What’s in a name? Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. Well the Cincinnati part is easy enough to figure out. Members of this group live and work in and around this city. And the city of Cincinnati is an important part of this church’s identity. Fellowship, well, I suppose it could be Cincinnati Mennonite Church, but a church can be a building or a group of people and this congregation existed quite a few years without owning its own building. Fellowship indicates that this is about the people, about the relationships, about being a community together wherever. Mennonite. Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. If you’ve ever told someone that you go to a Mennonite church maybe you’ve had the experience of having to explain that no you don’t drive a horse and buggy, that you’re allowed to wear typical American clothing, and that yes, you do have electricity in your house. Anyone? These are parts of the Mennonite tradition that this congregation has chosen not to emphasize. So what is a Mennonite and why is that an important part of the identity of this fellowship?
Mennonites don’t have saints, but if we did we would be sure to include Dirk Willems among them. You know, maybe it’s good that we don’t have saints. Saint Dirk just doesn’t quite have that ring to it.
Mennonites don’t have icons, but if we did, perhaps our premier icon would be this image printed on the front of your bulletins – Dirk Willems turning back from escaping his pursuer to pull him out of the broken ice. There are a couple different versions of this story. One version, the one presented in the reader’s theater, has Dirk escaping from prison where he was being held for trial for being an Anabaptist. The other version has Dirk escaping from his home when an official arrives at his door to arrest him. Either way the key feature of the story is portrayed in this etching which was made by a Dutch artist around 1685. At some point in his escape, Dirk successfully crossed a frozen pond, making it to the other side. The man pursuing him was not so fortunate, he fell through the ice.
Being an Anabaptist in Dirk’s time was dangerous because it meant you had made a decision which shifted your primary allegiance away from the state which was closely aligned with the church. In a time when infant baptism was like filling out a birth certificate to register you as a citizen and future tax payer of the state, Anabaptists had the boldness to believe that baptism had much more to do with an adult decision to become a citizen in a different sort of kingdom, the new creation of God’s peaceful reign. So, beginning in the first half of the 16th century, these people began privately rebaptizing each other and declaring themselves as servants of Christ, not servants of the political authorities. They were first called Anabaptists, re-baptizers, by their enemies as a term of contempt, much like early followers of Jesus were first called Christians, little Christs, by their enemies. And much like the early Christians, Anabaptists were hunted down, arrested, and executed because of the perceived threat they posed to those in power.
Dirk Willems was not going to passively accept his fate as a martyr. He valued his life. He tried to escape capture. But over the course of his escape he made what was probably a split second decision that ultimately led to his death. He had crossed the frozen pond safely, but his pursuer had not. Maybe Dirk looked over his back to see how much distance he had established between himself and his pursuer. Maybe it was the sound of the ice breaking or the sudden cry that made him look around.
Standing back from the situation I have the tendency to try and judge the decision made here. I have plenty of time to sort through all the pros and cons for Dirk to keep running away or for him to do what he did. But for Dirk it was most likely more like a reflex, an impulse to turn around and attempt to help this man. A reflex for indiscriminate love. Somehow Dirk was able to pull him out of the pond without himself getting dragged into the freezing water. Then the guard, bound under his legal duty, hauled Dirk away to prison. A little while later, the courts pronounced this sentence against him: “Whereas Dirk Willems, born at Asperen, at present a prisoner has…confessed, that at the age of fifteen…he was rebaptized in Rotterdam, at the house on one Pieter Willems, and that he, further, in Asperen, at his house, at diverse hours…permitted several persons to be rebaptized…therefore, we the aforesaid judges…do condemn the aforesaid Dirk Willems that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues.”
The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, wrote this: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
An ambassador is someone who represents a certain nation to another nation, someone who speaks on behalf of her country to another country. Mennonites have believed that the New Testament teaches that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Our baptism gives us a different sort of birth certificate to live under a new authority. Ambassadors speak not just for themselves, but for the ones they represent. They act as agents, crossing a bridge between two different lands.
This isn’t a matter of heaven and earth, as in after life and during life. This is a matter of living in the ways of God in the present moment. Paul goes on to say just a few verses later: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” We may not feel like we are living in the middle of salvation, but that is exactly what Jesus has invited us to do. There is something new that can happen here with us. There is reconciliation that can happen. We are reconciled to God when we see God present in the loving face of Jesus, and we are reconciled to each other as we begin to represent this loving face to one another.
Mennonites are direct descendants of the early Anabaptists. We take our name from Menno Simons who was an influential leader early on in the movement. And we have always felt that we should stand out in some way from the dominant culture. We have always felt the tension between being a citizen of the reign of God and a citizen of the reign of Caesar. Menno and others believed that the New Testament offers us a reasonable way of living and that this way will often make us seem odd, perhaps even foolish to many people.
We are in a very different context than Dirk and Menno and the early Anabaptists. We are no longer a persecuted minority. We may feel like we’re in the minority with our convictions about peace. We may feel out of place in this hyper-materialistic militaristic society. But if we’re to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that quite a bit has changed since the time of our Anabaptist ancestors. If we look behind our backs, there’s no one chasing us. We have citizenship in a democracy. And we have access to a wide range of economic and educational resources. Put simply. We have power.
And I think that’s one of the reasons I am so drawn to this image of Dirk Willems and feel that it can give us some guidance for who we can continue to be as Mennonite, Anabaptist Christians. I gazed at this image quite a bit this past week. It has a way of growing on you, working its way inside you. Of all the situations Anabaptists have found themselves in, here is one where they held some power, at least temporarily. Look at the picture again. Dirk was not seeking power for himself. He was in the process of seeking safety, simply trying to get away harm. The only power he thought he had was his power to move quicker than his enemy. And then, without asking for it, he suddenly found himself with a great deal of power. His pursuer is in the icy cold water. Dirk is safe on the other side. And that’s the point where I am most easily able to enter the story – just a few seconds before the scene portrayed in the etching. Finding myself on solid ground but recognizing that someone has fallen through the ice behind me.
So here we are, 21st century urban and suburban American Mennonites, with a certain degree of power. Finding ourselves on solid ground, yet aware that all is not well. What does it mean to be an ambassador of God’s reconciliation? What does it mean to represent the new creation? What does it mean to continue living in our Mennonite heritage?
How about this as one possible answer? To be a Mennonite is to be one who returns to the broken ice – to extend the hand of compassion to whoever has fallen through. There is always the choice of going away to safety, of leaving the troubled scene and blending in with the scenery. But if we are children of Dirk Willems we carry with us this reflex for turning back. I see Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship as living this out, committed to returning to the broken ice, reaching out as an ambassador of peace to a hurting world. This is who you have been, and by God’s grace, this is who we will continue to be.
Congregational Reading from Menno Simons: “True evangelical faith…”