St. Columba

Jonah 3:1-5
Matthew 5:38-41
Mark 10:28-31

Today the church marks the feast day of an Irishman who was accused of theft and murder, but who brought Christianity to Scotland and half of England.  His name was Columba; he was born in Ireland in 521, and died in Scotland in 597.  Columba studied under the legendary St. Finnian, and founded several monasteries and abbeys in Ireland.  That’s when the trouble began, as Columba made a copy of Finnian’s Psalter – no mean task as in those days it meant copying the whole thing by hand on vellum, with elaborate decorations – and then he tried to take it away, claiming that as he’d made the copy it belonged to him, while Finnian claimed it belonged to him as he owned the original – you can see why copyright laws came in!

This dispute led to a big battle, in which many men died.  Eventually a Synod decided that the Psalter belonged to Finnian, as a calf belongs to a cow.  Columba was threatened with excommunication for the deaths in the battle, but was allowed to go into exile instead.  He set out from Ireland with twelve men, in a small boat called a coracle, and landed on the Mull of Kintyre, but could still see Ireland, so set sail again, and landed on Iona on Pentecost Day in 563, 1450 years ago.  It’s said that he climbed the hill by the beach, could not see Ireland, and stayed there.  You know the story of Jonah and his unwilling journey to Nineveh, from which much good eventually came, and it was much the same with Columba.  He didn’t want to leave Ireland, but eventually much good came from his journey to Scotland.

It’s said that Columba repented from the deaths of men in the battle, and vowed to convert as many people to Christianity as he had killed in battle.  On Iona he founded a monastery, which became the most important monastery in Scotland, and a powerhouse of prayer, for nearly one thousand years until the Reformation.  From Iona Columba led the monks who travelled out all over Scotland spreading the Christian faith, and beyond Scotland into the north of England, where a monastery was founded on Lindisfarne, and St. Aidan led the next generation in spreading Christianity in the north of England.

Of course, in our Reformed tradition we believe all Christian people are saints, not just those to whom the ancient church gave the title “saint”.  What I think St. Columba reminds us is that there are no plaster saints on pedestals – Columba was a priest and monk accused of theft and murder, before going on to greater things.  Columba had his fair share of faults and weaknesses, as we all do, yet his story reminds us that nothing is beyond something good coming out of it.  Even after theft and murder, God was able to see good in Columba and use him for his good work.

It’s all very well to learn something, but I think Columba has plenty to make us think about our church and our own lives today, which might yet challenge us.  There are three aspects of Columba’s life I want to mention:

1. Peace-making.  We heard in the reading from Matthew that Jesus challenged his hearers not to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but to turn the other cheek, to give your coat as well as your shirt to a thief, to walk the extra mile.  Jesus was talking about building up peace and harmony, even if it costs us.  Columba wasn’t like that to start with, of course, killing people on the battlefield and fighting ownership of the Psalter were very much an eye for eye, but his exile to Scotland changed his mind, and he came to see the importance of peace, and worked tirelessly to build up peace and harmony between people.  You know as well as I do that this is something our world needs today as much as it ever did, but it’s something we’re also challenged to consider in our church and in our own lives.  It’s very easy to fall into seeking an eye for eye, thinking it doesn’t matter too much in our own little lives, but it does, because that’s how we build up peace in our church, and through that in our community and our world.  Columba turned around and took the path of peacemaking.  Do we always do that?

2. Thinking outside the box.  In that reading from Matthew Jesus told us that when someone steals your shirt, to give them your coat as well.  Many in our world today would say that, in diplomatic terms, that was a novel idea.  Yet, Jesus’ teaching has a radical edge that challenges many deeply today.  Columba had to go to a new country, and learn a new way of being, and he obviously had some success as many in Scotland came to the Christian faith through his influence.  Do we think in radical ways today, or are we trapped in trying the old ways work today?  Are we being challenged to think quite differently?  Might be God be wanting us to look at very new ways of being and doing, to celebrate his living presence today?

3. Going outside our comfort zone.  In the reading from Mark we heard Jesus telling us that the first shall be last.  It’s very uncomfortable if you find yourself suddenly at the bottom of the pile, when you’re rather enjoying being at the top.  Likewise, it can be very uncomfortable being thrust to the fore, when we’re quietly enjoying the shadows at the back.  Columba was certainly outside his comfort zone in starting again in a new country.  How often do we step outside our comfort zone in church life?  When was the last time we did something we were uncomfortable with, because we thought it might be what God wanted, or it would help build God’s kingdom, even though we weren’t comfortable with it?

Today we remember this ancient Irishman accused of theft and murder, who went on to be responsible for bringing the Christian faith to a large swathe of Britain.  From his story, reflected in the scriptures, we’re challenged to be peace-makers, to think outside the box, to go outside our comfort zone.  In that challenge, of course, we’re never alone, with Jesus walking alongside us, and God’s Spirit within us, empowering us and encouraging us.  We may feel very small in the great scheme of things, but if you’ve ever slept with a mosquito in the room we know that very small things can have an enormous effect.  Can we hear God’s challenging call to us?  Dare we respond?

Michael Hopkins

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