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Sermon for the Feast of Saint Aidan
Why St. Aidan? For Christians in America, especially coming out of Protestantism, it is easy to ask why we’d name our church after anyone but Jesus! And, indeed, he is our only hope in life or death, our only intercessor and savior. But, we have a whole history of the Church, and people in it who have gone to many places and done many things, imperfectly and fallibly, but with the humble willingness to obey the mandate of the gospel regardless of what it cost, trusting that Jesus would use even weak efforts to accomplish his work. Often their specific lives or experiences speak to the church at different times, to inspire, to inform, to challenge, and to guide. That’s why St. Aidan.
Aidan was a monk at a small but very influential monastery on the small (very small) island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland. This monastery was begun in 563 by an Irish monk and his followers, St. Columba. They formed it as a base to send missionaries into Scotland, to evangelize the pagan Picts. They were immensely successful. In the meantime, the Anglo-Saxons had conquered what we now call England, setting up kingdoms. One of these kingdoms, Northumbria, was in need. A man named Oswald came to power in Northumbria, a Christian, who recognized that there was no church in his kingdom, and desired to see his people embrace the gospel. So he sent to Iona, and asked for a bishop to establish the faith in 635AD. What we get is a somewhat idealized portrait of Aidan, but what shines through is that his life was aimed at proclaiming the Gospel, not just in words but in deeds, and so reflects what St. Paul also exemplified, when he says in 1 Cor. 9: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”
And so, Aidan was sent, known for his “outstanding gentleness, holiness, and moderation.” He was not the first sent. No, first the monastery sent someone else, a man of “austere disposition.” This person had no success, because he seems to have mixed in his preaching of the gospel an expectation of holy living or understanding wholly unreasonable of the new Christian. Embracing the gospel results in holier lives, yes, but not without time, and we must never rush those struggles. As Isaiah tells us of God, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” This other missionary did, and so ended up returning and saying the English people were unsaveable!
It is not so. From the beginning, one of core values has been that rooted here, we are called to proclaim the gospel, not to the people we wish God had given us, but to those he has given us. As Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.” Aidan understood this, and in the council trying to decide what to do after the failed missionary effort, Aidan spoke: “Brother, it seems to me that were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.” The rest then knew, Aidan was the one to be sent. Likewise, here is where we have been sent: Spokane, South hill, East Central, West Central, North Central, Valley, Cheney; these are the people we’ve been given to proclaim the Gospel to. We love these people, because God first loved us.
As Paul was servant to all, so Aidan sought to be, and so ought we to strive for, and this is rooted in understanding that all people matter. Aidan traveled all over, and tried to stop and speak to everyone he met. Why? To the unbeliever he urged them to come to Christ, and to the Christian he encouraged them. When given gifts of money, he didn’t hoard them, but gave them to the people he met, especially the poor. Or, often, he would purchase slaves, still quite a common practice in those days, but in order to immediately free them, liberating them from physical bondage so that they would then be open to receive Christ and be freed from spiritual bondage as well. This was not done because he could gain anything from them other than what St. Paul sought, which was to “do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
Aidan also had a courage I frankly find far too sparse in the church today, to speak the truth. We are told that “The highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught.” Here was not the cheap grace that says the gospel makes no demands, but rather the recognition that the gospel in a certain sense demands everything from us, a complete surrender of our pretensions, pride, ego, and will to that of God. There was no pandering from Aidan. He never offered gifts to the powerful, other than the food of hospitality. He loved the rich and powerful so much that he spoke the truth to them: “If wealthy people did wrong, he never kept silent out of respect or fear, but corrected them outspokenly.” There is no partisan culture warrior here, no megachurch endorsement, no expectation that powerful people will save a nation. No, there was a man humble enough before God, and loving his fellow man enough to correct or encourage all of them, as needed, regardless of worldly status.
When we began this church planting effort a few years ago, I had already long before decided if I planted a church, Aidan would be its patron. This little known medieval saint had captured my imagination by going to a place with few to aid him, proclaiming the Gospel to the people with discretion and mercy, and living out the faith with the express vision to privilege no one, but to give to each person what they needed, whether lifting up the lowly, or correcting the high and mighty.
In other words, Aidan walked in faith, as we must. None of this was really Aidan’s work alone, but Christ at work in and through him. He could practice what he preached because he knew that what mattered wasn’t who you know, or the wealth or influence you have, but that Christ saves us by his complete self-giving. Because of what Christ has done, we must necessarily demonstrate the gospel in our words and in our lives to all the people the Lord brings us. Because of what Christ did and does we can give freely of what he has given us, because we know we can’t take it with us. We can speak the truth, not to appeal to our like-minded friends or only when convenient, but whenever it is necessary. We can walk in faith, which is none other than the full laying of our lives down for each other and the world because Christ laid down his life for ours.
Jesus did this definitively, but the life of St. Aidan gives some precise contours, a concrete example of what the vision of this church is, of what we who are in Christ strive to be: to proclaim in this place the Gospel unvarnished, to all people the way they need to hear it, and by practicing the gospel life as well as speaking it. May we strive to meet this vision, in Christ, just as Aidan did. Amen.
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