Radically Mennonite

The following is a sermon offered by Michael Spath on Feb. 5, 2023, at Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship in Berne, IN.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-16

Indulge me for a few minutes and let’s do an exercise in time travel.

+ Transport yourself back 2000 years ago, first century Jerusalem. You’re a Palestinian Jew celebrating Shavuot, the first fruits of the spring harvest, and a retired fisherman named Peter, begins quoting from your Bible,

In the last days God declares,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams….
And let everyone know that God has made him Lord and Messiah, 
this Jesus whom you crucified.

Those moved by his message gathered among the dead in catacombs and each other’s homes. And they shared his teachings, prayed and broke bread together, and served those in need. And most of them were martyred.

+ Fast forward 1500 years. Germany, 1517, with 95 Theses Martin Luther criticized the sale of indulgences, taught it was a person’s faith and God’s grace that saved them, not the intercession of priest or Church. The Reformation began to spread across Europe, and for his efforts, on January 3, 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

Just 18 days later – you know this part of the story – January 21, 1521, 300 miles to the south, a group came to Zurich to listen to Ulrich Zwingli, a renegade priest who believed Luther didn’t go far enough, and further attacked the church’s theology and practice as corrupt. A small radical subgroup met secretly in the home of a former Zwingli disciple who split from him, Felix Manz, including Catholic priest, George Blaurock. This group was committed strictly to the Jesus of the Gospels, believing the doctrinal and ritual trappings added by the Catholic church had become an obstacle to faith rather than a vehicle for it. After time spent on their knees in prayer, Blaurock rose, confessed his faith in Jesus, was rebaptized and in turn, rebaptized the others there. Thus, the Anabaptist movement and the Zurich Swiss Brethren were founded.

Here’s the point, often forgotten – for them, to criticize baptism was also to criticize the government. The argument over baptism was no mere theological dispute. Baptism was a civil as well as religious act; these radicals wanted a church free of government interference. They were viewed not only as heretics within the church but also as traitors within their society.

Manz went on to become a preacher, was arrested many times, and six years later, was executed by drowning, the first Swiss Anabaptist martyr, the first martyr of the Radical Reformation. Blaurock was banished from Zurich for sedition to western Austria where the underground communities he established were known for shared living, shared resources, and shared property. He was eventually arrested in 1529, tortured, and burned at the stake.

And to finish the story, January 12, 1536, after the death of his brother at the hands of Catholic militia, 40-yer-old Catholic priest, Menno Simons, renounced the priesthood and was rebaptized. In 1539, this is how he summarized his faith:

True evangelical faith … seeks, serves, and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; … it seeks the lost; binds up the wounded; and heals the diseased…. And the persecution, the suffering we endure for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Your Anabaptist ancestors sought to return to the simplicity and purity of the Gospel life and teachings of Jesus, so like the earliest followers of Jesus, they saw themselves as part of a movement and a life of service, not a religion. No matter the cost.

+ Fast forward another 500-plus years to Berne, Indiana, and Emmaus Road; another transition, another opportunity to reflect and reform. Gently shepherded for ten years by Anita through birthing and infancy, caring for each other, tending the wounds of separation from prior church and friends, planting yourself here; then for five years, Peter’s wise and strong guiding through your teen years, establishing your independence, beginning to shape your own identity, finding your voice.

Now 2023 – you’ve come out and taken on your full stature publicly as a religious voice in this community. As I said last time, the recent decision by the local ministerial association was a compliment. Peter’s op-eds, their criticisms, your continuing presence as a progressive, open, inclusive Jesus-centered community matters. If you weren’t making a difference, they wouldn’t have taken notice. You don’t have to fit in … you don’t want to fit in. Anabaptists aren’t in the “fittin’ in” business. Never have been. You are the salt of the earth; heck, you’re about making people thirsty, thirsty for the Gospel.

In 2019, the last year for which we have data, in a study of 34 Christian denominations, 4500 churches closed, while only 3000 opened. And from Gallup – only 47% of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70%-plus in 2000, worship attendance down from 135 to 65, and most attendees over 65. This has been the pattern – churches are dying, movements are spreading.

It was called “Reformation” for a reason. Anabaptists were a reform movement within a church that had been co-opted by the prevailing corrupt values of their society – a medieval Christian exceptionalism. Sound familiar? You are part of a Jesus movement not bogged down by long-dying traditions, a museum of relics of a bygone era, or, as the Religious Right calls it, “traditional American Judeo-Christian values.” We’ve seen what that looks like in legislatures, school boards, and courts. Thanks, but no thanks! You are the light of the world; you’re about lighting candles for people who are afraid of the light. They’re not just afraid of the dark, they’re afraid of the light. Ruled by fear, that’s why freedom is so threatening.

Distinctive about the first disciples and all who followed, they were creating an alternative society, a radical new experiment in human community – living simply, mutual care, serving the poor, grounded in the teaching and model of Jesus. And the great symbol of this new human community? On the Emmaus Road, “he was known to them,” where? – “in the breaking of the bread.” What happens right here every week at this table, nothing short of a miracle – a new, open, y’all come, everyone welcome, everyone served, shared kinship meal, the new holy of holies that you then take out into the streets! To the streets!

The church – ek-klesia, “called out” from the society around it. Here’s the problem – it’s not natural, we don’t want to be called out, stand out, be different. We don’t want to be salt, don’t want to be the light of the world, it’s more comfortable to just be the world. Those first disciples, those first brave Anabaptists, they called the world to a different kind of politics, a different morality, a different kind of economy and risked standing out from the world unashamed about being different.

So as you renew your mission and plan for your future, it’s not about numbers or convenience or money or reputation or anything else. The only thing that matters is the Gospel. The only thing that matters is Jesus … and serving the world, the people he gave his life for. There are a lot of churches out there that are all about loving Jesus but just don’t care much for people. How can you love Jesus? Love the people he loved. We make Jesus so hard sometimes.

One of the reasons I rehearsed your history this morning was a reminder of your rich Anabaptist tradition, grounded in the simple faith and practice of the first Christians. Emmaus Road – “called out” to be an alternative experiment in human community. I’m suggesting you begin right here with nothing less than a new Reformation, grounded in what you know best; from the first disciples:

  • telling the story of Jesus;
  • building each other up in faith and prayer;
  • taking care of each other and serving the poor; and
  • breaking bread together.

And these, too, from your Anabaptist tradition:

  • telling the truth … to a world that lives in delusion;
  • living a life of simplicity … in a world that values greed and accumulation;
  • seeking the truth … no matter where the Spirit leads, even if it means breaking social and religious taboos;
  • valuing every human being because of their inherent dignity … in a world that is increasingly narrow-minded and intolerant; and
  • living a life of non-violence in thought, word, and deed … in a world, in an economy that thrives on competition and war.

Oh yes, one more thing – and here’s the rub. They were willing to give their lives to it. They were willing to give their lives for it. Their mission – living out the Jesus life. Their future – like his, the cross, sacrificing everything for it. And us? We know who we’re called to be. We know what we’re called to do, we who bear his name. We know our mission. The question, to put it simply, is whether we’re ready, whether we’re willing … to pay the price. It really is as simple and as difficult as that.

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. The first thing I thought when I read this lesson was, “How appropriate for us as we begin the transition to a new pastor and renewed mission!” And your name, your name – you’re not only on the Emmaus Road, you are Emmaus Road, the path that leads from the cross to the resurrected Jesus. You ARE the Emmaus Road. As you plan for your future, think about that.

Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship is an Anabaptist/Mennonite church in Berne, Indiana, where faith is a journey animated by the boundless love and mystery of God that is revealed by the justice-centered life of Jesus and made present to us by the Spirit.
We strive to be a safe community that honors the diversity of God’s good creation by affirming the fullness of each person’s humanity, including their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and age.

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