January 21, 1525. A small group of young intellectuals gather in the home of Felix Mantz’s mother, in Zurich, Switzerland. While they are there, George Blaurock, a former priest, asks Conrad Grebel to baptize him with water. After being baptized himself, Blaurock goes on to baptize the others who are there at the meeting.
This is the event that is pointed to as the symbolic beginning of the Anabaptist movement. Ana-baptist, meaning re-baptizers, because all of them, just like everyone else at the time, would have initially been baptized as infants. It was a fairly radical break because baptism had come to be so tied up with allegiance to the political order. You were born, you were baptized into citizenship, you paid taxes, and you fought to defend the territory of your local feudal lord. It was a full package deal.
In beginning a movement of re-baptism, the early Anabaptists were claiming that their primary identity did not come from being a subject of the magistrate or from following the traditions of the church, but from being a disciple of the Christ of the New Testament. This had tremendous implications on how they lived their lives and on how they were then treated by the authorities who saw this whole movement as a threat. The Anabaptists would not swear an oath of allegiance to anyone because Jesus taught not to swear any kind of oath. They wouldn’t take the life of another person, including the Turks who were threatening the territory from the outside, because scripture taught not to kill. They shared their resources with those who were in need much like the early disciples. There were over 2000 Anabaptist martyrs in those first generations. Over 500 of these were women, who like in the early church, held places of leadership. One of the early leaders of the Anabaptists was Menno Simons. He especially emphasized the importance of following Jesus’ way of peace and not taking vengeance on their persecutors. From Menno came the Mennonites, and many of us are still trying to live out what it means to follow Jesus’ way of peace in the world.
Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is a small part of what is now a global family that came out of the Anabaptist movement. Every year, on a date close to those January 21st house re-baptisms, congregations have the opportunity to observe World Fellowship Sunday to remember brothers and sisters around the world who are a part of this heritage.
Currently the Anabaptist family is near 1.5 million worldwide. Only 1/3 of these are in the United States and Canada. Another 1/3, actually a little more than a third, and the continent with the most Anabaptists, is Africa. The other third, in order of most to least amount of members, are in Asia, Latin America; and the birthplace of Anabaptism, Europe. (country by country stats at http://www.mwc-cmm.org/en/PDF-PPT/2006mbictotal.pdf )
At the office we recently received a brief list of prayer requests, divided up into different continents, from Mennonite World Conference. To get a sense of some of what is going on in a few of these churches spread out around the world, listen to these voices coming Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
Africa· Give thanks for reconciliation agreements in the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo and in Kanisa la Mennonite Tanzania. Pray for the consolidation of these agreements.· Pray for the church in Eritrea which is under great duress.· Continue to pray for the church in Zimbabwe, the host of the last Mennonite World Conference. Asia· Pray for the missionary work of the Mennonite Church of India in Bhutan and Nepal. A new church was inaugurated in Nepal with the Bodo tribe on August 5, 2007 with 7 baptized members.· Pray for church growth in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Thailand.· Thank God that many of the churches in Vietnam have been able to successfully register with local authorities, and that leaders have been able to conduct training courses. Continue to pray for the ethnic minority churches that experience harassment, and especially for the S’tieng ethnic community in Binh Phuoc province whose land has been appropriated by government officials who will likely reap the financial benefits. Latin America
· Give thanks for the Catholic-Mennonite meeting in Colombia.
· Pray for awareness of the reality of poverty, unemployment, and massive migration of Latinamericans seeking new horizons in other countries.
· Pray for awareness of the increasing structural and widespread corruption at government levels in Latin America.
· Pray for the unity, growth and strengthening of the Latin American Anabaptist Church
Europe· Pray that our congregations and members may grow in faith and find good leaders;· Pray that our responsibility for this earth and all that is in it may grow;· Pray that we as Mennonites promote living peacefully with all the different religions and cultures in our continent;· Pray that we give continued attention to the undocumented people that come into our countries because of persecution, war and violence in their homelands.
To these we could add many more, but it helps give us a sense of what kinds of situations are being experienced in different parts of the world.
It just so happens that the lectionary reading for today is the baptism of Jesus. Before the Anabaptists there was the original Baptist, John the Baptizer, and Jesus chose to place himself within John’s baptism movement to begin his own ministry. There are two aspects of Jesus’ experience of baptism that I’ll highlight that speak some guidance for us 21st century Anabaptists, although they really apply to anyone, anytime. One has to do with who we are, the second has to do with what we do.
First, who we are. The final verse describing Jesus’ baptism says this: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Within this statement there is a conflation of two biblical identities which at first seem to contradict each other. The first comes from Psalm 2:7 “Today you are my son; today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2 is a royal Psalm, recited at the coronation of a new king. It was understood that the king became the adopted son of God and carried out God’s will on earth. So on the one hand we have the royal tradition of the people of Israel. The second identity comes from Isaiah 42. “Here is my servant, with whom I am well pleased.” The prophet Isaiah highlights the servant tradition of the people of Israel. More important than ruling was being one who humbly brought justice to the people. Within this voice at Jesus’ baptism, sandwiched in between these statements of the kingly and the servant identity, is a single word that combines these identities and tells us about who we are. This is my Son (royal), the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (servant). Who are we? We are the beloved of God.
Before Jesus did anything, before he healed anyone, before he preached a single word, before he extended a hand of love to anyone who had been excluded by others – before he does any one of these things, he begins with the deeply felt knowledge that he is the Beloved Child of God. This is who he is, first and foremost.
We are invited to hear this same voice speaking from heaven, ‘You are my Beloved child.’ What does it mean to hear these words spoken to us? To really hear them. To have them resonate in us in such a way that we know them to be true. This is what our baptism invites us into. So baptism is often referred to as being like a new birth. There is a new consciousness that is formed when one hears, accepts, knows, that one is, in the most fundamental part of one’s identity, Beloved.
Being beloved of God is not unique for just us. Everyone, and I mean everyone is a beloved child of God. It’s a matter of how deeply we allow ourselves to hear this reality. If our perception of sound is our ear’s ability to catch and magnify and vibrate along with the waves of a particular signal, then we would do well to tune our ears to this constant vibration of the universe. You are my Beloved. You are my Beloved. Those who internalize this signal, that they are beloved children of God, also recognize that they are a part of a global family of others who have caught the waves of the voice from heaven. It is a transnational kind of identity which makes us both royalty and servants at the same time. More central than our national citizenship or our culture or our biological heritage is this identity of being Beloved. The better we hear the voice, the more we attune our lives to this reality.
If the voice tells us who we are, then what happens right along with this at Jesus’ baptism tells us what we do. There is this phrase in v. 16 that says that “the heavens were opened to him,” and then the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove and settles on him. There are a number of occasions in scripture that refer to the heavens being opened, or torn open in some places. The book of Ezekiel begins by saying that while he was among the exiles in Babylon the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God. When Stephen is being stoned in the book of Acts he claims to see the heavens opened up. Jacob saw a ladder set on the earth reaching all the way up to opened heavens. This picture of an open heaven gets at the notion of a barrier being eliminated. What we normally think as being two separate, non-intersecting realities, heaven and earth, are pictured as being opened up to each other during these times and actually connecting together. What is happening at Jesus’ baptism is what continues to happen throughout his ministry. Heaven and earth are being seen together, overlapping, and interpenetrating one another.
So along with being Beloved, we are a part of the work of bringing together that which we normally experience as separated. All of our dualities of heaven and earth, spirit and body, personal peace and social peace, Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Muslims, black and white, American and non-American – anything that is set up as being separated by great distance, is being opened up and brought together in this movement of the Spirit.
The most recent Mennonite Weekly Review gave a report that is an example of this very thing. Last month there was a gathering in Guatemala City of the Central American Anabaptist Women Theologians. The article says that participants focused on the damaging effects domestic violence can have on women and men and how this was not something that the church spoke of very often. The women have the goal of bridging that span between domestic violence and church consciousness throughout Central America, bringing these two worlds together.
It’s my understanding that bringing together what should not be separated was also the original impetus behind the beginnings of Mennonite Arts Weekend. Somehow, the world of the church and the world of the artist, had been separated from each other, and Mennonite Arts Weekend was created as a way of bringing these back together and opening each one up to the other, so that faith and artistic expressions of all sorts can live in the same house.
I think in the long run of history those early Anabaptists will not be seen as ones who primarily caused a separation of the church from itself in all it’s Protestant splintering, but as ones who were primarily bringing together essential things that had become separated. They helped bring the church back to its source of rootedness in the story of Jesus and God’s love for the world.
It’s in this spirit that we enter now into a time of communion. What better symbol of bringing together that which is usually separated. The normal, everyday items of the bread and the cup are bearers of the holy for us. The spiritual and the physical are united, and we taste it in our mouths and take it into our bodies. We share this communion not just with each other, but with this world fellowship that we are a part of. Others who have heard the voice that has called them God’s own beloved gather around the table all over the world. All are welcome here who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. This is the table of our Lord and it is a gift to us.