. There were churches in Rome, Constantinople, Ephesus, Alexander, and so forth. Wherever people could read and discuss great ideas, the gospel seem to do well. Christians were an educated, literary people – people of the Book. The lower classes of people were “pagano,” or “bumpkins.”

The Irish were the worse bumpkins of all. Violent, immoral, unlettered, desperately poor, and steeped in a mystical form of nature worship called Druidism; they were not a people that church leaders thought about evangelizing.

It makes me think about our modern church planting movement. Have you noticed that most of our “church planters” are burdened for the upwardly mobile, cool, well educated and well dressed people of the great cities? Well that’s the way it was in Patrick’s’ day too.

However, Patrick insisted that he had a call. God had given him a vision to return to the place where he had once been a slave.

It was a dangerous mission. It was a mission that the rest of the church did not esteem.

He went anyway.

We love Patrick because he was like Jesus. He voluntarily went into a world no one else wanted to visit. He loved people that no one else loved.

There is a phrase in the Apostle’s Creed that talks about that. It’s when we say, “He descended into Hell.”

Evangelical Christians often have difficulty with that phrase. It doesn’t sound right. It sounds like Jesus went somewhere to be punished.

Our problem with the phrase is language. There is more than one word for “Hell” in Greek.

“Sheol” is indeed the place of punishment.

However, “Hades” means the abode of the dead.

The Apostles Creed only insists that we believe that Jesus descended into the place of the dead. I believe it means more than that, but the creed doesn’t insist that a Christian believe what I do about Christ’s descent into Hell.

A long time ago, God looked down from Heaven and decided to become a man. He decided to come into our mess. He didn't descend into Caesar's palace. He didn't descend into the Sanhedrin. He didn't descend into the academy in Athens. He descended into Hell.

First, Christ descended into an animal stall, a cave filled with nasty straw and horse manure. Down, down, he kept going into humiliation. He kept going all the way to the bottom of human civilization, becoming socially marginalized, and finally even criminalized.

Christ ended his life covered in spit. He was naked, humiliated, abandoned, and rejected: like a lamb led to slaughter.

Then he descended even further, into the mockery of demons and fallen angels, down where the slimy, underground creatures of death, disease and those alienated from God live; down into an unfathomable and unmentionable horror beyond all human imagination.

I do not know exactly what happened then. All I know is that on the third day, He rose again with the shout: "I have in my hands the keys to death, Hell and the grave."

It was then that Christ was able to say, these signs shall follow them that believe, "in my name you will cast out devils".

What had happened?

St. Paul said that He who ascended was the same one as He who had descended. And because he descended and then ascended, He led our captors into captivity and then gave gifts unto men: apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists.

Jesus gave birth to a people who can survive, thrive and minister the saving gospel of Jesus in the midst of Hell.

David had once said, If I make my bed in Hell thou art there!

Hell can't keep God out. He descended into Hell. Are you in Hell? God is there too.

Anytime we feel as though we are sinking into Hell, we must remember that God knows what Hell looks like and where it is.

We may indeed go through Hell. However, we are attached to the One who knows how to get out of Hell. He once entered Hell of his own volition. Then, of his own volition, He rose up, and as he arose, He carried upon His shoulders all who believe in Him. Since he has ascended to Heavenly places, so have we.

That’s what Patrick knew as he sailed toward the Irish coast. He was already free of Hell and therefore, wherever he went, Hell would not survive.

Like his Lord, Patrick went to Ireland to set people free from the power of Hell.

When he arrived, there were no Christians. When he died, he left a vibrant Christian church that would soon pour out missionaries and teachers into all of Europe, and in time, into North America and around the world.

If you can’t be in Ireland today, at least take a moment to wish you were. It will be craze there and many things will be done that St. Patrick would not have liked! Nonetheless, congratulations to all Irishmen everywhere –and to their scattered children across the world who have -- or who claim to have roots there.

Happy St. Patrick’s’ Day!

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