Feast of St. Martin of Tours, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Nashville

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Today the church commemorates St. Martin of Tours, an early leader of the monastic movement; a Roman “imperial storm trooper” who left military service and made his way to Poitiers in the Loire river valley to settle, drawn by the local bishop’s reputation for sanctity. That was St. Hilary: people in those days would travel to see a holy man, like a present-day sports figure or entertainment celebrity. There, in the waning days of the Roman Empire, Martin became a Christian, and founded his monastic community, where he himself in turn became famed for his holiness and ascetical lifestyle.

There are many stories about St. Martin. One is that, while he was still a soldier and before he was baptized, a poor man approached him and asked for his help. Martin drew his sword and cut off part of his cloak to give it to the man. That night Jesus appeared to him in a dream, clothed with half a cloak, and revealed that he himself had been the beggar that Martin had clothed.

Later, St. Martin was elected bishop of the nearby city of Tours, where the Christians were drawn to his reputation for holy living, and his fabled ability (like his Savior) to raise the dead. Martin was reluctant to leave his community, and only accepted election when it was agreed that he could continue to live the same kind of ascetic life of prayer and good works as before. Part of the story is that St. Martin, after he was consecrated bishop, lost much of his fabled power: a little warning to all of us that ecclesiastical promotion is more likely to be a hindrance, rather than a help, in performing miracles.

Our Gospel today underscores the truth we see illustrated in the first story about St. Martin; indeed, it is likely the foundation of the story. It is in acts of charity that we encounter Jesus Christ himself. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and thirsty, visiting the sick and those in prison, and welcoming the stranger, are practical ways in which we can be in the presence of Jesus Christ, who is alive and in our midst. Love is made practical and accessible in these works of mercy, to the extent that we extend ourselves for and are accessible to our neighbors. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Note that the parable is told against the backdrop of judgment and division, that of the sheep from the goats, and the coming of the Son of Man. The messiah or king comes to judge the righteous and the unrighteous, to divide those who have done the will of God (the sheep) from those who have been disobedient (the goats). Our Gospel is an Advent story of the return of the King, the Savior; one of a string of such stories that Jesus tells during his final trip to Jerusalem, immediately before the crisis of his own judgment and crucifixion.

The context for the parable is one of Advent urgency. Doing the will of God by seeking Christ present in the neediest among us is not a luxury item that we can take care of when we get around to it, but something that is desperately important for us to attend to now. Jesus is telling us that we need to seek him now, in the person of those in need. That is the moment of crisis, the moment of judgment and division, as we connect with our Lord and Savior in the person of our neighbor.

The stories about St. Martin focus the Good News for us in a particular way. In this they are like the lives of all the saints, who each call to mind in a fresh way the truths of the Gospel. St. Martin reminds us that in ministering to the needy we are ministering to Jesus himself. He also reminds us that in doing the will of God we will be able to do amazing things, performing literal miracles of faith, hope, and charity. Our lives will change in radical ways, like Martin’s own life itself, as he turned from an old way of life to a new life.

If we turn to Jesus as the source of our lives, we’ll find ourselves, like Martin, encountering him in unexpected ways. Our confirmands today are showing us the way. Jesus’ resurrection means new life, here and now, not just for them but for all of us. Like Martin, we don’t require promotion in order to get around to the work; we just need grace, God’s power and presence in our lives. That grace is available, here and now, in the laying on of hands and in the eucharist we celebrate. Jesus is alive, and present now, in the midst of the church that gathers, in the fellowship of the saints.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee