Life is messy. We make choices out of all kinds of mixed up motives, and unintended consequences abound.
On November 11th the church commemorates St. Martin of Tours, and in the United States this happens to be Veterans Day. That’s a nice coincidence on the one hand, because Martin was a soldier who met Christ in the course of his duties.
On the other hand, it touches on the ambiguity of warfare. Clearly, war is a manifestation of sin. When we are killing one another, we show ourselves part of a fallen world. All of the virtues to which the New Testament calls us have been abandoned. But in another coincidence the preceding night, November 10th, is the anniversary of Kristallnacht and the dark advent of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. When such evil is loosed, is it truly pious to withhold force while our neighbors are slaughtered?
In some ways Elijah had it easier under the Old Covenant. God worked with humanity mired in the consequences of Adam’s sin, calling out a holy people in a fallen world of scarcity, conflict, death and judgement. Wiping out pagan prophets and cursing the land with a drought were unambiguous marching orders for Elijah.
Those of us under the New Covenant of grace, with eyes set on the kingdom of God, can find this world and even the church a bewildering bazaar of compromises and consequences.
Martin of Tours tried to prevent the church in his day from executing heretics. Having been called as a bishop, Martin refused to share Holy Communion with his peers, in particular one Bishop Ithacius, who were instituting brutality in the name of Christ.
But Martin compromised when promised that if he shared Communion as a public show of unity with these other bishops, the condemned prisoners would be spared.
Martin went away soured and weakened by the experience. His biographer describes the aftermath,
On the following day, hurrying away from that place, as he was on the way returning, he was filled with mourning and lamentation that he had even for an hour been mixed up with the evil communion, and, not far from a village named Andethanna, where remote woods stretch far and wide with profound solitude, he sat down while his companions went on a little before him. There he became involved in deep thought, alternately accusing and defending the cause of his grief and conduct. Suddenly, an angel stood by him and said, ‘Justly, O Martin, do you feel compunction, but you could not otherwise get out of your difficulty. Renew your virtue, resume your courage, lest you not only now expose your fame, but your very salvation, to danger.’ Therefore, from that time forward, he carefully guarded against being mixed up in communion with the party of Ithacius. But when it happened that he cured some of the possessed more slowly and with less grace than usual, he at once confessed to us with tears that he felt a diminution of his power on account of the evil of that communion in which he had taken part for a moment through necessity, and not with a cordial spirit. He lived sixteen years after this, but never again did he attend a synod, and kept carefully aloof from all assemblies of bishops. (Sulpitius Severus, Dialogue III.13)
Like Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane or Elijah depressed and in hiding, Martin was visited by an angel to strengthen him and keep him moving forward in faith. But even with that grace, Martin went forward dinged up by the consequences of the compromise.
Let us pray for one another as we make imperfect choices and suffer the consequences in our fallen world. May we be messengers of the grace that overcomes compromise and consequences, the mercy of God in Christ Jesus who refused compromise and endured the consequence of the cross so that we can enter the unambiguously right and merciful kingdom of God.