The year was 1569. The place, Holland, which was then under Spanish rule. That meant Catholic rule, and Protestants were treated harshly, especially those known as Anabaptists.
Dirk Willems was an Anabaptist. When they came to arrest him, he took off running, with an officer known as a “thief catcher” in fast pursuit. Dirk headed for a frozen pond, and ran across the snow covered ice. The “thief catcher” followed … but the ice cracked beneath his feet, and he plunged into the water beneath.
Willems heard the crash and the cries. He looked back. Now was his chance to get away.
But instead, he went back and helped his pursuer. The grateful “thief catcher” would have let him go, but the burgomaster hollered from the shore and ordered him to do his duty. Reluctantly, he brought Willems back to shore, and delivered him to jail. Some weeks later, convicted in a short trial, he was burned at the stake.
This is just one of many stories told in a book called the Martyr’s Mirror, the record of the Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Countless men, women, and children suffered horrible deaths–at the hands of fellow Christians.
Everyone saw the Anabaptists as a threat to Christian society.
- They insisted upon separation of church and state.
- They believed that only believers should be baptized, not babies.
- And their greatest crime? They were peaceful people, who refused to bear arms.
For this they were hated by Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. Each of their enemies tried to outdo the others in the cruelties they inflicted upon these simple Christians who just wanted to live as Jesus taught.
At the time, they called themselves simply “brethren.” The largest group we know today as Mennonites, named after Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who became Protestant after corresponding with Luther and Zwingli—but he felt they didn’t go far enough in their reform. Others, who lived in community, took the name of Jakob Hutter and became known as Hutterites. In a later generation, the Amish got their name from Jakob Amman, who sought an internal reform. Still others continued to simply call themselves “brethren.”
Catholics wanted to worship Christ in the sacraments, and saw the visible Catholic church as the mystical body of Christ, with bishops as the successors of the apostles.
Protestants like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preached a theology of justification by faith in Christ alone… while continuing to persecute those who disagreed.
But the Anabaptists wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus in daily life. To simply take him at his word.
What the books of Romans and Galatians were for Luther and Calvin, the Sermon on the Mount was for the Anabaptists.
And of all the movements coming out of the sixteenth century reformation, they are our (Seventh-day Adventists) closest spiritual cousins
The Sermon on the Mount is the text I want to look at this morning. It covers three chapters, Matthew 5-7.
Jesus’ words in this sermon are some of the most familiar to our ears, especially the list of blessings we call the Beatitudes.
In this passage, Jesus turns the values of the world upside down, and tells us we should value things that the world despises, and despise the things the world values.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I’m going to single out one of those verses, verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This is a point that Jesus says more about in the verses that follow, starting with verse 21:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. …
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. …
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.
These are radical statements. He says that those in the kingdom of God must reject the way the world acts. We must reject all forms of violence, and all justification for it. We must repudiate anger, even the kind we justify as “righteous indignation.”
And more than that, we must love our enemies. Bless them. Forgive them. Be kind to them. Do good to them. Be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and makers of peace, in the church, and within the world.
The question for us to consider is this: Did Jesus mean what he said?
The Catholic church for centuries taught “no.” These recommendations were only for those who wanted to be perfect—monks and nuns, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The Reformers rejected this to varying degrees. They rejected the idea that there was one standard for the so-called “religious” and another for the laity. But they too thought Jesus’ teachings described a state of holiness and perfection that we could never hope to achieve short of the kingdom of God.
They all rejected the idea of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek. Rome, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, England — all tortured and killed those they called heretics.
- John Huss was burned at the stake by Catholics because (among other things) he thought laypeople should be able to drink from the cup at communion.
- Felix Manz was drowned by Ulrich Zwingli because he thought only believers should be baptized.
- Luther cursed at the Jews who wouldn’t accept his message and urged that their synagogues be burned, their homes be torn down, their scriptures be taken from them, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their safety on the highways withdrawn.
All these Christians looked to the Old Testament law as their guide, and on that basis imposed harsh penalties for religious crimes.
But they ignored the fact that Jesus taught something different.
“You have heard it was said”, he says time and time again, referring to what they knew from Moses. “But I say to you”– something different, something radical, something they had not heard before.
We, too, might be tempted to ignore what Jesus says. To excuse it. To rationalize it. But it is Jesus saying so. And we must listen.
The early Adventists did.
Like the Anabaptists, they heard the call of God, “Come out of her my people.” “Come out from among them, and be ye separate.”
Like the Anabaptists, they rejected injustice. They were active abolitionists, and they helped fugitive slaves escape. They refused to obey laws that contradicted the teaching of Christ.
And though they believed in the union cause, and saw the South’s rebellion as Satanic, and the war as a judgment on the nation for the sin of slavery, they refused to bear arms, even for a just cause.
In the months after the General Conference was created in 1863, President Lincoln called for the nation’s first conscription. The following year, an exemption was made for conscientious objectors, and Adventist leaders wrote to the states and the federal government seeking recognition as one of the “religious denominations conscientiously opposed to the bearing arms”:
The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. (See Wilcox, 1936)
But they said they would willingly assist the nation in other ways, in caring for the injured, and for slaves who would be freed. They would do their part to show that they were good citizens, but they could not do that which God had forbidden. “We must obey God rather than man.”
We’ve held that position since. The best known example of an Adventist who tried to straddle that line between obedience to God and to Caesar was Desmond Doss, recognized with the Medal of Honor in 1945 for saving lives in combat on Okinawa (see the movie, “Hacksaw Ridge,” or the documentary, “The Conscientious Objector“).
If you go to the church webpage, adventist.org, under Official Statements, you will find many other statements we have made about war, and about peace. You will find many calls to understanding, and to reconciliation.
A former GC president, Neal Wilson, went to Moscow in 1987 and was able to speak in front of Mikhael Gorbachev at a conference on peace. Elder Wilson said that we as a church are about more than just refusing to bear arms. It is our responsibility to also do what we can in society to make peace possible. He said,
Our Christian commitment compels us to reappraise the contribution we may make to peace and the social justice intrinsic to peace. In the person of the God-man who walked among us as one of us, we see divinity and humanity combined. Thus we cannot serve God without also serving our fellowman. Not only in His incarnation but in His ministry to us we see an example of how we should relate to a choice between conflict and peace. On one occasion in a Samaritan village, Jesus and His disciples were not well received. Two disciples, James and John, said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” And Jesus answered: “You don’t know what kind of a Spirit you belong to; for the Son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”
That’s what Jesus calls us to in the passage. To save lives. To build bridges of understanding. To be people of compassion and mercy. To be people of peace.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
What would our world look like if those who claimed the name of Jesus really did this?