*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, July 22, 2012. It was the last in a series on Anabaptist Core Convictions.
We opened this series of sermons on Anabaptist Core Convictions with a biblical text that described Jesus as the foundation of a building. We conclude with a biblical text that describes him as the cornerstone of a building. 1 Corinthians speaks of Jesus as the foundation. The church is built upon that one foundation. 1 Peter speaks of Jesus as the “cornerstone” of a building. The cornerstone is the foundation stone of a building. It determines the position of the entire structure. The church is composed of living stones built into a spiritual house, a temple, with Jesus being the cornerstone. In each of these images Jesus is central to the church. And the church is central to the Christian life.
In the letter of 1 Peter this church, this community of Christ, is described as a distinct people, a holy community, a political body, set apart from the surrounding world; a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, aliens, and exiles. The early church saw itself as a peculiar people within the Roman Empire. This image and reality all changed after Emperor Constantine proclaimed a wedding of the church and state by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church moved from being a distinct, persecuted minority at the margins of society, to being the majority of citizens of an empire and located at the center of society.
The 16th century Anabaptists sought to restore the New Testament model of the church. The Anabaptist concept of a believers’ church, rooted in Jesus Christ and separate from the state, ran counter to the Christendom model of the church represented by emperor Constantine.
Today, the Western church in Europe and North America are becoming more secular, post-Christendom societies. The church has lost its privileged place in our culture. It is moving further to the margins of the social order and becoming an “alien institution” to society. In this post-Christendom context, the New Testament and Anabaptist models of church may be the most hopeful for the church’s survival within a post-Christendom empire.
Understanding the nature of the church is crucial for understanding Anabaptism. The following characteristics reflect an Anabaptist ecclesiology or understanding of the church.
The church is a body of believers called out from and sent into the world. Let’s analyze each of the phrases in this statement. First, the church is a body of believers. It is grounded in the voluntary confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and following him as Lord symbolized in baptism. Roman Emperor Constantine, during the 4th century, represented a major shift in the nature of the church from a voluntary association of believers in Jesus Christ to a church formed by state compulsion, the baptism of infants without personal choice or ability to confess and follow Christ, and the union of the church and state. This Christendom model gave a privileged place for the church in society. Within Christendom a person was a Christian by virtue of their citizenship; a citizenship that called upon everyone to support the aims, interests, and military defense of the state.
The Anabaptists rejected this Constantinian view of the church. The church was not understood as a building, a parish or regional location, a social club, an association of ethnically similar or politically likeminded people, or synonymous with the state or society. The Anabaptist view of the church went radically counter to the view of the dominant culture. Adult believers’ baptism, a voluntary choice based upon personally and consciously following in the way of Christ, was a subversive political act, in that it not only shook the foundation of the church, but tore apart the fabric of the church and state union. Their view of the church was radical in its day. From an Anabaptist perspective, the church was a distinct body of baptized believers who followed Jesus Christ in life.
Second, the church is ecclesia from the Greek word kaleo meaning “called out.” It originally referred to a civic assembly gathered together from the community for political purposes. The church are those who have been called out of world to be a distinct people, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people, aliens and exiles, as Peter describes the early church. This description points to the gathering together of a unique people, separate and distinct from the state, society, and world. Thus, the church is a political body, not in the sense of participating in “partisan politics” like being Democrat and Republican or because it is involved in state political issues. But rather, the church is a political body because it is called out from the world as citizens of heaven, assembled as a distinct body, governed by God’s kingdom under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Third, the church is apostolic from the Greek word apostelo meaning “sent forth.” The church is not simply a body of believers that isolate themselves from the world. The church is engaged in Missio Dei, the mission of God in the world. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” The church is apostolic, not in the sense that we can trace our leadership back to the apostles, but because the church, like the apostles, is “sent.” To simply come together for worship or teaching is not being the church. To truly be the church we should understand ourselves to be as much a “sent church” as we are a “gathered church.”
Christians are formed by the church and its practices. As a gathered body of baptized believers, the church is where we are formed by communal spiritual practices. This is interconnected to what we talked about concerning discipleship or following Christ. Discipleship is not simply an individual private affair that I do on my own, but requires engagement in the corporate practices of the church. Rodney Clapp, an Episcopalian Anabaptist, states it clearly: there is no genuine Christian formation and life apart from the body of Christ. Church practices shape and form our identity as a distinct, peculiar people.
Baptism is a church practice that marks us as a distinct people. It is not simply, as some have put it, an “outward sign of an inward grace,” making baptism into a ritual that primarily marks a private, inner experience. For Anabaptists, baptism was a watery sign of faith in Jesus Christ, a commitment to follow him in life, and incorporation into the church. It was a radically, politically subversive act altering how one understood the church and society and was therefore a dangerous, seditious act worthy of death.
Baptism marks the church as different from the world. Baptism initiates incorporation into the Body of Christ, a community of resident aliens. Baptism as incorporation into the church is a common belief which is held by most Christians, but which Anabaptists understood as being embodied in a local congregation of mutual accountability, a community distinct from the world. Miraslov Volf, an influential theologian at Yale University, sounds very much like an Anabaptist when he connects baptism and the church’s collective difference or distance from the world when he says,
No one can baptize himself or herself; everyone must be baptized into a given Christian community. Baptism is an incorporation into the Body of Christ, a doorway into a Christian community. Baptism will not do the distancing for you, but it will tell you that genuine Christian distance has ecclesial shape. It is lived in a community that lives as “aliens” in a larger social environment.
Our baptism marks the beginning of the journey of following Jesus, our identity as a people, and where our primary allegiance lies. It marks us as a distinct people in the world.
Communion is a church practice that forms and identifies us into a peculiar people. Who else in this world would gather together and share bits of bread that would barely feed a squirrel and a tiny sip of grape juice to remember someone’s shed blood and call it a meal? A peculiar meal, indeed. Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper is a ritual meal that not only reminds us of Jesus death on the cross, but is a practice that forms us and identifies us as a distinct people.
The Eucharist, as a symbol of sacrifice, forms us into a new people ready to be broken and poured out for others. Communion, as an open table, shapes us into a new people who are one in Christ, undivided by gender, race, ethnicity, economic class, or nationality. The Lord’s Supper, as a ritual of remembrance of Jesus death and the table of forgiveness, molds us into a people who take upon themselves the nonviolent way of the cross, forgiving our enemies.
If we had time we could explore worship, preaching, Bible reading, hospitality, prayer, singing, social witness, and peacemaking as practices of the church that form us corporately as a peculiar people. Let me simply say that the practices of the church play a significant role in shaping our identity as a people making the church essential to a distinctive Christian life.
The church is an alternative society, a new people in Christ. This distinctive relates to the church being “called out” from the world. For the church to be the church it must be dissimilar from the surrounding world, otherwise it is simply another version of the world. Jesus said that we are to be in the world but not of the world. Separate but engaged. This is not a tension that is easily maintained. If the church emphasizes separation or nonconformity, it can become disengaged from the world, the characterization we give of the Amish. If the church emphasizes being part of the world it can become so assimilated as to be indistinct from the world, which is the face of cultural or nominal Christianity.
If the church is to be the church it must be countercultural, at least in certain ways and forms. Many ethnic Mennonites have overreacted to this Anabaptist emphasis upon nonconformity and separation from the world. I believe that is one reason so much of contemporary ethnic Mennonite culture reflects a significant assimilation into the American way of Life. We don’t like being different. We want to be like everyone else. So, in their overreaction to negative experiences of nonconformity and separation from the world ethnic Mennonites have thrown them away as Anabaptist practices.
Some members of Zion have grown up under the yoke of nonconformity expressed as forced rules and a rigid adherence to dress and cultural habits practiced with an air of superiority, all done in proper Mennonite humility, of course! I have noticed at Zion how this overreaction to early experiences of enforced distinctiveness has resulted in some hesitancy and even resistance to being more definitive and directive in leadership and clearer in direction for the congregation.
From the perspective of an outside observer, I think being more definitive and directive for some at Zion feels a bit like those old rigid rules. It smacks of exclusiveness or “my way is the only way,” even when that’s not what it is all about. I think a lack of clarity that exists around significant issues in the life of Zion may come from a hesitancy to be definitive because it smacks of exclusion and being authoritarian. We don’t want to exclude some by being too definitive. If we become more directive, it feels like “I am in and you are out” or “I am right and you are wrong.”
As someone who was not raised in this religious cultural environment, but in a Fundamentalist tradition with many similarities and differences, I need to simply say to some of you at Zion, “Get over it!” “Move on!” Let go of your fears of the four d’s: distinctiveness, directiveness, definitiveness, and decisiveness! Am I sounding too directive? Maybe a bit too decisive? This overreaction to early negative church experiences about how distinctiveness was rigidly practiced will be a roadblock to bringing greater clarity and definition about who we are as a people and a hindrance to more directive leadership, notice I didn’t say “authoritarian,” but “directive leadership.”
The solution to rigid rules about nonconformity and separation is not to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” that is, to simply reject nonconformity and separation from the world by totally assimilating ourselves into the wider culture, or by being wishy-washy about our peculiar identity within the world, or by resisting clarity. We can translate the principles of nonconformity and separation, so that we become a holy nation, a peculiar people, and thrive as exiles and resident aliens in our own land and social context. If the church is to be the church and not the world, it will need to learn how to translate Anabaptist principles of nonconformity and separation in our consumerist, Capitalist, materialistic individualistic world in ways that assist us in following Christ in our day and time.
The church participates in the divine mission (Missio Dei) Anabaptism was a missionary movement. They were one of the few Christian movements that believed that being a missionary was not as a special vocation for the gifted and trained or the commission of a mission agency, but was the practice of every Christian. They applied Christ’s Great Commission to every believer to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to follow Christ’s commands. Baptism was their ordination to evangelism, mission, and ministry.
As I said earlier, not only is the church “gathered,” but it is also “sent.” And God is the primary sending agent, not some church agency or the church itself. We are not released from engagement with God’s mission because we lack training, agency sponsorship, or because we are not on the evangelism, outreach, or service committees of our local congregation. As followers of Christ and members of the church through our baptism, we have been ordained by God as ministers and missionaries in the world!
The church is not only separate from the world, but sent into the world. To be a missional church, to be an Anabaptist church, is to be as much sent as it is gathered. Does each one of us here at Zion have that understanding and sense of being “sent” by God? Or are we only part of what we are and should be as Christ’s church; an assembly of believers who gather for worship? Jesus was speaking to you and me, followers of his way, when he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What does that mean for us as individuals and as the church in our relationship to our families, our communities, our nation, and our world?
One thing mission means is that we are sent to “call out” people from the world into the realm of God’s kingdom. And evangelism means more than proclaiming a message of personal salvation. It is a call to join in the new humanity, the people of God, a holy nation, the church. The church is essential to the divine mission.
Jesus is the center of our faith. The essence of the Christian life is discipleship. The Christian life is formed by being a new people in Christ. This interconnected web of Anabaptist Core Convictions can powerfully shape our identity as a distinctive people and a particular congregation. In a secular, post-Christendom world, the Anabaptist model offers a time-tested vision for radically and faithfully following in the way of Jesus, for living on the margins of society, where the church is headed in our culture, and for being a distinctive, practice-oriented church amid nominal Christianity. There are people who are hungry for churches that are shaped by these convictions. I believe that when we know these convictions, affirm them, celebrate them, and share them, we will have a better grasp upon who we are as a people and what is our particular mission in the world.