This church, Old South Church, was born in a storm. It was born in a storm of dispute over water. It was born in a storm of controversy over baptism …
From his prison cell Paul watched, fascinated. Through the cell’s bars, with little else to occupy his time or attention, Paul observed as an ordinary man transformed himself.
The man had arrived at the jail in his civvies … a simple toga and worn sandals. The man was unremarkable … another working stiff punching-in for the day.
Then, before Paul’s very eyes, the man began to change. Shedding his toga and slipping out of his sandals, he donned a handsome, dark grey tunic. He slipped his feet into strong leather shoes. He tied decorated greaves, or shin guards, to his legs, and thick, leather cuffs to his wrists. He fastened a wide, tooled leather belt around his waist, from which he hung his dagger. He lifted a heavy, decorated metal breastplate to his chest, put his arms through its straps and fastened it in back. He swung a red cape around his shoulders and fixed it to the shoulders of his breastplate. Onto his head he lifted a polished helmet with a red plume. With his left arm he took up his shield, and with his right hand he lifted his sword.
And there he stood, a man transformed: from civilian to soldier, from inconspicuous to striking; from ordinary to powerful … a man whose authority and command derived from the Emperor of Rome. At once fearsome and commanding, the soldier took up his place. He stood at attention, guarding the prison in which Paul was locked up.
Paul, putting pen to parchment, wrote to his fellow Christians about what he had observed.
Being a Christian, he wrote, is a lot like being a soldier. On our own, we are unremarkable and weak … that is, until we don the clothing of Christ and take up the tools of discipleship. On our own, he wrote, we are ill-equipped, lacking in defenses against injury … but also lacking the apparatus – the tools, the weapons – by which we might do some good.
Some 200 years after Paul observed a man transformed into a solider, a certain baby was born into a Roman military family. The baby’s father was the senior officer in Rome’s Imperial Horse Guard. The baby was named Martin, after Mars, the Roman god of war. Today we know him as Martin of Tours.
As a boy Martin loved to help his father prepare for work. Young Martin would watch and help as his father donned his pleated tunic, as he tied greaves and wrist-guards to his limbs, as he girded his waist with belt and weapons, as he fastened the heavy breastplate, and donned his red cape. Putting his helmet under his arm, the officer would bend to kiss Martin, then kiss his wife, and then sweep out the door to his military duties.
At a young age, however, and against his parents express wishes, young Martin gravitated toward the Christian church. He loved the hymn singing and the intensity of worship. He was drawn to the rituals of bread and cup and the disciplines of righteousness to which the church beckoned him.
Appalled and alarmed by his son’s interest in this still-new religion, his father forced Martin to join the Roman army. Despite these measures, when Martin turned eighteen he received Christian baptism. Shortly thereafter he requested to be released from the army, “I am Christ’s soldier,” he explained. “I am not permitted to fight.”
Martin of Tours went on to become a bishop and a later he was named a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. His story reminds us of what most people, including Christians, have ceased remembering: that it was the practice of the earliest followers of Christ to abstain from fighting, to refuse to serve in the army, to refrain from killing.
Before Constantine took up the sword in Christ’s name, before Augustine made a case for Just War, the consensus of the early church leaders was that discipleship was a peaceful vocation. It was the consensus of the earliest followers of The Way, that despite (or, perhaps, in the face of the inclinations of a violent world) we would pursue peace in the name of the Prince of Peace.
Today we pause to remember that on August 6, 1945 the world was forever changed by an extraordinary act of violence: the first time any nation used nuclear weapons against another. Today we remember that shattering moment and its aftermath. We remember the 140,000 who were killed. We remember a city decimated by heat and fire, devastated by the effects of radiation and cancer. We remember.
Our sisters and brothers from the New England Peace Pagoda are with us today. They will help us to remember by walking, and singing, and chanting, and drumming for a peaceful future.
We gather on this Sunday to mark and confess others kinds of violence as well.
We remember that July was the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan. Forty-two were killed.
We remember the rising rate of suicide among American soldiers returning from war.
We remember that in recent months there has been a dramatic rise in murder-suicide rates among civilians… a rise which many suspect is a direct consequence of our economic woes: of unemployment and crushing debt.
We remember that a rash of assault rifles has broken out on the streets of this city.
We remember that youth violence in our city streets is a tragedy for which all of us bear responsibility.
Long ago, from his jail cell, St. Paul wrote to Christians who lived in a dangerous and violent world. This is what he wrote:
My Dear Christian Sisters and Brothers:
Early in the morning, as others are dressing for work so, too, must you dress for your work as a Christian. When you arise from your sleep – before your first cup of coffee, before you take the dog out for a walk, before you open the newspaper, before everything else – fasten a belt of truth around your waist. You must do this because the world is full of untruth, of lies, of misinformation, of spin, of truthiness … and without that belt of truth, you will lose your way, you will lose track of the line between truth and untruth.
When you arise from your sleep – before you brush your teeth or comb your hair, before everything else – be sure to put on a breastplate of righteousness. You must do this, because in the course of the day that is about to unfold, you will be tempted by unrighteousness, by incivility and shoddiness of character, by the insignificant cutting of a corner here, by a wee white lie there. The protective defenses of a breastplate of righteousness will be required to keep you from falling into unrighteous and unholy harm.
As you rise from your sleep, before you even let your feet hit the floor, put on your feet whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. You live and labor in a violent world (a world that plans for violence, expects it, budgets for it, rehearses for it, makes a business of it). Working for peace, lobbying for peace, believing in peace will mean that others will think less of you. You will be accused of naiveté, or cowardice, or a lack patriotism, or a failure to love soldiers, or all of the above. While peace on earth has universal appeal – even Beauty Queens believe in it – it is universally hard to bring about. We understand some things about peace making, however. We know that peace making does not begin at the War Department or with the Defense budget or with speeches on Nuclear Deterrence. Peace making begins in the secret, recesses of your hearts …and can only come about with tremendous courage and enormous, personal, spiritual strength.
Today and this week we are engaged in the joyful act of welcoming new members into this family of faith. As we initiate them into the ways of God and the ways of discipleship, it is our privilege to introduce them to armor and weapons by which we are called to live.
The soldier dons armor and takes up weapons for personal protection. The uniform and the weapons are also intended to impress and intimidate.
The armor of God works differently. The armor and weapons about which Paul wrote from prison, are invisible and will neither impress nor intimidate. For our battle, our fight, our struggle is against inner enemies, our own demons, those inclinations that plague us: our lack of discipline, our anger, our cowardice, our propensity to laziness, our pride …
Make no mistake about it: the life of the peace maker and peace keeper is an arduous life and a dangerous life (ask Martin Luther King, Jr., ask Gandhi, ask Desmond Tutu, ask Nelson Mandela). It will require from us our very best. Even then, even at our very, very best, we cannot do it alone. It will require prayers from heaven … the prayers of Martin of Tours, and the Apostle Paul interceding on our behalf, cheering us on, supporting us.
It will require of us a great deal of practice in the spiritual resources of two millennia of Christian witness: the practices of worship, prayer, reading scripture, listening, flexing spiritual muscles, immersion in Christian community. Finally, it will require of us that we submit ourselves to be shaped and formed, not by the world, but be He in whose name we gather, the Prince of Peace, even Jesus Christ.
Peace be with you.