Taking Jesus Seriously

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Surely all Christians take Jesus seriously? To question this seems unnecessary, even offensive. But for many centuries the church has struggled with the radical teaching and example of Jesus.

The fourth-century shift of the church from the social margins to the centre made it increasingly difficult to hear and obey what he had taught. Christians had so much invested in the new status quo (which was supposedly Christian) that it was often easier to marginalise his teaching or to interpret it in ways that were quite bland and did not threaten those in authority or their own new status.

The Sermon on the Mount was especially problematic and various devices were used to evade its disruptive and costly teaching. Through the centuries, it was marginalised groups like the Anabaptists, with far less invested in the status quo, which provoked the church to look again at this passage and many others, to take Jesus seriously.

As Christendom comes to an end and churches in western culture become accustomed to being once more on the margins, there is a fresh opportunity to rediscover the radical teaching of Jesus and to explore ways of taking him seriously in many aspects of Christian discipleship.

This study course wrestles with many practical issues and focuses on the Sermon on the Mount. The full text is available here in Adobe PDF format. Excerpts follow.

Download Course: Taking Jesus Seriously (53pp, 257KB)
An Anabaptist Network Study Course

Here are a few excerpts:

From Section 1.2: Starting with Jesus:
One of the distinctive things about the Anabaptist movement is that it has chosen to begin with Jesus' teaching and example on all kinds of issues and then to interpret other Bible passages on these issues in ways that do not conflict with what Jesus said and did. Here are four examples from the early years of the movement:

  1. Leonard Schiemer (former Franciscan, who became an Anabaptist in 1527 and
    was executed in 1528 in the Tyrol): ‘You must know that God spoke to the Jews
    through Moses and the prophets in a hidden manner. But when Christ himself came,
    he and his apostles illuminated all things with a much clearer understanding.’
  2. Hans Pfistermeyer (Swiss Anabaptist leader in the late 1520s): ‘What Christ has
    explained and helped us to understand, I will adhere to, since it is the will of his
    heavenly Father. I accept the Old Testament wherever it points to Christ. However,
    Christ came with a more exalted and perfect teaching.’
  3. Menno Simons (major Anabaptist leader and writer in the Netherlands from 1536)
    urged that both Testaments should be ‘rightly explained according to the intent of
    Jesus Christ and His holy apostles’. In his major work, Foundation of Christian
    Doctrine, Menno explained that the ‘intent of Jesus Christ’ meant the ‘Spirit, Word,
    counsel, admonition, and usage of Christ. What these allow we are free to do, but
    what He forbids we are not free to do. To this all true Christians should conform, and
    not to doubtful histories and obscure passages from which we can draw nothing
    certain and which teach the very opposite of what the Lord's apostles publicly taught.’
  4. Dirk Phillips (colleague of Menno in the Netherlands and North Germany until
    1568): ‘Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our Teacher, Leader and Guide;
    him we must hear and follow.’

From 1.4 Jesus at the centre
Read Matthew 4:18-20.
The first disciples responded to a call to follow Jesus, and this meant that he became central to their lives. Anabaptists have consistently taught that the Christian life is all about ‘following’ Jesus and that Jesus is central to a life of discipleship. Many other Christians have realised this too, of course, but all too often Jesus has been pushed to the margins. The Anabaptist movement has helped many to recognise this and rediscover what it means for Jesus to be central.
‘Jesus at the centre’ does not mean that we focus on God the Son at the expense of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists spoke often of their experience of the Holy Spirit and acknowledged their need of God’s grace if they were to follow Jesus and serve God faithfully.
But Jesus-centredness means that:

  • Jesus
    is at the centre of Christianity.
  • The human life of Jesus is vital and cannot be ignored.
  • Jesus is our model, our pioneer, our leader, our teacher, our example –
    as well as our redeemer.
  • Jesus was truly human and his humanity matters.
  • Jesus promised the gift of the Spirit to empower us to follow him.
  • The awkward teachings of Jesus are relevant and authoritative in every
    area of life – in politics as much as in family life, in social policy as
    well as church life, in economics as well as personal morality.
  • The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be lived, not just admired.
  • Christians are to take Jesus seriously.

From 3.1 Responding to Opression

The Anabaptist movement has offered an alternative perspective on conflict, warfare
and responding to oppression. Arguing that peace is at the heart of the gospel and that
Jesus calls his followers to non-violent discipleship, Anabaptists (like the Quakers
later) have taught pacifism and have attempted to develop a Peace Church tradition.
Whatever Jesus may have meant in Matthew 5, they argued, he certainly outlawed the
‘fight’ option and this applies to public and well as private conflicts.
Here are some explanations of this passage in Matthew 5 from early Anabaptist
writers:

  1. Schleitheim Confession, 1527 (Article 4): ‘Therefore there will also unquestionably
    fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force – such as sword, armour, and
    the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies – by virtue of
    the word of Christ [Matt. 5:39]: Resist not [him that is] evil.’
  2. Menno Simons (major Anabaptist leader and writer in the Netherlands from
    1536): ‘Peter was commanded to sheathe his sword. All Christians are commanded to
    love their enemies; to do good unto those who abuse and persecute them; to give the
    mantle when the cloak is taken, the other cheek when one is struck. Tell me, how can
    a Christian defend scripturally retaliation, rebellion, war, striking, slaying, torturing,
    stealing, robbing and plundering and burning cities, and conquering countries?’
  3. Pilgram Marpeck (important Anabaptist leader/writer in Strasburg and Augsburg
    until 1556): ‘Throughout the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, there is a joyful
    witness to, and fulfilment of, the power of the Spirit in the heart which freely gives
    love in Christ; we behave toward others in love and patience, and are ready to
    surrender our own rights in favour of the neighbour and to suffer injustice. If anyone
    wants to sue us for our cloak, we are to give him the coat as well. All sin is done
    outside of the love of God and the neighbour. Love is the New Testament command
    of Christ. All law, in both the Old and New Testaments, consists in love from a pure
    heart.’
  4. Peter Riedeman (important Hutterite leader in Moravia until 1556): ‘Now,
    therefore, Christ desires that we should act even as he did, so he commands us,
    saying, “It hath been said to the men of old, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a
    tooth,’ but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy
    right cheek, turn and offer to him the other also.” Here it is clearly to be seen that one
    ought neither to avenge oneself nor to go to war, but rather offer his back to the
    strikers and his cheeks to them that pluck off the hair – that is, suffer with patience
    and wait upon God, who is righteous, and who will repay it.’

From 3.2 Dealing with finance
Read Matthew 6:19-34
Jesus spoke frequently about economic issues – wealth and poverty, paying taxes, giving support to those in need, unjust business practices, hoarding resources and much else. In his encounters with Zacchaeus and the unnamed rich young ruler he challenged these men to change the way they dealt with their finances – one responded enthusiastically, the other negatively. In his encounters with the religious leaders he challenged their economic practices and oppression of the poor.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites his followers to a way of living that
involves a basic choice between serving God and serving Mammon (the power of
money). For many years the churches that sprang up on the margins of the Roman
Empire, as they explored life together in Christian communities, pondered his
teaching and found creative and radical ways to challenge the influence of Mammon
in their lives and to demonstrate a new way of living that depended on the provision of God.
The early chapters of Acts describe a community where resources were shared freely and generously, and where the needs of the poor were met. This example inspired generations of Christians to find similar and fresh ways of putting into practice Jesus’ teaching on the handling of their finances. Rather than adopting a rule-based approach like tithing, these early Christians responded imaginatively and sacrificially to the needs around them.

The Appendix includes the following sections

  • Anabaptist Non-violent initiatives
  • "Can Love Save the World?" by Walter Wink
  • Extract from "True Yieldedness and the Christian Community of Goods" (1577) by Peter Walpot