Dead history or living future? – part 4
Reformers like Luther and Calvin were famous, and used their political influence to further their dream of Reformation. At the same time many unsung heroes of the “Radical Reformation” were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike for daring to suggest things like:
only true believers should be baptised
if Jesus said “Love your enemies” we should do that and not fight them
if Jesus said “Do not swear” and our main allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, we should not swear oaths of allegiance to the State.
Hundreds of ordinary people in a small city impacted by the power of the Holy Spirit, propelled into mission, spreading good news in the homes of friends and family and in the workshops and marketplaces. Hundreds of ordinary people transformed by the Holy Spirit, their lives changed to display an attractive holiness. Hundreds of ordinary people on fire with love for God and one another, willing to risk torture and even death so that their lives might cause others to become Jesus-followers. Hundreds of towns and cities in the wider region – and many thousands of people – touched by revival in a ten-year period.
This could describe revival in parts of China or Iran today but actually describes the first ten years of the Anabaptist movement in Central Europe from 1525 to 1535. It was a diverse movement even leaving aside the extremists at the fringes. But in the centre ground was a passionate and determined commitment to following Jesus regardless of cost. Discipleship was the key distinctive of the Anabaptists.
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” wrote Paul in 2 Cor 5:17. If the gospel of a new creation is meaningful then it will be evidenced by changed lives rather than theoretical explanation. Luther and other reformers concentrated on faith alone making us right with God, but the danger with their teaching is that it could remain pure theory and not be seen in changed lives. The Anabaptists wanted to put into practice what they read in the New Testament, whatever the cost.
The eloquence of preachers can be powerful when inspired by the Holy Spirit: it can cause lives to be transformed. But the eloquence of ordinary people ‘preaching’ through the example of changed lives is even more powerful and can reach further. The evidence of changed lives is what speaks to people and truly preaches the gospel.
For Sixteenth Century Anabaptists, like the illiterate Hans Nadler, this meant travelling around as he plied his trade (he was a needle seller), engaging people in conversation. From the records of his trial for ‘heresy,’ it seems he would talk about God, the difficulty of living a holy life in these permissive days and the difference God made in his own life. He would often use the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed as a framework for teaching spiritual truths. After all, they were commonly used and understood by most of his hearers who all thought of themselves Christians because they had been born in a Christian country and their parents had done their ‘duty’ by having them christened as a baby. But there was a key difference. When Hans spoke to his heavenly Father he was having a loving conversation with a close friend not going through a routine.
Hans spoke about his Father and Jesus his Saviour and Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit who inspired his teaching and the holy life that validated his words. And he spoke of how disciples were being joined together in loving fellowship. For many Anabaptists, enabling others to encounter God was a matter of living a community life of such love and close fellowship that others were attracted to it, even when daunted by the commitment they showed. They are a powerful example for us today.