Local News: This week, Mission Mississippi is hosting another round of Two and Two Restaurant days. This week's newsletter explains: "On the 20th of each month participating restaurants in the Jackson are offering a 20% discount for lunch or dinner to racially diverse groups." These days "are designed to encourage people of different races to develop new relationships and/or strengthen existing ones." Participating restaurants include Bravo!, Broad Street Baking Co. & Cafe', High noon Cafe', Koinonia Coffee House, Sal & Mookies, and Two Sisters Kitchen. For more information, visit http://www.missionmississippi.org.
“O Almighty God, who hast compassed us about with so great a cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of thy servant [Patrick}, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at length, through thy mercy, we may with him attain to thine eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, who liveth and reigneth with the and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
—Collect of a Saint, p. 198 Book of Common Prayer (1979)
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a day set aside to honor the early church saint who, among other things, helped bring the Christian faith to Ireland. In Patrick’s lifetime, Ireland went passed from being a “pre-Christian” nation to a Christian nation. In his inaugural address at Cambridge University in 1954, C.S. Lewis discussed the three stages of religious development in Europe: the pre-Christian, the Christian, and the post-Christian.
Of course, when Ireland (and the rest of Europe) was “Christianized”, this doesn’t mean that every individual converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and now when we speak of Europe as being “post-Christian”, this doesn’t mean that the kingdom of God is utterly absent from modern-day Europe.
This past week, the Roman Catholic Church selected a new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Cardinal from Argentina, who will go by Pope Francis, named for St. Franic of Assissi. In so doing, the papal conclave chose the first non-European pope in over a thousand years. The media’s coverage of the new papacy has heavily focused on Pope Francis’ ethnicity: “First Latin American pope elected.” Even U.S. President Barack Obama sent congratulations to Pope Francis, emphasizing how his election to this prestigious position illustrates the “strength and vitality” of this region of the world, i.e. the Americas.
Of course, it’s easy to process all this and walk away feeling both encouraged and discouraged: encouraged that Christianity is growing in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but discouraged that it’s losing so much of its influence in Europe and North America. Thanking back to St. Patrick, it’s easy to think that his work in helping bring Christianity into unreached parts of Europe has been undone, or was done in vain. We mustn’t think that for several reasons:
1. God has people reserved for himself and so we mustn’t think that the situation is bleaker than it is. Even in secular Europe, people are coming to know Christ as their Savior. In ancient Israel, Elijah at one point thought he was literally the last man who hadn’t caved in and worshipped Baal. To his surprise, God reassured him, “I’ve reserved for myself 7,000 people who’ve never bowed the knee to Baal.” In telling Elijah this, God reasserted that he was in control. When God determined to preserve people from Baal worship, they would be preserved.
2. We mustn’t think that “success” is what God is primarily concerned about, and it’s certainly not what makes a saint a saint. Patrick’s commendable work was that he helped spread the gospel throughout Ireland. The “results”—how many people in fact came to faith—was nothing Patrick had any control over, and so the increasing secularization of Europe today doesn’t in any way invalidate his work. Similarly, those involved in trying to re-evangelize Europe must take heart that as they plant seeds, God is the one who causes growth. God promises in Scripture that his Word will never return to him void, but will always accomplish what he intends to accomplish. It isn’t believing this as his Word is ignored in some aspects of European culture; it requires faith.
3. We live in a fallen world, and that is reality until Christ returns. In some ways, things are getting better, in some ways things are getting worse, and so we should remember Ecclesiastes’ reminder: “There is nothing new under the sun.” If we despair because of Europe’s “post-Christian” status, let us remember that even in the “good old days” there was much hypocrisy and cultural Christianity, quite detached from real discipleship. The history of the church and of civilization tends to repeat itself, so just because Europe is in a decline right now doesn’t mean it must be permanent; there have been other declines and other revivals. Let’s not be historically shortsighted.
Finally, let us pray for the nations, both the ones that are just embracing the Christian faith, as well as the ones who appear to be turning away from it. Even in Latin America, a brand of Christianity that is merely cultural appears to be most prevalent. It was reported this week that even in Pope Francis’ homeland of Argentina, while 2/3 of the people profess Roman Catholicism, only 10% attend Mass regularly. There’s reason to celebrate a Latin American being selected to Western Christianity’s highest-ranking leadership position, but we mustn’t get carried away. It’s impossible to know whether we’re approaching a period of further decline or rejuvenation. Whichever the case, Christ remains the Lord, the gospel remains true, and the gates of hell will not prevail against his assembly. May God raise up workers like St. Patrick of old to carry on the work in our era.