Silenced, but not by Tongue Screws

Sunday October 4, 2009                   Silenced, but not by Tongue Screws

 Did you know that there was a time when things were not as easy or as convenient for Christians as they are today?  …that there was a time when Christianity was seen as abnormal?  …that it was actually illegal? 

We can’t really remember that far back—but were you aware that there was a time when becoming a Christian meant you might be flogged or fed to the lions or both…that your property might be destroyed, and your family might disown you? 

There was actually a time when Christians had to be on their toes; a time when it took a minimum of 3 years to become a follower of The Way. 

(This was as much to protect the community from spies as it was to make sure the prospective Christian knew what they were getting into.) 

These earliest Christians didn’t have their own personal Bibles or devotional material.  They didn’t have Christian radio to listen to, or Christian TV to watch. 

Most of them probably couldn’t read or write; and they met as often as they could manage, in each other’s homes. 

They met in houses, shared their goods, worshipped God, prayed together, and as they met, someone might read a letter from a guy named Paul, out loud, to the gathering.  Some of these letters are what make up our New Testament. 

Did you know there were no needy among them, because nobody held anything back? 

People saw something in this early church—something that was attractive, didn’t they?  Why else would they risk life and limb to join up?   

It’s been said that words without actions are empty shells, and that actions without words are incomprehensible. 

It seems clear that these earliest Christians were on to something.  Their words and their actions spoke of Christ in meaningful ways. 

Their lives invited questions for which they had ready answers. 

So the early church grew, in spite of severe persecution.  The church grew and multiplied; house by church, with no paid leaders, no paid staff, no Christian bookstores, Christian schools, no property to speak of and no five year plan. 

All it had going were a bunch of simple, everyday, ordinary radicals who proclaimed Jesus in word and deed. 

Then a Roman emperor named Constantine decided to join up. 

Christianity went mainstream. 

The empire claimed this religion as its own. 

Almost overnight, rather than it being illegal to be Christian, it was now illegal NOT to be Christian. 

And so began a long, tedious, and awkward love affair between the church and the state.  Their child was something called ‘Christendom’, a kind of earthly kingdom supposedly connected to the kingdom of God. 

Everyone within a certain geography was now forced to be Christian. 

This set the stage for what we know as the ‘radical reformation’, 1200 years later in the 16th century. 

Once again the gloves came off as the state authorities tried to silence the voices of change. 

And as the Martyr’s Mirror can testify, not even tongue screws or fire could silence the message of hope these reformers sought to proclaim. 


Now, you might be wondering why I’m giving you a history lesson this morning. 

After all, the passage DJ read from Ephesians doesn’t talk about Constantine or house churches or persecution.   

It doesn’t talk about communion or footwashing, the martyr’s mirror, or even why we should do something called a ‘moment in mission’. 

What it does say, is that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works for service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” 

And if you’ll notice, there are only two ‘occupations’ that we recognize in the passage, aren’t there?  Pastors and Teachers. 

So where have the prophets and the evangelists gone? 

Has Christ stopped giving some to these occupations? 

Are they no longer important? 

…I’ll tell you what happened to them.  ‘Christendom’ happened to the prophets and the evangelists. 

It’s like this—Before Christendom, you had to know what you were about in the world.  Before Christendom, you couldn’t be what we might think of as a ‘Sunday’ Christian.  You couldn’t just decide Sunday morning whether or not you felt like going to church this weekend.  Church wasn’t something you did if you got up in time—it was more like a life-long vocation.  You could literally lose a limb, or your sight, or your life by joining the church. 

You were either all in, or you weren’t; and being all-in had consequences. 

But suddenly, when the emperor said it was OK…suddenly Christianity gained power and acceptance.  It became safe. 

We started meeting in cathedrals—that were built by the state—instead of our own homes. 

We assumed that everyone in our county or state or country was Christian…not because they had counted the cost, but rather because the state forced them to be. 

And so mission became something to do ‘out there’…that is, across the border.

And so the missional parts of what Paul talks about in Ephesians—prophets and evangelists—these faded from view.  When evangelism happened, it happened overseas, because overseas were the only places where there were non-Christian people. 

So, the church began to really emphasize the maintenance part of its gathering—that is, pastoring and teaching. 

After all, if everyone’s a Christian, you’ll have a lot of marriages, funerals, and communions to officiate.  And you’ll have a lot of teaching to do. 

So, after 1,200 years of Christendom, the stage was set for a reformation. 

Thanks in part to the printing press, a bunch of people started reading the Bible in their own language.  They started asking questions about why the church did what it did. 

Why sell indulgences…why do penance…why baptize infants…is the body and the blood really present when we take communion?  Why is there a pope? 

The very fact that they were asking these questions shows us that the church hadn’t done very well at combining word and deed.  People didn’t know why the church was doing all these things that they couldn’t find in scripture.

So these people were asking questions…and they reclaimed—at least for a time—the prophetic and evangelistic roles of the church. 

Now if you don’t know, we Mennonites have our roots in the most radical of these early reformers.  The Lutherans hated the Catholics, the Catholics hated the Lutherans, and both sides hated us Anabaptists.  (I know that’s a little simplistic, but work with me!). J 

The important thing was, that once again, there was a church on the margins; an outlawed church. 

Once again the movement grew, one house church after another, people sharing Christ in their homes, in the woods and in caves. 

And Once again no persecution—not even tongue screws—could silence their testimony of hope in hopeless times. 

Early on we Anabaptists were anything but the quiet in the land.   

Now here’s the part where you should pay attention.  J 

Over the next 500 years we succeeded in creating little pockets of Mennonite Christendom all across Europe and America.  That is, we isolated ourselves from the people who wanted to kill us, we either cut deals with those in power to ensure our safety, or we moved in groups to places where we wouldn’t be bothered. 

You know, places like Lancaster Pennsylvania, Goshen IN, or Holmes and Wayne Counties here in Ohio!  J    

Once again, mission became something to do ‘out there’. 

Once again, we started to forget how to talk about our faith, how to talk about God to our friends and neighbors. 

Once again, we emphasized finding and training pastors and teachers, those who could successfully maintain the church as we know it. 

And we lost our voice. 

The faith was passed down genetically rather than convincingly. 

Speaking of faith became something we paid people to do for us. 

Mission, or Evangelism is once again something we do overseas if we do it at all. 

As Alan Kreider, who teaches at AMBS has said; “We have been silenced; but not by tongue-screws.” 

We need to re-learn; to remember how to talk about our faith. 

We need to re-discover the simple way; the words combined with the actions that create the question marks that invite discussion, that invite conversation, that invite lasting change one life at a time.  After all, it is Christ who has given some to be evangelists. 

So who are they?  …Is it you? 

Don’t shy away too quickly because of baggage you might associate with the word. 

I’d like to hold up a woman named Margaret Helvart as an evangelical model we can learn from.  (courtesy of Alan Kreider). 

Margaret Helvart was an Anabaptist woman who lived in Germany around the year 1610.  I don’t know anything about her, except that because of her faith in God and her understanding of the Bible, she would make her rounds in her village, into kitchens here and there to share the Joy of Jesus and the Love of God with whoever would listen. 

She was a kind of missionary, you could say,…devoted to God and eager to share the hope that she had with anybody who would listen. 

It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  After all, who’d be afraid of a woman who went around town to talk to her neighbors? 

Well, at the time, the authorities were terrified…at least they acted terrified. 

They responded by literally chaining Margaret to her kitchen floor. 

And for the sake of time this morning, let’s just say they had their reasons. 

Well, Margaret kept escaping her chains somehow.  According to court documents, over the next 11 years, she got away something like 21 times, back to do what she had been doing—going into kitchens across the village to share the hope that she had in Jesus and the Love of God as she understood it. 

Hear the words of her testimony given to the authorities upon one of her final arrests. 

She says

God has called me to tell the good news to my neighbors.  Nothing can stop me from doing that.   You see, people should learn to love one another with God’s love.

 The true church is made up of people who live lovingly, righteously…All I want is to live according to God’s will, do good and avoid evil.  There’s no point trying to make me change my mind…

Nothing could keep Margaret silent about her faith in Christ.  No chains could hold her back; not even tongue screws could keep her quiet.  She lived prophetically…she lived evangelistically.  With no degree and no paycheck, this simple woman of God aligned her words and her actions into a seamless testimony pointing to Christ and the church. 

So, where are the prophets today? 

Where are the evangelists in the line of Margaret Helvart?  

Where are the ones to whom God has given the ability to speak truth everyday, at work, at play, and in kitchens across the county? 

I have a feeling they’re closer than we might think. 

We-the-church can once again bear witness to the potency of the gospel in all it’s fullness, in mission and in maintenance. 

We can once again bear the torch of hope we were meant to carry, passing its light from one hopeless situation to the next in a vast succession of flame…One ordinary hope-filled radical filling others with that same fiery hope until all the worlds ablaze.

For it was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, to become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  

Comments are closed.