A reflection on the life of Aidan of Lindisfarne, Abbot-Bishop and Missionary to Northumbria. Delivered on Sunday, August 29 at New Creation Church (Anglican) of Hagerstown, MD. Aidan’s Feast is observed on August 31 in the Church Year, the date of his death.
Commemoration Sunday – Why We’re Doing This
- We’re a church that takes seriously, as the Creeds call it, the Communion of Saints.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1
This leads us, naturally, to love of Christian history and biography. For here, we come to see, in flesh and blood portraits, Jesus’ faithfulness and the outworking of his promise to be with us until the end of the age.
- Taking the Communion of Saints seriously is an antidote to the individualism rampant in the modern church.
For many, the horizon of their faith does not go beyond them and God, this day, and their story. Al Mohler writes:
“When we make this walk of faith about “me,” we forsake the fullness of the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to boil down its glory to a story about ‘I’ and ‘me.” The story of the gospel encompasses in resplendent unity all the people of God, together, as one people. The gospel is God’s story as he, through Christ, made a people for his pleasure. God’s people, therefore, never find themselves alone. The sinner who comes to faith in a hotel room reading a New Testament is not alone. The saint dying as a martyr for the faith does not die alone. The missionary taking the gospel to the far reaches of the globe does not go alone. At the moment of our death…we are not alone. Brothers and sisters, we are never alone!” (The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits, pgs. 165-166)
As we blaze a trail into future, we are not alone! As we see the church under attack from within and without, we are not alone! And we don’t have to make it up as we go. We hold fast to the Faith that has sustained so many before us.
- We’re still working on engaging with the Anglican calendar of commemorations. We’re engaging with it at Wednesday’s Midday Prayer and we want to engage with it here today. Our church loves the whole Church of Jesus!
- I have personally gained so very much from Christian biography and history. I have found mentors and friends there, and I want to share that with you.
O God of the spirits of all flesh, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all you servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear, especially your servant Aidan; and we beseech you that, encouraged by their examples and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be found worthy to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Housekeeping & Basics
Let’s talk about some housekeeping and basics as we get started.
First, I want us to understand that this is not a sermon on Scripture, per se, but more of a reflection on the faithfulness of Jesus as seen in Aidan. And I trust you’ll be able to see how that connects to our readings from Holy Scripture today, even though I won’t address them directly.
Secondly, let’s talk about the basics of Aidan’s life. He was born in Ireland around 590. His name means “little fiery one.” He was sent from the Scottish island of Iona to Northumbria in northern England and died there in 651. In the Church Year, he is commemorated on August 31, the date of his death. He was a Christian monk (abbot, actually), bishop, and missionary. He followed in the footsteps of men like St. Patrick, showing profound commitment to the message of Christ and a willingness to endure a ministry environment that most of us would find intolerable.
Thirdly, let’s touch on Christian monasticism. We look back through our Reformation heritage with some ambivalence towards the monastic movement because of what it became in the late medieval period. The Church of England was right to clean house, shut down the monasteries, and return worship to the people of God. But in Aidan’s time, if you were serious about your faith, you looked to monastic communities that were forming as a refuge in the Faith. These places kept the Faith alive in tumultuous times. They loved the Scriptures – faithfully copying and preserving them for later generations in the practice of illuminated manuscript. They taught the Faith and formed believers. They were not without their blemishes, doctrinally speaking, but neither is the modern church. So, we need to be evenhanded and charitable as we look back on the legacy of monastic Christianity.
Why We Remember Him
Integrity & Humility
Aidan was known by all as a man of integrity and humility. His biographer, the church historian Bede, says this:
Aidan taught the clergy many lessons about the conduct of their lives but above all he left them a most salutary example of abstinence and self-control; and the best recommendation of his teaching to all was that he taught them no other way of life than that which he himself practiced among his fellows. For he neither sought after nor cared for worldly possessions but he rejoiced to hand over at once, to any poor man he met, the gifts which he had received from kings or rich men of the world. He used to travel everywhere, in town and country, not on horseback but on foot, unless compelled by urgent necessity to do otherwise, in order that, as he walked along, whenever he saw people whether rich or poor, he might at once approach them [in behalf of the Christian faith].” (A History of the English People, Book 3, chs. 5,17. As quoted by George Martin in The Celtic Way of Evangelism, pgs. 66-67)
His way of life was consistent with the Gospel he preached.
Love for People
Aidan genuinely loved people. One story is especially moving. Aidan worked closely with the kings of Northumbria, sometimes to their chagrin. Bede relates:
“[King Oswin gave] Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey … . Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse with all its royal trappings to be given to the beggar; for he was most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched. When this action came to the king’s ears, he asked the bishop as they were going in to dine: ‘My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses of other kinds which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specially selected for your personal use?’ The bishop at once answered, ‘What are you saying, Your majesty? Is this foal of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?’” (A History of the English Church and People, Book III, ch. 14)
In this words of J.I. Packer, Aidan knew that in order to reach people, we have to be willing to befriend them. The prerequisite of evangelism is love for people.
Aidan embodied this. In fact, this is probably one of the great reasons for the success of his mission. His mission followed on the heels of another mission – a failed mission! The priest who was sent before him reported that, in so many words, he couldn’t put with the uncivilized people. He couldn’t stomach the fact that they were unconverted, brutal, and sinful people. Aidan replied this way:
“Brother, it seems to me that you 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 instructed them in the word of God.” (A History of the English Church and People by The Venerable Bede, book III, ch. 5)
Now that was a wise approach, but it also demonstrates the patience and affection that Aidan had for people. We must have that love, too, if we are to be successful in our mission.
As always, in the lives of God’s saints, we learn how to die well. Aidan died leaning upon the wall of the local church shortly after the local city of Bamburgh came under attack. One of his later biographers writes, “It was a death which became a soldier of the faith upon his own fit field of battle.” (Baring-Gould, Lives of the Saints)
If nothing else, Aidan is memorable because he stayed at his post. He knew that church planting is, in the words of Archbishop Robert Duncan, not only a call to go, but “a call to stay.” We live in an age where doubt and deconversion are considered virtuous. It is good for us to have heroes in Jesus. It is good to remember so many, including Aidan, who lived, served, and died in the Faith without reservation.
Relevance for Christian Mission Today
A Team Effort
The Celtic approach to evangelism was a team effort, not an individual affair. It consisted in two parts. First, they would raise up monastic communities (Christian communities devoted to Scripture, worship and formation). Second, they would send out apostolic teams (apostolic in the sense of starting a fresh work of evangelism) composed of lay and ordained leaders. Amazingly, the Bishop was the chief evangelist!
George Hunter reflects here:
Most churches still attempt to do evangelism (if they attempt it all) by bringing in a professional or by reaching out as individuals; the Celtic way of team ministry and outreach is seldom tried, but much more promising. Most attempts at evangelism today still emphasize a one-way presentation, rather than the ministry of (two-way) conversation. [Some] have adapted St. Aidan’s conversational approach to people to make it useful to any Christian reaching out. You engage people with a question like: “Are you a Christian?” or “Where do you stand with regard to the Christian faith?” If they are Christians you ask, “How could you be a better one?” If they say they are not you ask, “May I tell you something about it?” and that begins a conversation.”
The Celtic strategy of sending teams into “enemy territory” is almost never done today, but it is the greatest “apostolic adventure” available to most Christians. Indeed, in the great “silent retrenchment” of the last third of the twentieth century, most churches ceased doing much proactive outreach at all. In most cities, most of the growing churches are only responding to people who take the initiative to visit the church.” (The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter, pgs. 120-121)
Many today are looking to the Celtic missionaries as a template for mission in our time. We can learn that church planting is a team sport. We do it together. Everyone has to share the load and catch the vision. That will be critical as we look to Chambersburg and Frederick.
Jesus: The Fulfillment of our Hopes & Desires
The Celtic missionaries were incredibly good at cultural apologetics. They would prayerfully look at the beliefs of the culture, and set Christ forth as the fulfillment of those hopes & desires. Here’s one more example from Aidan’s life as told in George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism:
One day a neighboring king sent a messenger to [King]Edwin’s court. Inside his scroll was a poisoned dagger. As the messenger charged to stab Edwin, one member of the court, Lilla, was close enough to step across and take the dagger in his own stomach. The dagger passed through Lilla’s body and also wounded Edwin, though not fatally.
Aidan built upon…that history. People told him the story of Lilla, King Edwin’s associate, who had taken the poisoned dagger for the king. Aidan perceived that the courage, loyalty, and devotion that were embodied in Lilla’s deed represented ultimate values in this people’s culture. Indeed, the deed steeled their conviction that there would be no greater honor than to die for the king you serve.
Aidan told them that he and his people also served as the “soldiers” of a King – for whom they were willing to risk wild animals, or hostile armies, or even death until this whole world becomes the Kingdom of their King.
Then Aidan added the punchline. He and other Christian soldiers represent the King who loved his soldiers and people so much that the King laid down his life for them!
In dying, he won a kingdom for his followers. So Christians have a definite purpose for living, to serve Christ and to live for the glory of God in doing his will. They also have a definite reward. Soldiers on earth can only be rewarded if the king is the victor. Life is eternal, people are free, for Christ has won the victory.” (The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter, pgs. 84-85, drawing on the work of David Adam, Flame in My Heart: St. Aidan for Today, pgs. 96-98)
In his apostolic adventure, Aidan gives us a charge today: how can the Church continue to set forth the Gospel of Jesus as infinitely better, not less than, the hopes, dreams and values of people in our day? Moreover, how can we do this in a time where our culture is rapidly becoming more and more like the pagan culture into which Aidan spoke? I leave the church with those questions today.
And so for the work of God in Aidan, we give all thanks and praise to Jesus our Savior, God our Father, and the Holy Spirit of our New Birth, now and always. Amen.