THE REV. DR. MARK R. WENGER, Matters of Faith
This column comes from the banks of the Limmat River in Zurich, Switzerland, where I am traveling with family and celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary with my wife, Kathy.
If you look out over the Lake of Zurich on a clear day you can see the Alps stacked across the southern horizon. The city of Zurich sits on both sides of the Limmat River where the river emerges from the lake.
At least seven bridges, carrying heavy traffic, span the Limmat in the first half mile. Yet there is another bridge in this place that I've recently become aware of. It's invisible, a bridge that is relational and spiritual, and whose traffic is repentance and love. Some might scoff at such an idea. But consider an enduring religious gash represented by two memorials on opposite banks of the Limmat River.
On one side stands a large statue of Ulrich Zwingli, the "father" of church renewal in Switzerland in the early 1520s; his sermons in the Grossmuenster church electrified the population. His pulpit became the "rock" of the Swiss Reformed State Church. He is portrayed standing stalwartly with the Bible clasped in one hand and a large sword in the other.
On the opposite bank of the Limmat is a commemorative plaque to Felix Manz. He and his friends had been eager disciples of Zwingli until a terrible falling out. The flash point had to do with how much control government should exercise over religious belief and practice, especially baptism.
Manz and his friends baptized each other as adults and began boldly preaching the same. Zwingli and Zurich City Council ordered the rebellious "re-baptizers" to stop. They refused. Manz was arrested and executed by drowning in the Limmat River in January 1527.
Manz was the first of thousands of Anabaptists harshly persecuted by the Swiss authorities over the next three centuries. Estates and houses of the re-baptizers were confiscated without compensation; these tales of sufferings and suspicions became part of the Swiss cultural and religious legacy.
Recently, however, 21st-century spiritual descendants of both Zwingli and Manz have undertaken steps to reach across this painful breach. In a series of events, both in Switzerland and America, representatives of the Swiss Reformed church and Mennonites and Amish have met to worship together and to repent of old wrongs.
"This movement of reconciliation has been marked by so many graces; it has changed my life," says Lloyd Hoover, of Leola, a bishop in Lancaster Mennonite Conference. "God is revealing to us today how historic offenses left unresolved hinder Christian freedom and witness. We Anabaptists need to recognize that we have been traumatized and be set free from that."
This language is echoed by Michael Herwig of the Swiss Reformed church: "What a tragedy [the persecution was], not only to the Anabaptists themselves
but also for the established churches. The new life which God wanted to infuse through the Anabaptists into society as a whole was literally 'aborted.' To this day, we are often painfully aware that new life is missing in many of our state churches. However, we have entered a new season a season of reconciliation and restoration."
A particularly poignant episode in this healing movement occurred in May 2003 in Winterthur, Switzerland. Representatives of the Swiss Reformed State Church and hundreds of other Swiss believers welcomed Amish and Mennonite delegations from the U.S. to a national "Heal our Land" conference.
"This gathering became one of the most glorious moments of my life," recalled Bishop Hoover. Over the course of several days, a series of symbolic and worshipful expressions of repentance and forgiveness took place. Thirty Reformed pastors, clad in clerical robes, washed the feet of every Amish person present.
In the Grossmuenster in Zurich, where Zwingli had preached, the president of the Reformed Church read a public statement of apology for the wrongs committed against Anabaptist ancestors. Following this apology, an Amish bishop was invited to preach from the Grossmuenster pulpit a historic first.
"The Reformed pastors are serious about reconciliation," Mennonite pastor Charles Ness reported. "They have a burden for the health of the church and believe that reconciliation with the Anabaptists is an important part of the renewal."
In the words of Reformed pastor Geri Keller: "Give the Anabaptists their full inheritance. They can release us from the curse." For their part, the Mennonite and Amish representatives confessed their need to be set free from resentment and fear of outsiders.
What does all of this mean, this invisible bridge being forged across the Limmat River between the Zwingli statue and the Manz execution marker? It points to the new possibilities God opens for people through genuine repentance and forgiveness.
"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." This is an ancient spiritual truth, easily forgotten, yet reflected in Jesus Christ, God's bridge of healing and hope.