Sermon in Belfast Cathedral
Sunday 19 March 2000 at 11.00am
I am so glad to return to Belfast. I was last here in 1994, and I sense in this city, and in the Province as a whole, a renewed sense of hope and expectation about the future. There have been times in the past thirty years when it seemed as though darkness had fallen and no-one was sure whether daylight would return. Now, there is no doubt about the daylight, even if at the moment, it has clouded over! I am quite sure that the perseverance and courage of all involved will see you through to a long-lasting peace and justice for all.
And may I say how sad I and many others were to hear a few days ago of the current threat to the Harland and Wolff shipyard and of the hundreds of people who are now worrying about their employment future. Its closure would, I know, be a serious blow to this city, and I hope that all those who have power and influence will use it on behalf of all the people who will be affected. The ship-building industry has a long and distinguished past here, of which you can be justly proud. I hope it has an equally distinguished future.
This weekend I have felt I have been part of a celebration- a celebration of faith as the Church of Ireland has thanked God for the past and is seeking a renewed vision for the future. Yesterday in Armagh at an excellent conference, we thought of the challenges facing your Church and all Churches in a rapidly changing world. Now today, I am delighted to join you in this beautiful cathedral as we pray and praise God, and break bread together, the visible sign of God's continuing presence amongst us.
With us today is a group of children from Knockbreda Primary School, with whom I had an exchange of letters last year. I am so glad to see them and meet them! It was actually Mark Miskimmin who wrote to me [I don't know if he is here this morning], but he wanted to know what I thought was the most important event in the last 100 years. Well, like me, Mark is very keen on football and rugby, so I was tempted to say Arsenal winning the double, but then I thought about that wonderful American scientist, Jonas Edward Salk, who discovered a vaccine against polio and has thus saved the lives of millions of children. And when you think about it, so many of the great advances have been to make a better life for our children. We thank God for such progress, and recognise we all have a common responsibility to the young people of the world, who are so central to our present life, but also to the future. So, it is these children as much as anyone who must catch a glimpse of the hope and promise which the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings to this and every age; and those of us who are older have a great opportunity to help them to see that this Church we love is a vehicle for bringing good news to the people of this and every land.
But let's turn to this amazing person of St Patrick whose day we celebrated on Friday. Of course, the figure of St Patrick is shrouded in mystery and myth. We probably all know stories about the expulsion of snakes, or the symbolism of the shamrock; we may even want to believe that Patrick single-handedly converted the whole of Ireland - no mean task these days! But actually the truth of St Patrick holds enormous relevance for us today. Although he eventually became a bishop, there is so much in his life that helps us all as we seek to live our lives more fully in Christ. I want to focus on three things - calling, confidence, and commitment.
Calling. Jesus called people to follow him, and in the reading from the Gospel we just heard, he reminded them of what that calling means. 'Take up your cross and follow me' he said. That is a tough call and, naturally, we shrink from it. But what Jesus is asking us to do is to give ourselves wholly to the task.
And St Patrick understood that. In that great hymn which is traditionally known as St Patrick's Breastplate, we get the vision of the whole of creation called into the service of Christ, and Christ's presence in every corner of the world.
What a powerful image. No matter who you are, what your background is, how well-educated you are, Christ wants you to give yourself freely in his service. No matter what our weaknesses are, what the nature of the cross that we each bear, God wants us, and will use us for the good of his Kingdom.
That was Patrick's experience. He began his life in Ireland literally as a nobody, a slave brought over from mainland Britain to look after sheep for a local warlord in Antrim. There can have been little going for him. He was alone on the hills, poorly clothed and hungry. He had never been particularly religious, yet in the midst of his suffering, he began to pray. Why, who knows? In his own words, he says he didn't really believe in God, and he found priests foolish.
But in his loneliness, he began to seek God's company instead. 'Tending flocks was my daily work and I would pray constantly in daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more - and faith grew and the Spirit was roused …' At the end of some years in slavery, it is said that he heard a mysterious voice say to him, 'Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home'. This was the beginning of Patrick's journey, a rough, ill-educated slave boy, who became priest and bishop, and father-figure of a great nation.
And how like the calling of Abraham, about whom we heard in our first reading, that story is. Do you remember how God said to him, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you . I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you'.
But, God's promises are often like that. 'Come what may, I will always be with you, I will always love you.' That is God's promise to us and this leads into my second point - it gives us confidence, which both Abraham and Patrick shared.
Consider Patrick's amazing career. It is an astonishing adventure story, which takes him aboard ship, probably to Europe, through a continent ravaged by tribal wars and devastated by hungry marauders from Germany. The ship's crew and the cargo of hunting dogs come close to exhaustion and starvation. Patrick is taunted, 'How about it Christian? You say your God is great and all-powerful, so why can't you pray for us? We're starving to death, and there's little chance of our ever seeing a living soul.'
Patrick in his simple, rough-hewn Latin responds, 'From the bottom of your heart turn trustingly to the Lord my God, for nothing is impossible to him.'
Well, as you might guess, the story has a happy ending, for at the moment the hungry sailors give in, with an 'I'll try anything once' sort of response, a herd of wild pigs runs up the road towards them.
The story may indeed be legend, but it illustrates the truth by which this new pilgrim lived his life. And he was always aware of the risks he took, preaching as he was to an untamed people: 'Everyday I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved - whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.'
It is a wonderful example of faith which we can hold before us. We are only too conscious of the huge challenges to the Gospel in the world today. Of course, for many of us, thank God, it is rarely a matter of life or death, though for some it is. The tragedies and disasters which have faced the people of this Province have been a severe test of your faith. But the confidence in God's good purposes which have been shown by so many Christians on all sides of the political divide, not least in the Church of Ireland, have helped to bring us all to new hope and the promise of a new life.
For those of us who have faced less severe tests, the temptation, perhaps, is to complacency; complacency - or being too comfortable - can so easily take the edge off our faith. Some things we see in the Church today seem to suggest more faith in ourselves than in God. We begin, almost without realising it, to become inward-looking and defensive, protecting our position, and what we hold dear rather than having confidence in the God who is always gracious and loving, no matter how weak and disobedient we may be.
One man who came to know the constant love and guidance of God was Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador almost exactly twenty years ago. In one of his sermons, he reflected on Abraham's call:
'God has eternity before him. Only God has security. It is for us to follow humbly wherever God wants to lead, and blessed are those who stay faithful to the ways God inspires them to go; and who do not, in order to please others, live with an uneasy conscience in the place where others believe security to be found.'
The third profound element of Patrick's life, which developed out of his open and trusting response to God's call, is his commitment to God's people, and indeed to the whole of creation.
Over the last few years, we have seen a phenomenal growth in interest in what is loosely called 'Celtic Spirituality'. Some of it, I guess, has been a bit over-romanticised, and has not really understood the extraordinary toughness of the life lived by many of these great early saints of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Nevertheless, Celtic Christianity resonates with modern people in extraordinary ways and its truths have a strange relevance. Indeed, Patrick, who himself had been a slave, never lost his horror of slavery, and could truthfully be called the first anti-slavery campaigner.
'It is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most - and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorising they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.'
Within his lifetime or soon after, the slave trade had ended in Ireland. He had had a remarkable effect on the levels of inter-tribal warfare. He sought in many ways to establish more orthodox moral values, and many monasteries and convents were formed. He was not always successful, but he was deeply concerned that Christ-like relationships should exist between all peoples; and in this mission he did not restrict himself to Ireland, but addressed his vision to British leaders, including bishops as well who were haughty and patronising in their response! Irish Christianity was despised, and Patrick, from humble origins and with so little formal education, was of no account to them.
But let me last of all tell you what I particularly like about Patrick. It is that he believed in new possibilities. That with God all things can be made new!
And how important it is for us, today, to share that infectious and bold faith and to seize the opportunities that today brings to make Christ known to all. This strange and mysterious figure who lived so long ago draws for us a picture of Christian vocation which is wonderfully enticing. To know, amidst all the tears and toil of this world, amidst all the beauty and courage, that it is we who are called, each and every one of us into this covenant of love and grace with our God; and that, in entering it with an open heart, conscious of our gifts and frailties, we will be filled with that gift of compassion, hope and love from God which, in turn, we are commissioned to offer to his world.
And that legacy of St Patrick's is worth celebrating.