- What was so unique about Anabaptism during the Reformation?
- What is Postmodernism?
- What is Christendom?
- What is the Reformation?
- What makes Anabaptism uniquely relevant today?“
- Who are the Anabaptists?”
(Apologies to any fans of Jeopardy)
Any fans of the TV game show, Jeopardy here? Today’s sermon is organized like a game of Jeopardy, in which I say the answers and you find the question in the bulletin. They’re not listed in order of my asking, by the way.
Ready? Here’s the first answer: The alliance of church and state that started with the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD, in which everyone in a given territory was assumed to be Christian from a compulsory infant baptism till death, and in which state power, including the force of arms, protected and enforced the power, the property and the doctrine of the church, while the church blessed and supported the power of the government, including its military. What’s the question?
Right. So if you want to make any notes, write something like, “the state-church alliance in which both parties promoted each other, but also corrupted each other by giving each other powers they should have had.”
Next up: The break-up of Western Christendom into Roman Catholic, Protestant and Anabaptist churches, usually dated to October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany, calling the church to account for corruption and the abuse of power. Anyone?
Right, “What is the Reformation?” So you might want to write something there like “the breakup of Christendom into Catholic and mostly Protestant churches that started in the 16th Century.
The third answer: This grass-roots minority wing of the Reformation defected from compulsory Christendom all together, seeking instead to establish churches of voluntary membership, free and independent of either state control or state protection and sponsorship, not participating in war, with the Bible as their guide and God’s sovereignty as their only power and security, so named because most of its first members received an adult baptism after their previous compulsory infant baptism. The question, anyone?
Right: Who are the Anabaptists? There you might want to write something like, “the free church Reformers who rejected the benefits and entanglements of Christendom to start independent churches of voluntary membership by personal faith.”
The fourth answer: Protestant Reformers tended to see Jesus’ hardest teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, as either descriptions of the life to come, or as an expression of the Law that drives us to our knees in desperation, to seek the grace of God that alone saves us, but not really as anything that any mortal, certainly not any society, could really be expected to live by. Roman Catholics, by contrast, tended to treat Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes as counsels of perfection for specially consecrated servants of God, like priests, monks and nuns, but as not so binding on regular people, who could still be saved by means of the sacraments. The Anabaptists, by contrast, took the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes as Jesus meaning what he said and saying it to us, personally, to grow into and live by. What’s the question?
Right. “What was so unique about the Anabaptists during the Reformation?” So, by that question you might want to write something like, “Anabaptism takes seriously and personally all the teachings of Jesus, seeking to live, and help each other live, by Jesus’ teachings the best we can, as an alternative society, God’s demonstration plot, if you will, of the Kingdom of God taking shape here and now, whatever the cost, such as the terrible persecutions they experienced in both Protestant and Catholic areas of Christendom.
Before we get to the remaining questions, let’s talk about Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, especially The Beatitudes. We call them “The Beatitudes” because “Beata” is Latin for “Blessed.” We might also call them the BE-attitudes because they describe the attitudes we are to “be” if we are to be blessed in the way that Jesus counts “blessed.” But that only works in English.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
It’s no accident that the Sermon on the Mount begins with these blessings. Everything that follows about prayer, violence, oaths, worship and sex unpacks the attitudes that we are to “be” not in order to prove ourselves righteous and holy—we can’t, and we don’t have to—not to prove ourselves better than others—that’s blasphemous—but simply what constitutes true blessedness according to Jesus.
One way to read the Beatitudes is as the journey of a disciple to ever greater states of blessedness, a blessedness that endures and grows even in the face of opposition and persecution. Since the Beatitudes meant so much to the first Anabaptists, we can also read them as a tour guide of Anabaptist beginnings, even a description of the Anabaptist hopes, of history and of heritage. And that’s how I’ll speak about them now, and answer the remaining two questions.
Going through them in order: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Does that mean realizing and accepting one’s spiritual poverty and our great need for God? Or does it have anything to do with being poor for reasons of spirituality, conscience or faithfulness to God? Or might it refer to the strength of faith that one often finds among the poor, who know their need for God every day? Yes, to all three. They are often interconnected in the Bible. Anabaptism appealed most to those impoverished in means and to those who knew their spiritual impoverishment, who knew they needed more of God than just a little holy water sprinkled on them at birth.
As for “blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” are they blessed because they mourn the corrupt and crazy state of the world, or are they mourning their own spiritual poverty and brokenness? Again, I think, the answer is Yes to both. You can hear the holy heartache of Menno Simons in a prayer of his that is found also in our hymnal, #700: “Lord Jesus, blind I am, do thou enlighten me; naked I am, do thou clothe me; wounded, do thou heal me; dead, do thou quicken me. I know of no light, no physician, no life, except thee.”
As for the meek, who will inherit the earth, how can meek people inherit anything, without it getting taken from them? As the oil tycoon, John Paul Getty, said, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.” He obviously thought of Jesus’ kind of meek people as passive push-overs. That’s why and how some humble, poor people find their homes sitting in a strip mine in Kentucky, or among fracking rigs in Pennsylvania. But Moses was described as “meek,” even “the meekest man” of his time, and he was passionate, and powerful, not passive. “Meek” in biblical usage usually means humble, teachable and submitted to God. That can require of us courage, persistence and assertiveness, like what the first Anabaptists showed in the face of so much opposition and persecution.
As for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, does that mean that they long to become more righteous themselves, or, as Luther would say, is it that they long to be clothed with God’s perfect righteousness rather than with our own spotty, ragged variety? Or that they long for a more just and righteous society and world? Anabaptist history, witness and writings would say yes to all three possibilities and more. The righteous quality of many Anabaptist lives was what drew the attention of Anabaptist hunters, police sent out to find and arrest them, as suspects. In a few cases, their righteous lives were entered as court evidence that they must be Anabaptists.
As for the merciful, who are shown mercy, The Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence and non-retaliation was not just ideological. Yes, Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and they wanted to follow him as peacemakers, but not because they thought that peaceful means would automatically reduce the persecution against them and make for better societies. Maybe they will. They have to work better than violence. But when, in that famous story, the pursued and persecuted Dutch Anabaptist, Dirk Willems, turned back to rescue his pursuer who had fallen through the ice, that came also from knowing how much mercy he needed, and that we all shall always need. As Jesus said about the woman who anointed his feet with her hair and her tears: “She loves much because she has been forgiven much.” Mercy, not tactics, is what drove Anabaptists to noncooperation with wars against Catholics, Protestants and Turks.
As for the “pure in heart, who shall see God,” Jesus may have in mind here the words of Psalm 27: “One thing I ask for and that will I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord.” As John the Beloved wrote, “When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is….and whoever has this hope purifies himself even as he is pure.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Only the pure in heart will see God because that is what the pure in heart want most.”
“Seeing God,” or what Christian tradition has long called, “the Beatific Vision,” is the ultimate, supreme, greatest blessing all throughout the Bible. Narrowing, purifying, and intensifying our desires to see God as the fulfillment of our deepest hungers and thirsts for righteousness, the comfort for our mourning and the mercy that generates our mercy, will lead to “the peace that passes all understanding,” the “peace that Christ gives, not as the world gives.” And so we become Christ’s blessed peacemakers, who will be recognizable as God’s children. That peace is the goal toward which God is working and moving all Creation.
But not everyone will be at peace with the peacemakers. Just as likely, we will face opposition and persecution as a result of the attitudes we are be-coming. That’s what happened to the first few generations of Anabaptists, partly because they wouldn’t join in the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. How’s that for ironic? Some of the Mennonite ancestors of people in this very congregation left Eastern France and came to North America because Napoleon tried to draft your great-great-great-great grandfathers for his army. As painful as such rejection and persecution might be, “Rejoice,” says Jesus, because we are in good company, his company and that of the prophets who walked a similar path of poverty, material and spiritual, drawn toward God by the promise of the kingdom of heaven.
Because they took these hard teachings of Jesus as meant by Jesus, and meant for us, beginning with the Beatitudes, and lived their story in the flesh, the Anabaptists were unique in the time of the Reformation.
Another ironic thing about Anabaptist history: the persecution that the first Anabaptists suffered came from other Christians, from both the Roman and Protestant sides of a fractured Christendom. But it’s a different world today. There’s not much left of Christendom, for better and worse.
Which brings me to another answer, starting now: The current trend in philosophy, culture, art, media and entertainment, even politics, is helpful in that it recognizes the limits of human wisdom and rational thinking and how our own identities, privileges and perspectives can distort our perception of the world and of others, and it challenges the greater values and worth we may unthinkingly give to some countries, or cultures, or races, or classes of people. It’s a corrective to the arrogance and over-self-confidence of the modern era that started dying about twenty-thirty years ago. But sometimes this new trend overreaches and says that there is no objective truth at all, but only the different truths of each different identity group which cannot help but oppose and compete with each other. That makes any claim of truth by anyone nothing but a power grab over and against another group, to oppress them. That makes any claim about God, faith and morality highly problematic. So, What’s the question? Hint: this tend came AFTER the modern era of, say, the 1900’s through the 1980’s.
Right. If the Reformation was the beginning of the crack-up of Christendom, then Postmodernism, five centuries later, is Christendom’s funeral service, it’s final death knell. Going, going, and gone are the traditional public displays of respect for Christian faith, like Nativity displays at City Hall, or the assumption that everyone will appreciate hearing, “Merry Christmas!” in December. That comfy, cozy world for the church is not coming back. And trying to make that world come back is not the best way to witness to Christ now.
But while postmodernism rings the death knell of a dead and decomposing Christendom, it is not the funeral of the Christian church, nor of the Christian faith. If anything, the church of Jesus Christ is growing rapidly right now in parts of the world that never even had Christendom, as in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s even growing in places where the state has long been hand-in-glove with other religions and ideologies that even persecute the church, such as Shiite Muslim Iran and Marxist China.
This strange, new world for so many Western churches is old news to Anabaptism and its descendants. Anabaptist theology and spirituality never looked to any government to help us be Christian, nor to applaud us for being Christian, and we tend to distrust them whenever they do. It’s not that we hate nor disrespect presidents and governors and mayors and city council members. I hope we hate and disrespect no one. If anything, let’s pray for them, knowing how great their responsibility and their temptations must be. And let any good laws they pass and enforce be the beginning of our love for our neighbor, not the fulfilment of it.
But whenever we see the hand of government, a president, of politicians and candidates extending us some honor, privilege, power and prestige, something deep in the DNA of Anabaptist theology asks, “What’s in it for you? That’s not in your job description, not the one we read in the Bible. And what’s in that other hand? The one hiding behind your back? A weapon? Like what the Crusaders and the Conquistadores wielded in our name and God’s? If there’s blood on your hand, or stolen loot from Indians or Africans, then we’ll be smeared and smell of any stolen honors or powers you offer us. Our spiritual ancestors suffered and lost so much in their exodus out Christendom. Why would we want to go back, if there even was a Christendom to go back to anymore?”
So, what question have I been answering now? Hint: it’s the last one not yet mentioned. Right: Why is Anabaptism uniquely relevant now? Because the existence, the survival and the growth of Anabaptist churches these last five hundred years, without the crutches of Christendom, give models, history and hope to churches and Christians in our new postmodern and post-Christendom world. Anabaptist history, theology and spirituality offer something that so many churches lost starting 1600 years ago: reasons and resources for the blessed journey of The Beatitudes that we walk toward the kingdom of heaven, without the crutches of Christendom.
But Christendom is not dying a quick, peaceful, painless death. It remains strong in the memory of churches in Europe and the Americas. There is yet much anxiety and many efforts to keep alive some sort of honor, power and privilege for the church on both sides of our cultural wars. If, as Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage and we are but actors on it,” we so easily forget who is our true, enduring audience. I see fellow Christians of both progressive and conservative political and theological stripes seeking to ingratiate and justify the church to politicians and parties of both the left and right in today’s culture wars, as though we might preserve or revive some kind of Christendom. As we get close to any election day in any even-numbered year, I get nervous seeing candidates and politicians of any party, of any ideology, in any pulpits, supposedly preaching, but more patently candidating. That’s why I get emails offering me voters’ guides to pass out in church, from either party, any politics. I hit “unsubscribe” and delete them all, by the way.
But the blessings of Christendom come at too great a price in our witness and integrity. And, like Protestants and Catholics in the 16th Century, we may find allies in one party or another, but only to find ourselves persecuting fellow Christians, as well.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers us greater blessings than any which the world and Christendom ever offered, or gave. The blessings which Jesus offers in the Beatitudes are so contrary, so opposite, so upside-down to any blessings we might seek from fallen societies in the false pact called “Christendom,” that Jesus tells us to expect opposition and persecution along with them, in this life. But if “seeing God” and the comforts of God are our strongest desires, then, however great the challenge or the opposition, we are in good company, of the prophets, of our Anabaptist forbears, and of Jesus himself.