FEAST OF ST. MARTIN OF
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
November 11, 2006
Preaching: David Justin Lynch, Esquire
OT:Micah 4:1-4 Psalm:122 Gospel:Matthew 25:34-40
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
In December 1995, in my first month after admission to the practice of law, a man came to me for legal advice. He was upper middle class and could afford to pay me. Believe me, I really needed the money, as I had just opened the doors to my office and had lots of startup expenses but no income.
The man told me he was in bad marriage and that he wanted a divorce. When I inquired as to the precise nature of the problem, he told me that his wife was infertile, that he wanted to have children, and that he had a girlfriend ready, willing and able to become pregnant with his child. I asked him if there were any other problems with his marriage and he said there were none. I also asked him if his wife also wanted a divorce and what her reaction would be if he went ahead with what he wanted to do. He replied that he had been with his wife for ten years, that she loved him and that she’d be heartbroken if he divorced her. I told him that under those circumstances I could not in good conscience provide legal services. When he asked why, I said that while the law may permit what he wants to do, I, as a Christian, I could not in good conscience assist him. Here he was, wanting to break his marriage vows and hurt someone who loved him, just to fulfill his own selfish desires to replicate himself. Not what Jesus taught in all three synoptic Gospels about marriage, and about human relationships generally. Of course, I declined to be his attorney.
The popular impression of St. Martin of Tours, a fourth-century bishop in what was then Gaul and now
France, is his encounter with a poor man in cold weather who had no clothes whereupon Martin rent his fancy military cloak and gave the poor man half of it. Today’s gospel reading focuses on our Christian obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. But I want to focus on a lesser-known aspect of his life: his refusal to continue in military service because he could not do so in good conscience as a Christian. He was perhaps the first prominent Christian conscientious objector. The association between peace and Christianity began with Jesus himself, who sometimes described as the “Prince of Peace.” In the fourteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, he tell his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” as he was beginning to tell them about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and again in his post-resurrection appearances described in the 20th chapter of John, he greeted his disciples, “Peace be With You.”
Martin was born of pagan parents. His father was a military officer and expected to his son to follow in his footsteps. But something happened along the way: when Martin was a 15 year old teenager, he showed up at the door of a church and said he wanted to be a Christian. He became a “catechumen”, which is a fancy way of saying he was a baptismal candidate. In the old days, preparation for baptism was not four to six weeks of classes, but something that lasted years. Martin wasn’t baptized until he was 18. Martin, as expected, entered the military, but soon thereafter resigned, because he felt the use of force was incompatible with Christianity.
At a later point in Martin’s life, he became aware of an individual accused of heresy who was condemned to death. Martin was active just after
Constantine had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. In those days, the civil authorities functioned as an arm of the Church in enforcing so-called orthodox beliefs. You could suffer not only excommunication, (that means getting kicked out of the Church), but capital punishment as well, if you were a heretic. Martin intervened. He told the authorities excommunication was punishment enough, that the man didn’t deserve to die. Long before the Renaissance and the so-called Age of Enlightenment, here was a bishop trying to do justice and compassion rather than follow whatever rules were in place at that time that allowed the execution of heretics. Rather than follow what was on the printed page, Martin was again listening to his conscience, and perhaps was the first prominent Christian opponent of capital punishment.
Peace has long been a Christian staple. Churches of the catholic tradition celebrate votive Masses for Peace, and the church prays for peace in numerous other contexts. Our baptismal vows require that we strive for peace. Churches of the catholic tradition, along with many liberal protestants, share a common revulsion to capital punishment, often opposing it in official statements and from the pulpit.
But like St. Martin, at bottom, opposition to war and violence is a matter of conscience. It is listening to one’s inner voice instead of giving into human instincts for retribution. What exactly is one’s “conscience”?
St. Thomas Aquinas defined it as the mind of a person passing moral judgments. In the Roman Catholic tradition, conscience is formed by learning the tradtitional teachings of the Church and relying on the Church as the arbiter of right and wrong. Evangelical Protestants look to scripture to form their consciences. The Bible says it’s right, it’s right, if the Bible says it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Both systems of belief share a common element, a desire for certainty, one emanating from the Church hierarchy and the other from a printed page. Unfortunately, life is not so simple. There are times when the appropriate answer can’t be found in the pronouncements of the hierarchy or on the printed page of scripture. We Anglicans recognize that, so we added a third element to the formation of one’s conscience: reason. What makes sense in a given situation? What is the best outcome for all concerned? I’m familiar with that idea because Courts do that all the time. They take rules of law and apply them to the situation to get to a just outcome. The Courts recognize that the law on the written page sometimes isn’t applicable to a particular situation, and that some interpretation is needed. I recall in law school we learned about “rules” and “standards” Rules are black and white and are supposed to apply the same way no matter what the situation and no matter who’s involved, while “standards” are goals or guideposts and look more to purpose and result on a practical basis than on abstract principles.
Unfortunately, many people have mistaken their gut-feelings about right and wrong for an informed conscience. Following your gut isn’t necessarily following your conscience. It can’t be, because your conscience hasn’t been formed in a rational manner.
In the first three centuries, the
Roman Empire and the Jewish establishment persecuted Christians, often with physical violence. But then in the Fourth Century, Christians turned around and, with the assistance of the Roman emperor, did the same thing to so-called heretics. If you were an Arian, a Donatist, a Nestorian or a Pelagian, not only could you be imprisoned, but you could be beat up and tortured. Later came the Crusades, where Christians tried to take the Holy Land by force from the Muslims. Still later came the violence perpetrated during the Reformation, by Roman Catholics against Protestants and Anglicans and vice-versa. And the Anglican Church, had puritans and royalists in the 17th century at each other’s throats resulting in the beheading of King Charles I because he and his archbishop William Laud wanted to move the Church of England away from Calvinism in a more sacramental and traditional direction. In modern times, we experienced the violence between Roman Catholics and Calvinist Protestants in Northern Ireland. This is over the same issues that were fought in the Sixteenth Century Reformation and its aftermath. And Christians are not alone. War continues in the Holy Land between Jews and Muslims. Not what Moses had in mind, and probably not what Mohammed had in mind, either.
Religious violence is based on the idea of “I know in my heart I’m right and you’re wrong.” All of it is supposedly based on beliefs. But ask yourself about your beliefs as to the methods you are using to accomplish your agenda: is that how Jesus would have handled these conflicts? Would he ever authorize anyone to kill in his name? I don’t think so. Yes, in the apocalyptic passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus foretells an end day and a final conflict where God will be with us to help us. But rather than let that unfold on God’s schedule and on God’s terms, some people act like that as if we’re in that time hear and now and that justifies all manner of atrocities against other people, supposedly in the name of “Christian principles.”
Being a Christian is not easy. What we are called to do in our baptismal covenant goes against what comes natural to many people. For starters, read your baptismal vows and see how they fit your life. Like all of you I am a sinner. For example, I find the promise about “respecting the dignity of every human being” a bit of a challenge to keep when an opposing attorney has done something that costs me or my client a lot of money. My baptismal vows tell me one thing, but what I’d like to do is often something else. We Christians, who are not perfect, have often wrongly relied solely on their feelings to decide their courses of action, often with devastating results. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure it’s happened to you all once in a while. For the church to be “the church” rather than give into the norms of the secular world around it has been a challenge since the days of the Apostles, when they refused to worship the Roman emperors, who were considered “gods” worthy of praise, or when they associated with Gentiles to the dismay of their fellow Jews.
We Christians don’t believe death is a final end. St. Martin is still with us, though in a different mode of existence than when he walked this earth. His spirit lives on. Join with him in prayer to God, and pray for peace, and especially for an end to religious violence. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Peace be within its walls, and may those who love God prosper. Ask St. Matin to pray with us to God so that we listen to that inner voice within us that is Jesus calling us not just to worship God, but to live as Christians.