Sermon: Commemoration of St Martin of Tours

The following sermon was preaching by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for a divine service with the Commemoration of St Martin of Tours (11 November 2016). The readings were Exodus 3:13-20 and Luke 20:1-8.

Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ:

If the eldest surviving son of Hans and Margarete Luther had been baptised on a different day, I wonder whether Martin of Tours would have made the calendar of commemorations in LSB. Had little Luther been born a day earlier and baptised on the 10th, he might have been “Leo Luther”—but I doubt Pope Leo the Great would have thereby got onto our Lutheran list. A day later and he might have been christened after the early bishop of Avignon: “Rufus Luther” (how unfortunate). But “Martin” it was when he was carried to the font at St Peter’s Church in Eisleben on the 11th of November 1483—or was it 1482 or 1484, his mother wasn’t quite sure. In biblical thinking, one’s name was more than just a label, but described or even determined who you were—as we learn from Jacob/Israel who “strove with God”, or Abram/Abraham, the “father of many”, or Jesus, who would “save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Even God Himself discloses a name that says who He is and what He can be depended on to do:

“Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you. … YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name for ever” (Ex. 3:14-15).

God is what He does and has done, and you can count on Him doing it also for you. So what gift did God give Luther when He gave him his Christian name?

Martin, later to be known as bishop of Tours in central France, was born most likely in AD 316 (thus 1700 years ago) to pagan parents in present-day Hungary. At the age of 10 he became a Christian catechumen. Perhaps thinking it would distract him from his religious rebellion, his father pressed him into the Roman cavalry at the age of 15. A few years later, while serving in southern France, Martin carried out the simple compassionate act that would make him the most famous saint in France. Encountering a near-naked beggar in Amiens in a fearsome cold wind, Martin stopped, drew his sword, and cut his cape in two, giving one half to the beggar to keep him warm. That night he had a dream in which the Lord Jesus appeared to him wearing the half cloak and saying to the angels, “Martin, a mere catechumen, has clothed Me with this robe.” In some accounts, when he awoke he found his cape restored to wholeness. It later became a precious treasure of the Frankish kings, a holy relic that was put on display in little buildings called “chapels” and watched over by “chaplains”—both named for his “cape”. Martin the Roman soldier later determined that, as a Christian, he couldn’t shed blood. Just before battle near Worms, Germany, he declared, “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.” (Perhaps he added, “Here I stand.”)

There are ample reasons, then, why we might connect Martin’s story not just to his famous namesake but also to Remembrance Day: the soldier who chose peace over war, who gave us the word “chaplain”, who defied his Roman military superiors at the risk of his own life. He embodied the Christian opposition to violence, and though he once stood up to Emperor Julian the Apostate, he died a natural death, perhaps the first post-biblical non-martyr to be honoured as a saint. But he wasn’t a pacifist. His battle was simply with a different enemy; he fought “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual [forces] of evil in the heavenly [places]” (Eph. 6:12). He laid down his arms and took up the sword of the spirit, the Word of God, just as Luther would later do battle by pen and preaching.

But before he became a preacher and a bishop, Martin’s act of compassion towards a poor freezing beggar expressed the more elemental and universal Christian virtue of love. His unpremeditated gesture declared the liveliness of his faith more clearly than this young catechumen could likely have done it with words. James put it this way:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-16).

For as the later Martin would write:

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. (Preface to Romans, AE 35:370)

This is the faith that Jesus seeks when He comes in judgement on the Last Day. For even more than James, this story with Martin’s vision of Christ puts us in mind of Jesus’ word to the sheep:

34 “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, 36 I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” (Mt. 25:34-40)

But Jesus wasn’t done with Martin that day. The vision of Christ drove him to something more sure and certain. He sought and received Holy Baptism. And in that act of compassion the roles were reversed. It wasn’t he who gave the hidden Christ a robe to cover Him against the cold, but the Christ hidden in water and Word who clothed Him with His own robe of righteousness. And going far beyond what partial mercy any man like Martin dared muster, Christ didn’t divide and share His robe, but gave it wholly. For He had set aside His divine glory to take on the form of a poor beggar. He laid aside His kingly robe, was stripped naked and nailed to a tree. He held nothing back for Himself, but gave His very life for us poor beggars. He chose not the way of glorious battle, but apparent defeat. He stood helpless before the Enemy, as Martin was once willing to do at Worms; but where Martin (both Martins, in fact) was given a gracious reprieve from seemingly inevitable death, Jesus took the blows of the Enemy on hands and feet and side and gave up His Spirit and life for us. That’s what He gave Martin and us in Baptism—death without suffering death, and life without deserving it. He wrapped us in His cape and keeps us safe in the unseen but impenetrable armour of truth and righteousness and the Gospel of peace and faith and salvation and the Word of God (Eph. 6:14-17).

I wonder if the second Martin (not Chemnitz but Luther) ever pondered the significance of his patron saint. Did he regret that the mediaeval church had exalted Martin’s act of charity for the poor over God’s mercy to Martin? Did he perhaps think that Martin’s compassionate care of the hidden Christ was far less significant than what Christ had done for Martin? Perhaps he did. But at the very least, each time Martin Luther penned his defiant cry against the devil’s attacks—“I am baptised!”—he spoke for the saint of old and for us, the saints who would follow. For we poor beggars have been Martined. And the robe that has been given to us, that protects us from an ill wind more biting and chilling than anything blowing in from the frozen north, the robe of baptismal righteousness that quenches and deflects the flaming darts of the devil’s sneering accusations, the shining white robe that makes us ready for the eternal wedding banquet of God’s kingdom, that robe is a holy relic more precious to us than a thousand capes of Martin. For the name it brings us is His, Christ’s, God’s Son, the name that does what it says and makes us God’s precious children and opens to us a seat at His table. Amen

About ConcordiaStCatharines

a seminary of Lutheran Church-Canada
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