The terms “Mennonite” and “Anabaptist” can throw people off. People have asked all kinds of quirky questions on Thirdway.com. Questions like, How do Mennonites feel about Christmas presents? Are Mennonite marriages arranged? How do Mennonites view Tae Kwon Do? Or my favorite, On your website I saw a picture of someone being burned a the stake. Is this part of your church discipline?
People are confused about who we are. Sometimes, so am I. Does it really matter?
So I asked the audience why being Mennonite is important to them. I also asked them why it is helpful for us to be Mennonite. Their answers were insightful. Beacuse of our focus on Scripture; being a peace church; seeing Jesus as the foundation of our faith; and the Mennonite emphasis on community. I could have just stopped right there, but how much fun would that be!?
So to answer the question why being Mennonite is helpful, I asked a further question, What sustained the faith of Mennonites/Anabaptists in the midst of both persecution and affluence/success? Here is what I’ve found.
Viewing Christianity as discipleship
Jesus, as already mentioned, is the very foundation of our faith. Where Luther hung his hat on “justification by faith alone,” Anabaptists responded to Jesus call to “follow me” in order to make sense of the faith. Hans Denck famously said, “No one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.” Jesus calls us to follow after him in life and faith, doing what Jesus did, seeing the world like Jesus saw the world, accepting people like Jesus accepted the world, and couching our language with the radical in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Radical, counter-cultural, alternative, faithful: these are the words that describe Jesus and his followers. Ultimately, Anabaptists and Mennonites, when at their best, believe Jesus meant what he said, and that he was talking to us. In other words, vibrant sustained Mennonites don’t just believe in Jesus, they believe Jesus. This has been the case for 500 years, may it be so again today.
A vibrant Spiritual Life
At their best, Mennonites and Anabaptists have had a vibrant spiritual life. For many of us, let’s just be honest here, their expressions of faith are embarrassing. But rooted in Scripture, and energized by prayer, early Anabaptists martyrs clung willingly to their faith even though all it would have taken was to say, “You’re right, I’m not that kind of Christian, I’m your kind of Christian.” It’s absolutely unthinkable to fathom martyrs not possessing a vibrant spiritual life. And it’s equally unthinkable to imagine affluent and successful Christians having a faith-filled life without a deep rootedness in Scripture and prayer. The affluent Dutch Mennonites of the 17th century said, “When our houses were made of wood, our hearts were made of gold. But when our houses became made of gold, our hearts were wood.” And Jesus said it’s nearly impossible for the rich to make their way into heaven. Nearly impossible, but not impossible for those who cling to the Lord in communal Bible study and passionate prayer.
Mennonites see themselves as both Aliens and Citizens
Following Christ makes us odd in a world hell-bent on the status quo. So being “in but not of the world” is like second nature for Mennonites. Like Paul said, “our citizenship is in heaven.” But our alien status can and has deteriorated on us. It can make us insular, focused on purity as defined by separation from the world. It sees “the world’s” influence on Christians as being of a more powerful nature than the church’s influence on the world. In its deterioration, our alien status has built dozens of Christian schools, circled the wagons in small rural communities, and blocked us from truly engaging world, politics, or people.
Balanced with this though, has always been the ability to live in the tension of not just being aliens, but also citizens of this world. At our best, Mennonites and Anabaptists have engaged the structures, politics, and people of the world in the powerful name of Jesus, through word and action. Like Jeremiah in Babylon, Jesus in Jerusalem, and Paul in Athens, vibrant Anabaptism is found when church engages culture. This too, can and has deteriorated on us though. When cultural engagement deteriorates we find people who no longer look any different than the world around us, with no gospel left to share.
Our web-based discussion on this topic (see HMC Discussion Blog) highlighted both our strongly held beliefs and our restraint in sharing those beliefs publicly. This is interesting to me. Let me introduce you to some non-Mennonites I know of. I think of Rob Bell and Greg Boyd, mega-church pastors; Stanley Hauerwas and Brian McLaren as evangelical authors; Shane Claiborne as the founder of a new monastic movement: all of these people have one thing in common. They drink deeply from the wells of Anabaptist practice and thought. Some on that list have even claimed to find in Anabaptism a “home.” But they have one more thing in common. Absolutely zero problems going public with their “Anabaptist” beliefs, theology, actions, and messages. They’re preaching peace, denouncing empire, building systems of thought and communities on the words and life of Jesus, and they are not being quiet about it. To be faithful and vibrant communities, Mennonites and Anabaptists must live in the healthy tension of being both aliens and citizens in our locations.
There is no such thing as a healthy Mennonite, only healthy Mennonites. Wherever you find vibrant communities of Mennonites and Anabaptists, you will find intense communities of intimacy and learning. From the sharing of goods, to mutual aid that scoffs at the idea of retirement, to the care of each others soul. And this community isn’t just across the aisle here this morning, though that may be its most outward form. It also includes listening and learning from each other, dialoguing about topics we disagree about until we discern a path all feel called to. And it includes those outside our congregation, like our Spanish-speaking sister churches here in Houston, or the voices of Mennonite World Conference.
And if we take the time to listen to those voices, again, we will find that the question of going public with our faith is a non issue. If we would but learn from them, we would celebrate our practice and beliefs and publicize them until the kingdom comes!
These four are necessary but perhaps not sufficient to answer our primary question, why is it important to claim the Mennonite tradition as our own. They have sustained Anabaptists in the midst of both persecution and acceptance, and they can and will transform us from one degree of glory to another on our transformation journey of following Christ. May you follow Christ, vibrantly, personally, corporately, as a resident alien. For no other foundation can be laid other than the one that has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.
We are Houston Mennonite Church.
And this is what we value.