An Inspiring, Early Reformation Story

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 30, 2016

Luke 6:27-36 ESV

I stated in my October “Chapel Chimes” newsletter article that one of my favorite worship services of the year is Reformation Sunday, which is always the last Sunday of October.  I noted that had it not been for the Protestant Reformation, churches of the Free Church tradition like our United Church would not have been possible.  We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the forward-thinking reformers who sacrificed so much to make the Christian faith and the scriptures available to all.

When we think of the Protestant Reformation, a handful of the better-known reformers may come to mind – Martin Luther (who gave us the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), John Calvin, John Knox, and a few others.  But in reality, the Protestant Reformation was a collective effort of many different church leaders, pastors, Bible translators, and others, from a wide spectrum of theological beliefs.  Of course, practically all the reformers started out as Catholics or from the Church of England.  But they would branch out into numerous new sects, movements, and eventually Christian denominations – Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Anabaptists, and others.  And each one in his or her own way contributed to the umbrella movement that would later come to be remembered as the Protestant Reformation.

Among those early reformation groups were those who were called “Anabaptists.”  The word “Anabaptist” means “re-baptizer” or “to baptize again.”  Common Anabaptist beliefs were only adult baptism is valid and . . . true Christians should not bear arms, use force, or hold government office (American Heritage Dictionary).  In other words, Anabaptists did not believe in infant baptism, believing that only consenting adults able to make a mature, rational decision should receive the rite of Christian baptism.  And Anabaptists for the most part were pacifists.  The sad thing is that early on Anabaptists were sorely persecuted, by Catholics and other Protestants as well.  Some of the common and well-known Anabaptist groups are different kinds of Baptist churches, Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites.

It is a true and little-known story about one of those early Mennonite reformers that I stumbled across recently and found to be inspiring and wanted to share with you today on this Reformation Sunday.  Dirk Willems was a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist.  Willems chose to be baptized as a young man, thus rejecting the infant baptism uniformly practiced at the time.  Willems also opened up his home for several other adults to be re-baptized.  These actions led to Willems’ condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands.  Willems was arrested and imprisoned, and he spent several months in captivity where he devoted much time to prayer.  All the while he received little food to sustain him.

However, Willems was able to escape using a rope made out of knotted rags.  It was winter time, and the moat around the palace where he was imprisoned was frozen.  Well, a guard saw Willems escape and commenced to chase after him.  Because Willems was very small and light – perhaps half-starved from meager prison rations – Willems was able to cross a frozen pond that was covered in a thin sheet of ice.

However, the guard who was pursuing him was much heavier, and he broke through the ice.  The guard started yelling for Willems to help him as he thrashed about in the icy water.  Willems was vindicated, it seemed.  It might appear that it was God’s will to spare him and drown his pursuer.  Willems could keep running and be free, as all of us might be tempted to do.

But no, Willems turned back, reached down into the icy water, and pulled his pursuer to safety.  One good turn deserves another, we would want to think.  Since Willems had saved his pursuer’s life, his pursuer should spare his life in return.  But again, not so.  As soon as they reached dry land, Willems was re-arrested by the guard he had rescued and returned to prison where he was held until he was burned at the stake for his heresy of Anabaptist convictions near his hometown on May 16, 1569.  Today Dirk Willems is one of the most celebrated Anabaptist martyrs.

Now, there are several different directions we might go with this story and a number of truths we might draw from it.  One universal truth of this story is that the reformers took the Bible seriously.  In fact, one of the points that is noted about Anabaptists – and reformers in general like Martin Luther – is they insisted on holding to the Bible as their sole guide for faith and practice.  There is no doubt but what Dirk Willems knew by heart Jesus’ teachings in Matthew and Luke about loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you expecting nothing in return, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-28).  Leaving his pursuer to drown there in the icy water might have been the prudent thing for Willems to do.  But he felt deep in his heart – based on the teachings of Jesus – that going back to save his pursuer was the only right thing to do.  And so he did.

Another truth following closely from the first that I take from Willems’ story is the reformers held fast to their convictions, even with the prospect of losing their lives to do so.  Several of the early reformers – William Tyndale and John Huss to name just two – who had a passionate conviction that the Bible should be translated from Latin into English did so with the realization that their lives were in jeopardy for doing so.  Because of his conviction that every Englishman have the Bible in his own language and his own hands, and because of his work in Bible translation, Tyndale was arrested, imprisoned, tried and found guilty of heresy, strangled, and then burned at the stake in October 1536.

A third truth to be gleaned from the reformers is they were on the cutting edge and willing to take risks.  The Reformers let themselves be influenced by human advancements and changes that were coming about in society, things like rational thought, the Enlightenment, the invention of the printing press, new scientific understandings about the nature of the universe, and so on.  They were willing to think outside the “box of tradition” and the mindset that “this is the way we have always done it.”  The fact that the Bible had only been available in Hebrew, Greek and Latin didn’t necessarily make it right.  The fact that only educated clergy could read and study the Bible didn’t necessarily make it right either.  The fact that the Bible had only been produced by handwritten copies didn’t constitute a sacred law either.  All those reformers were willing to be on the cutting edge of thought, think outside the “box of tradition,” and were willing to take risks to further Christian thought and meet the needs of the people as society changed.

One thing about reformation is it is not a one-time, once-and-for-all event.  Reformation by its very nature is an ongoing affair.  As people of the Reformation, we were not reformed back then and that is all there is to it.  As people of the Reformation, we continue to be open to reform, new ideas, change, and so on, as we are take into account society’s advances, new technology, greater scientific understanding, and so on.

I pity today’s church that hasn’t moved into the 20th much less the 21st century by making use of the Internet, social media, and technological advancements.  Every once in a while I encounter a congregation that makes me wonder, and I go to the Internet in search of their church website to learn more about them.  (I have one particular congregation in mind, but I won’t say which one.)  And occasionally I find they don’t even have a church website.  When I try to Google them, nothing comes up.  I am forced to wonder, How can such a church continue to survive in our technological age?

I started making use of the Internet early on in the 1990s by writing and sending my Midweek Messages to connect with every church member who had a home computer and Internet.  However, at the same time, I have to confess to you that I still have much to learn about technology and utilizing it to our church’s advantage.  For instance, written and audio sermon copies are posted on our church website, but we haven’t moved into podcasting and a Twitter account as some large churches have done.  To be honest, I don’t even know how to Tweet!

So the bottom line is, yes, we are reformed.  But we still have reforming to do so as to keep up with the times and remain relevant to society.  And in keeping with the spirit of the reformers, keeping up with the times and remaining relevant means taking the Bible seriously if not literally; having and holding fast to our convictions (and we here at the United Church do have convictions); and being on the cutting edge and willing to take a few risks.  May it be so for us on this Reformation Day and always.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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