Menno Simons: pointing to the foundation | 6 November 2016

Texts: Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16

At the beginning of the 1500’s, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was falling apart.  The structure went all the way back to the 300’s, a project of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  After nearly 1200 years, the building needed some work.  What to do?  Renovate and remodel the existing building, or demolish the old and build something new?  Pope Julius II and the popes that followed went with the second option – out with the old, in with the new, a magnificent structure, still intact, that the American Ralph Waldo Emerson once referred to as “an ornament of the earth…the sublime of the beautiful” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 7 April 1833) .

For about as long as St. Peter’s had been around, the church had granted some form of indulgences.  This is not to be confused with what we did this past Monday when we granted to our children, and ourselves, that we could indulge in as much of our neighbors’ candy we could eat for one night.  A church- issued indulgence was “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sin.”  Traditionally, one could receive an indulgence through a prescribed good work or prayer.  In the 1500’s, when funds were tight for rebuilding St. Peter’s, several key leaders had the genius idea to market these indulgences for cash.  Your good work was a donation to the building project, and in turn you received an assurance of less punishment for your sins.

It was the “selling of indulgences” that motivated a German priest by the name of Martin Luther to write his 95 Theses against the corruptions of the church.  That was 1517, 499 years ago.  With the recent invention of the moveable type printing press, the 95 Theses document went viral across Europe like a cute kitten meme on Facebook, and what we now know as the Protestant Reformation was underway.

Monday was Halloween, which means Tuesday was All Saints Day and Wednesday All Souls Day, which means this, the first Sunday of November, is a time to remember loved ones who have died and the great cloud of witnesses of the dead that surround us, the living.  Later in the service we will light candles and speak the names of those we wish to remember today.  I’d also like to continue having this be a day in which we reflect on the life of one of our Anabaptist and Mennonite spiritual ancestors.  Last year that was Anna Janz of Rotterdam.  If you remember anything about her, you may remember the image of her handing off her young son to a local baker as she was led away to her execution, one of many early Anabaptists put to death for their convictions.  Another reminder that many chapters of church history are rated R.

Today I’d like for us to ponder the Anabaptist whose name is on our church sign, whose name we bear.  The guy who put the Menno in Menno-nite.  Menno Simons.  He’s looking right at you from the front of today’s bulletin.

Scripture: Psalm 1:1-2

Menno, son of Simon, was 28 years old when he began his first assignment as a Roman Catholic priest.  It was in a quiet town near where he grew up, in present day Netherlands.  It was the year 1524.

In one of his later writings, which is the source of all the quotes from him this morning, Menno reflects back on those early years (Menno Simons, German, 1554).  In the opening paragraph he notes that he, a priest, had never once opened a Bible, in his life, or in his first two years of pastoring.

For you children listening, this means that if you’ve gone to any Sunday school classes, and read any Bible stories, you know more about the Bible now at your age than the guy our church is named after when he started being a pastor, the same age pastor Mark started at CMC.

It’s a little hard for us to imagine that this could be the case.  But the historic church has built not only great physical structures, like St. Peter’s, but also great structures of thought and teaching.  Menno would have been educated in the theology and liturgy of the church.  He would have been led through its rooms of words and documents and practices, he would have been familiar with its walls, dividing room from room, walls holding the faithful safely inside and protecting against assaults from the outside.  Biblical language and stories would have been present in this structure, but he never had opened a Bible.  To stick with the metaphor, he knew the house, but had never walked down to the basement to examine the scriptural foundations of the church.

In that writing Menno recalls that his first tinge of doubt about church teaching had to do with the bread and wine of the Mass that he handled so frequently, that they did not, as was taught, become the body and blood of the Lord.  After initially seeing these thoughts as a temptation from the devil, he finally walked down into the metaphorical basement and examined the New Testament for himself.

If you’ve ever doubted certain aspects of what you were taught, or questioned your faith, you may be able to relate to what followed.  A house can be a pretty comfortable place to live.  Familiar.  But when the layout stops making sense, when you consider moving or removing one part of the structure, there can be an immediate fear that that whole thing might crumble.  If you take out that beam, and that post, and that load bearing wall, you’re in trouble.  Does this thing need remodeled or is it beyond repair?

It’s a question the reformers and various church leaders were answering in all kinds of different ways in the 16th century.

Luther’s writings were in circulation when Menno discovered the Bible frequently finding little support there for key church teachings.  In his writing, Menno states: “I was in so far helped by Luther, however: that human instructions cannot bind unto eternal death.”  Apparently Menno’s immediate concern was that he was in danger of the fires of hell for questioning church teaching, but he was helped by Luther’s writing to see that the teachings were human rather than Divine instructions.  He was freed to further explore the Scriptures for what they taught.

Scripture:      Matthew 26:47,51-52

The more Menno studied, the more he felt called to a personal conversion.  He continued on as a priest and was moved down the road to his hometown of Witmarsum, and even grew in popularity as his preaching improved with his expanded knowledge of the Bible.  He writes, “Everyone sought and desired me; the world loved me and I loved the world.  It was said that I preached the Word of God and was a good fellow.”

But he also began to pay attention to Anabaptists who were claiming the Bible and Spirit as their sole authorities.  He was especially intrigued by their practice of voluntary adult baptism, believer’s baptism.  This was a break from the long mandated infant baptism which theologically served to cover one from original sin, and politically served to enroll one in the books as a citizen and future tax payer and military recruit.

Menno’s crisis point came when a group of Anabaptists did some selective literal biblical translation about the coming of the kingdom of God, setting themselves up in the city of Munster as the New Jerusalem.  They expelled the Lutherans and Catholics and took up arms when a local ruler attempted to retake the city.  The Anabaptists in Munster were slaughtered.

Menno looked on all this and wrote: “After this had transpired, the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul…Alas!  Through the ungodly doctrines of Munster, and in opposition to the Spirit, Word, and example of Christ, they drew the sword to defend themselves, the sword which the Lord commanded Peter to put up in its sheath…I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith.”

Menno observed his own comfortable life.  He shared many convictions with the Anabaptists but saw that many of them were going astray, in his own words, “the poor straying sheep who wandered as sheep without a proper shepherd.”  He decided to make a clean break with the Roman Catholic church and his vocation as a priest.  “I, without constraint, renounced all my worldly reputation, fame, my unchristian abominations, my masses, infant baptism and my easy life, and I willingly submitted to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ.

Menno received his re-baptism, joined the Anabaptists and went into hiding.  He was very active, but seems to have preferred a withdrawn life of writing, and his writings became influential within and beyond Anabaptist circles.  He placed great significance in Jesus’ refusal of violence and his command to Peter to put away his sword.  He frequently cited the letters of Paul where they talk about the believer’s weapons as spiritual rather than physical.  He wrote against capital punishment, making a simple argument that the Christian ruler who gave the command was either killing a fellow believer, a “living grain of the Bread of Christ,” or was cutting short a non-believer’s chance to repent.

It’s been observed that Menno wasn’t a particularly well-versed theologian.  His writings focus on the practice of the Christian life, and especially, what it means to be the church together.  When he did try to get overly theological, he could get off target like his teaching of the “heavenly flesh” of Jesus.  That for Jesus to be perfect he had to get his flesh from God, not Mary.

Jeff Gundy teaches poetry at Bluffton University in Ohio and a few years ago wrote a poem that refers to this teaching.  It’s called “When Madonna met Menno.”  Yes, that Madonna.  As they sit crammed into a small booth at a café over some beers, Menno tells Madonna:

“I did a lot of brooding about the Blessed Mary back then.. .I decided
that Jesus slide out of her like a seed through a tube.
She was just a vase for the beautiful flower.” “What a load,”
said Madonna. “Mary was Jesus, and he was her, too.”
“Yeah, I’ve been wrong before,” said Menno. “You want
a basket of fries, another beer?”   (from Spoken Among the Trees, 2007)

As his writings circulated, Menno was approached by a group of Anabaptists who asked him to be a bishop in that region.  This involved traveling to meet with different gatherings, to preach and teach and baptize and train leaders.  He accepted, and shepherded Dutch Anabaptists through a difficult era and helped forge a new church identity.  Those under his care came to be called Mennists, and eventually, Mennonites.  Later Swiss Anabaptists would take on that name as well.

He would not end up among the Anabaptist martyrs.  But he was frequently on the move, going from safe house to safe house.  He married a woman named Gertrude, but we don’t know much about her.  They had at least three children.  He wrote about not having a permanent place of refuge.  He died on his sick bed around the age of 65.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:11

The man who had never read the Bible until two years into the priesthood did come to have a favorite Bible passage.  On the front page of each of his writings he would include this verse from 1 Corinthians 3:11.  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

He went into the basement of the structure he was a part of and took a long hard look at the foundation.  In reading the foundational Scriptures of the church, he saw even the Scriptures pointing beyond themselves, to the person of Christ.  He believed the Christ to be very much alive within the heart of the believer and the collective life of the church, and that the church was inherently a living structure entered into voluntarily, without compulsion, through the conviction of the Spirit.  A church that is peaceful.

One of the confusing results of the 16th century is how the great structure of the Western Church came to be many smaller structures.  There was some renovating of the old, but lots of new construction, resulting in hundreds and now thousands of Christian groups claiming to have the same foundation of Christ but often looking very different in how we teach and practice being the church.

One of the great tasks of the 21st century is to recognize the living Christ present within all these different people in all these different structures we have created.  Even in structures that don’t bear the name of Christ, that come out of completely different wisdom traditions from different homelands.  The children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Menno and the children of Luther and children of St. Peter, the children of the Buddha and the children of Mohammad — all children of God, all living in this common house we know as planet earth.

May our house, this living structure, be a place of hospitality and Shalom to all who enter as we bear the name of Christ.