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 for preaching the Gospel, 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, in an act of selfless compassion, he went back and rescued his pursuer. Standing again on the ice, the grateful “thief catcher” caught his breath, then hesitated. He might 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 after cruel tortures–at the hands of fellow Christians. But still they followed Jesus’ command to love their enemies.
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.”
There were three major schools of thought during the Reformation period. 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. Obedience to them was the highest priority.
Protestants like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preached a theology of justification by faith in Christ alone… while continuing to persecute those who disagreed with them on any doctrine.
But the Anabaptists wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus in daily life. “Just to take him at his word” (as the song goes), modeling their lives on the Sermon on the Mount.
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, and of course I can only touch on a little of it.
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 what the world despises, and despise what 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 ways of the world. We must reject every form of vengeance and violence, and every rationalization and excuse for it.
More than that, we must love our enemies. Forgive them. Bless them. Be kind to them. Do good to them. Be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and makers of peace.
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, and we see the fruit of it throughout the historical record. Rome, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, England — all tortured and killed those they called heretics.
- John Huss was burned at the stake by Catholics in 1415 at the order of the Council of Constance because (among other things) he thought laypeople should be able to drink from the cup at communion.
- Anabaptist leader Felix Manz was drowned by the City of Council of Zurich in 1527, urged on by the Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, because Manz thought only believers should be baptized.
- In 1543 Martin Luther cursed at the Jews who wouldn’t accept his message and urged that their synagogues be burned, their homes torn down, their scriptures taken from them, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their safety on the highways withdrawn. Four hundred years later, Nationalists in Germany remembered and republished Luther’s words, using them to justify a policy of alienation, concentration, and extermination.
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, what they accepted and assumed to be true, and the revealed word of God. “But I say to you”– something different, something radical, something they had not heard before, something they couldn’t believe that Jesus really meant for us to take literally
We, too, might be tempted to ignore what Jesus says. To excuse and to rationalize our passions. But it is Jesus saying so. And we must listen, if we call ourselves by his name.
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.” They rejected the ways of the world and resolved to be a peculiar people.
Like the Anabaptists, the early Adventists rejected injustice. They were active in all the social reforms of the day, especially the anti-slavery movement–most notably, Joseph Bates. They helped fugitive slaves escape–John Byington, the first GC president, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. They refused to obey laws that sought to limit our compassion–Ellen White said plainly, “The laws of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey.”
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.
This is fundamental to who we are as Seventh-day Adventists: We are to do no harm. We are to do all we can to ensure the health and well-being of all, and to lovingly tend the garden of this world.
In 1987, near the end of the Cold War, then GC president, Neal Wilson, went to Moscow 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 Sermon on the Mount. To save lives. To build bridges of understanding. To be people of compassion and mercy. To be people of peace.
In 2002, on the eve of the Iraq War, the General Conference issued a “Call for Peace,” reminding the members of the church that this is who we are. It said our 6000 schools around the world should
… set aside one week each school year to emphasize and highlight, through various programs, respect, cultural awareness, nonviolence, peacemaking, conflict resolution, and reconciliation as a way of making a specifically “Adventist” contribution to a culture of social harmony and peace.
It said to pastors,
The education of the church member in the pew, for nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation, needs to be an ongoing process. Pastors are … asked to use their pulpits to proclaim the gospel of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation which dissolves barriers created by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and religion, and promotes peaceful human relations between individuals, groups, and nations.
We need this vision today more than ever.
We need it for the sake of the world–and we need it for our own sake.
When we accept endless war as the norm and increasing deaths do not bother us,
When fear and intolerance are preached from pulpits, and walls arise in our hearts,
When TV, radio, and the internet stir up suspicion and resentment,
When even Christians harden their hearts to human suffering and urge destruction of a nation’s enemies,
When even Christians see a photo of a drowned toddler with her tiny arms around her father’s lifeless body and can only say, “It’s his fault for breaking the law …”
Then our voice as peacemakers must be heard, and our actions of lovingkindness towards “the least of these” must be seen and must be known.
We are not of this world.
We do not belong to any nation.
We cannot take our marching orders from a political party or a Leader. We must not rest comfortable in the encouragement of Romans 13 to submit to earthly powers, because Revelation 13 warns us to not submit to them.
We proclaim the three angels messages of Revelation 14:6-12. We know that Caesar will increasingly stand in opposition to God. We must worship the Creator, for the hour of his judgment is come. We must come out of every manifestation of Babylon. The beast seeks to claim us, in our thoughts and in our deeds. He seeks to draft us into service in his war against the Most High, against the saints, against the “least of these,” against creation itself.
But we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is king, and Jesus alone.
He alone must reign in our hearts.
His values must rule in our lives, and guide our discernment.
“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?