On January 21, 1525 a tall man with a big head of black hair knelt down. They called him “Strong George”. He asked his friend Conrad to baptize him, even though he had already been baptized as a baby. Conrad Grebel baptized “Strong George”. Strong George then baptized all of the others present…Conrad Felix, and all the other men and women. It was their way of being a light in the world for Jesus…they formed a church that day in 1525. They came to be known as Anabaptists…rebaptizers. Strong George and all the others had been baptized as babies into the Catholic church. What made them want to be baptized again?
Strong George, whose other nickname was “blue coat” or Blaurock, was born in a place and a time where practically everyone he knew was Catholic. Everyone belonged to the church, the one church, the Catholic Church. Everyone was baptized, but not everyone went to church, or cared much about God. People who did go to church, didn’t always really know what it was about. The services and the scriptures were read in Latin, a language most people could not understand.
Now Strong George and others had started reading the Bible. Martin Luther, another reformer, had translated the Bible into German, so now the common people could read it, (not just the priests who would read the Bible in Latin). This translation work, combined with the relatively recent invention of the printing press, meant that the Bible became accessible in a new way to the common person. So Strong George and many others starting reading the Bible.
They read scripture passages like the ones we read today from the letter to the Ephesians, which is characteristic of so many of the pastoral epistles. The writer is calling Christians to become part of the kingdom of Light, to give up with ways of darkness, to be different than people in the world. When people around you are greedy and are worshipping money, you are called to be a follower of Jesus. When people around you are treating their sexuality lightly and loosely, you are called to be pure, to treat these sexual gifts with reverence. When everyone around you is partying and getting drunk and using foul language, you are called to be a follower of Jesus, to be a light to the world.
The pastoral epistles are quite specific about church life: if you are following Jesus you will see this, this and this in the church, and that that and that should not be done if you are living in the light.
As Strong George and his friends read these scriptures, they became very critical of what they saw in the Catholic church, because it didn’t seem to match up to what they were reading about Jesus, and his disciples and the early church. In their view, the Catholic Church wasn’t being the light that it should be.
Strong George and his friends decided that the true church is only made up of people who really want to follow Jesus and who promise to be a light in the world. It should be a “believers’ church”, a city set on hill, for people would see their faith and their love. The Anabaptists wanted to be part of a church where every single person showed their love for God in the way they lived their lives.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to the fall of 1970. I was in grade 5, and I had no idea what an Anabaptist was…I am sure I had never even heard the word! But it was in 1970 that I started thinking about what it means to be an Anabaptist. It all began in Mrs. Aloian’s gym class. I still remember the day, and the smell of the gymnasium. All the kids were excited because today we were square dancing in gym class. Then a very strange thing happened. My best friend Lucille walked up to Mrs. Aloian, our teacher, and in front of everyone said, “I can’t do this dancing because I am a Mennonite.” And then, with the whole class watching her, she went and sat down on a bench at the side of the gym. My first thought was, “Boy am I ever glad I’m not a Mennonite.” Then, being the perceptive 10 year old that I was, I thought, “Hey, wait a minute…I think I am a Mennonite!” But it didn’t stop me from participating enthusiastically in the square dance as my friend Lucille watched from the sidelines.
That night at dinner, I asked my parents my first ever theological question, “What is a Mennonite?” They must have wondered, “Wow, where is this coming from!” But before they could answer, I asked my very second theological question, “Can Mennonites square dance?” My parents explained to me that there are different kinds of Mennonites, and different Mennonites have different ideas about how we show the world that we are Christian. For some, dancing is seen as sinful, and so they aren’t allowed to dance. Lucille, by sitting down in gym class, was trying to be a light to the world by refusing to participate in sinful behaviour. It took a lot of courage for her to do what she thought was right.
Now I am pretty sure that square dancing is not the ethical issue that defines our generation of Mennonites. But for me, it was the first time I saw an example of how being a Christian meant that you chose a hard path, a path that was different than the path of many other people.
Later as I studied the Bible, I saw that choosing how to live out your faith was part of the very essence of the early church. And as I came to understand more about different types of Christians, I realized that every Christian church, including the Catholic church that the first Anabaptists rejected, believes that your actions should show the faith that you have in your heart. Living out your faith is not a unique Anabaptist idea. Given that, I still think that Mennonites have their own story to tell, of their own experiments in being a light in the world.
I’ve been mulling this over lately because in September I am going to be a part of a Christian/Muslim dialogue that is taking place here in Edmonton. The topic we will all be commenting on is “How do you maintain faith in a secular world?”
It’s a question that Muslims are wondering about in Canada, and it’s a question that Mennonites have struggled with too. I am thinking about telling the story of my friend Rachel. She grew up as part of a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Those Mennonites, from a Swiss heritage, had a long tradition of trying to maintain their identity, of living a simple lifestyle in contrast to the materialistic lifestyle of those around them. They shunned worldly entertainment like movies and television, they probably didn’t square dance, but I could be wrong about that. And they wore simple clothes. Rachel grew up wearing a cape dress and a head covering. It was part of her faith, her commitment to Jesus. A way to be a light in the world.
Over quite a few decades, many in that Swiss Mennonite tradition eventually abandoned some aspects of that simple lifestyle, such as specific types of clothing. Rachel too, gave up a lot of the outward signs like simple clothing. But the importance of living out her faith remained for her.
I knew Rachel when she was over seventy. She had just come back from a short trip she had taken in Waterloo County. She told me about how she had gotten lost on the highway. She pulled off the big road and stopped at a grocery store, and went in, and amongst all the crowds of people she was looking out for a friendly person to ask about directions. She said she saw a group of people wearing plain clothes. She said, “They had no idea I was a Christian, but I knew they were!” They were very helpful in getting her on the right road. She said that talking to them started her thinking again about what it means to be a Christian.
They were wearing their faith on their sleeve, in a manner of speaking. They were easily identified as part of the Anabaptist tradition, as followers of Jesus. Rachel wondered how her life might have been different if she had maintained some aspects of this tradition. She asked me, “How would your life be different if every single person you talked to, and interacted with, knew that you were a follower of Jesus? You could never be anonymous. You would always be a city on a hill. Would you try harder to be a light, if you knew that you were always on a stand, on display?”
Not long after my conversation with Rachel, I met a young Christian man visiting from Egypt. Like many Egyptians Christians, he has a small cross tattooed on his wrist. They don’t wear any other outward signs as Christians. But in the riots that were happening in Egypt at the time, to be a Christian could mean that you were targeted for violence. People looked at your wrist. No anonymity was possible. If having a tattoo of a cross on your wrist might mean that you are targeted on the street, would you get one, would you counsel your children to get one?
Outward signs can sometimes be helpful, they can encourage us to live up to our faith. They might also lead to people acting on prejudices against you. I think Christians and Muslims have lots to talk about on this issue.
What does it mean to live out our faith, to be a light in the world? For me hearing stories is an essential part of my ability to chart my path. Stories from Jesus, stories form the Bible, stories like the ones we heard today from two members of our congregatation in sharing time. Their faith has led them to specific actions, to choosing this road and not that road. Like George Blaurock, or Lucy or my friend Rachel. We ask questions, we wonder, “How does my light shine?”
For some, outward signs are important, so people know who you are`. They put a sticker on their bumper or their windshield that identifies them as a Christian. I wonder whether it curbs bad behaviour as you drive! You know that you can’t be anonymous. You are always on deck, you are always up to bat as Christ’s pinch hitter.
For others it’s more subtle. The people around you know you are a Christian. Whether it’s your neighbour who sees you driving off to church every Sunday, or your co-worker who you’ve talked to about your faith. They are watching you, and you know that you are demonstrating to them what it means to be a follower of Jesus, both by what you do and by what you don’t do.
As much as the letter to the Ephesians outlines do this, do this, do this, don’t do that or that or that…there is another side to the letter. Over and over again it reminds us that we are acting out of love for a Saviour who saves us by grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God—not the result of works.” (Ephesians 2:8) We are not working our way to heaven. We are responding in love. Does the person who has the brightest light, the most watts in their crown win the best seat in heaven? It’s nothing like that.
It’s more like this. My neighbour Tracey was a caregiver for her father. I saw her at the hockey rink every week for years because our sons were the same age, and they played in the same hockey league. So I had conversations with her over several years as her father suffered a number of health crises and she gradually took over more and more of his care.
Looking at this situation from the outside, you could add up all the appointments that she drove him to. You could calculate the hours she spent sitting with him and explaining things when he got confused. You could imagine that as he stopped knowing who she was, she was reckoning her obligations, trying to decide whether she had done the number of things she needed to do to be excelling on the good daughter scale. Maybe she would be comparing herself to her siblings, saying who has done the most work. But if you thought that way about Tracey, you would be wrong. Entirely wrong.
Tracey and I had numerous conversations about her dad and this is the way they always began, “I love my dad. My dad is my dad. I want to be with my dad. He was with me through all my growing up years, and where else would I rather be than with him now.” And as she said this she would always smile and I could see the love she had for him shining her in her eyes.
This week God’s love can shine in your eyes just like that. Faith made visible, for the whole world to see.
A sermon preached
at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
by Carol Penner
August 17, 2014