In this week’s blog, I would like to take you back in time almost 1500 years to the wild and windy island of Hibernia, to listen to the story of an unsuspecting group of Christians who, through radical obedience and incredible bravery, reached an entire continent with the Gospel.
Hibernia, as it was known to the Roman world, or as we would call it, Ireland, became an incredibly significant centre for Christian mission in the 6th and 7th Centuries AD. Under Roman rule, the Gospel had travelled from its epicentre at Jerusalem to the edges of the empire, including the north of Britain and as far west as Ireland. But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD, as the Roman garrisons retreated from across Europe so did the rule of law and the message of Christianity. In the ruins of Roman rule, warring tribes across Europe fought for supremacy and the message of the Gospel, to accept the Lordship of Christ and to love your neighbour as yourself, in many places ceased advancing and, in its place, various forms of pagan worship gained influence.
However, on the wild island of Hibernia there remained a Christian stronghold. In the Celtic monasteries established there, monks dedicated themselves to the Scriptures and to serving the communities they were based in. Very often we think of monasteries as walled castles to keep the world out. And at different times and in different places this was true. But in the case of Hibernia, many of these churches were key community centres that served as hospitals, shelters for the poor, and schools for academic study. Whilst the Gospel in these communities thrived under the stewardship of these churches, there was great concern at what was taking place across the sea in the rest of the British Isles and Europe. Though this phrase was not around at the time, I do wonder whether these disciples of Jesus looked out to a continent that had once been so influenced by the teachings of Jesus being overtaken by pagan practices, and thinking they were living in a post-Christian landscape.
Obviously, Church history, like any history, is not simple or the story of a perfect people never putting a foot wrong. It was not necessarily a good thing for the Christian faith to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, in fact it did a lot of harm to the integrity of the Church. However, there are moments in history when a person or people rise above the situation and achieve something incredible! And this was just such a moment on the Island of Hibernia. As the influence of the Gospel waned across Europe, unsatisfied with keeping the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection to themselves, and so moved by compassion for the lost souls across the sea, these brave disciples, wilded by the untamed landscape of their home, made plans to see an entire continent reached with the love of God. They would follow in the footsteps of the New Testament believers and take the Gospel from one end of the earth (and to many, Ireland did seem like the end of the earth) to the other end, wherever that may be.
Now in our modern way of thinking, we might consider all the practicalities that this might require – the right kind of ship to weather the seas, maps with a detailed route and outreach strategy, and provisions for a prolonged journey at sea. All of these and many more things we might think about are not only wise but completely legitimate. However, these 6th and 7th Century monks spent far more time in spiritual training, learning the Scriptures, strengthening their spirits in prayer, and practicing how to communicate the Gospel in their own and other languages. Then, when a company of monks was deemed ready to go on a mission, they would gather at the seashore where their entire community would come out to pray for them. Their priest would lay hands on them, and they would pack their provisions into a seagoing vessel known as a coracle.
Coracles were small boats common to the fishing communities of Ireland and Wales, very often no larger than a dingy, made from some kind of woven wood and a waterproof covering, such as tanned animal hides. Into these small crafts disciples of Jesus would climb, ready to take everything that they had received from the Lord and give it away to those they came across. From the coasts of Ireland, these Celtic Christians travelled to the rest of the British Isles, to Europe, and there is even evidence to suggest that they made it as far west as Iceland! There are even stories of monks so assured of God’s goodness and his love for the world, that when they set off in their coracle, they refused to take an oar! The priest praying for them would simply say, “may the tides of God’s love guide you.”
Obviously I am not advocating that you go and get a coracle this week and push it off from Penarth marina just to see where you end up. If All Nations Church gets a call from the coastguard because they have picked someone up in the Bristol Channel, we could be in trouble for wasting RNLI time! But as we have come to the end of our “Adventures in Acts” series and looking to the adventures ahead, it’s worth asking what coracle has the Lord already asked you to hop into? What is that act of obedience, that step of faith that has got your heart racing and you just need to go for it? What is that dream that you’ve pushed aside that God won’t let you forget? Maybe it is time for a little bit of coracle faith.
You see, these brave Christians were able to get into these tiny coracles because they realised that playing their part in God’s mission had nothing to do with their education, economic standing, or personal skillset; they didn’t need to have a huge sea-going craft full of provisions; they realised that everything they needed was already within them.
You see, as followers of Jesus there is a victory he has ALREADY won for us and a reality that he has ALREADY worked in us at the cross, where he died in our place and took the punishment for our sins, ensuring our forgiveness and bringing us back into relationship with God, even coming to live within us in the person of the Holy Spirit. The one who hovered over creation and ignited the stars in the beginning; the one who waited by the grave for 3 days and then raised Jesus from the dead now lives in us. In other words, every believer is far bigger on the inside than anything they will ever face in this life. If God is in us and for us, who could be against us? We need never worry about anything again.
This is the REST that Jesus offers humanity, but it is not meant to be RESTRICTED to us. The blueprint of how God wants to transform the world around you, is the work that he has already done within you. So in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to worry about the things that we need. This is not simply so that we wouldn’t feel anxious, although God doesn’t want us anxious, but he wants to set you free from worry so that you can focus on the mission he’s given you. So he says look at the lilies of the field that your heavenly Father dresses and the birds of the air that your heavenly Father feeds, how much more precious are you and so how much more will your heavenly Father clothe and feed you? In this way, we realise that the work of Jesus, by bringing us into relationship with the Father and coming to live in us by the person of the Holy Spirit, makes us bigger on the inside than any need we will ever face on the outside, and therefore you can be assured when you seek first God’s Kingdom, your heavenly Father will take care of everything you need. That’s the promise.
So, what is that coracle that God has asked you to get into? What is the dream God’s given you? What situation has God put you in to bring about his love, peace, healing, joy, kindness, power that he has freely given you? You are far bigger on the inside than any challenge you will face. Simply ask the Lord to help you give away what you have freely received in him. Then let the tides of his love carry you.