Spirituality from Prison: a sermon on Anabaptist/Mennonite spirituality

Don’t worry. I won’t bombard ya’ll with every sermon I preach. But I thought I’d share this one from this past Sunday since it’s specifically about young anabaptist radicals from a long time ago.


Title: Spirituality from Prison
Date: July 20, 2008
Texts: Gen 32:22-32; Matt 11:25-30


It was night, and Jacob was alone. He left his family and possessions behind on the other side of the stream; now he was alone, surrounded by darkness. And the wrestling begins.

Jacob isn’t a spiritual superhero. He hasn’t mastered the spiritual disciplines; nor has he celebrated them. He isn’t known for fasting. Nor for meditating on Scripture–obviously, since it wasn’t written yet. And he isn’t a prayer warrior.

Jacob isn’t known for any of those spiritual practices. Instead, he’s known for his trickery and tenacity. He will get what he wants no matter what. His name, Jacob, Ya’aqov, means heel catcher and deceiver. His name remembers his struggle with his brother, Esau, in Rebekah’s womb (Gen 25). And his name remembers his trickery and deception later when he steals Esau’s birthright blessing. Jacob, his very name, testifies to his devious ways.

Now his past catches up with him. Due to his deceptions and trickery, Jacob is no longer welcome in the land of his father-in-law, Laban. As Jacob is on the verge of returning to his homeland, he must meet his brother, Esau, again. Jacob knows this won’t be a pleasant reunion since he stole Esau’s blessing when they were young.

His suspicions are confirmed when he hears how Esau is preparing for Jacob’s arrival: “When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, ‘We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him’” (Gen 32:6). That’s not exactly a welcome home party to look forward to. Esau is coming to meet his brother with a small army! And Jacob foresees the mass slaughter of his people.

Jacob is now alone, feverish, his head swimming with images of the death of all he has. The night is haunted with his ghosts. Tomorrow he will face his brother-turned-enemy. But for now, he is alone, it’s dark, and the wrestling begins.

Jacob proves true to form. He’s tenacious. He won’t let go. God and Jacob, struggling, caught in each other’s embrace, two bodies bound together, flesh upon sweaty flesh. They wrestle through the night.


When I was little, I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents on weekends. They took care of me when my parents worked. Despite my mom and dad’s protests, my grandfather would let me watch boxing matches with him on the television. My scrawny grandfather loved to watch these big men beat one another to a pulp. And he was very good at picking the winners.

Now, if my grandfather was watching this fight in Genesis 32, I’m pretty sure he’d put all his money on God. It’s not even a match. But Jacob does pretty well for himself, fighting against all odds. He takes God to the last round. Daybreak is approaching, and God strikes Jacob below the waist and wounds his hip. He tells Jacob to let him go. “But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me’” (v. 26).

Jacob wins by hanging on. He doesn’t put God in strangle-hold, or some painful, arm-twisting pin. No, Jacob wins by hanging on. If we want to talk about spirituality, that’s the best picture we’ve got–it’s about hanging on to God.


The stories of Mennonite beginnings are all about what it means to hang on to God no matter what the cost. If there’s anything unique about Mennonite or Anabaptist spirituality, it’s that it is born in prison. We are entrusted with a spirituality of the tortured, passed down through the centuries. Our songs and prayers come from places of darkness and loneliness, from dungeons where people sang to sustain their souls as they awaited the next round out beatings. Our confessions and theologies come from places that look more Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay than our universities and seminaries.

There’s a hymnal called the Ausbund. The core of that hymnal are songs composed by imprisoned Swiss Brethren, who were later called Mennonites. While in the dungeon of Passau, Austria around 1535, they put their faith to words and music–the songs were called, “songs of the cross.” They would pass them along to their sisters and brothers in the faith on the outside who would then sing them as an act of solidarity. These songs were their spiritual union. The “songs of the cross” spread from community to community and formed the substance of faith for a people who couldn’t read, but were gifted with musical memory. Our current Mennonite hymnal still has a few of these hymns; we still sing their prison songs.

Let me read from a few of these Ausbund hymns. This first one if from George Blaurock–a Catholic priest turned Anabaptist, later tortured and burned as a heretic (Song #5):

God the Father through his faithfulness
Will never forsake us
Renew us daily, O Lord
In our everyday living

Through Christ we call on you
As through your tender suffering
We know your faithfulness and love
Along this our pilgrim’s way

Here’s another hymn. This one from a young woman, Annelein of Freiberg. They first drowned her then burned her. She was probably 17 years old (Song # 36):

Eternal Father in Heaven
I call to you from deep within
Do not let me turn from you
Hold me in your eternal truth
Until I reach my end

O God, keep my heart and mouth
Watch over me, Lord, always
Do not let me part from you
Whether in anguish, fear or need
Keep me pure in joy

To walk in your strength in death
Through tribulation, martyrdom, fear and need
Keep me in your strength
That I may never again be separated
From your love, O God

These are bits and pieces of the spiritual gifts we receive from our martyrs, the songs of the tortured, our spirituality from prison. (Hymns taken from Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings, ed. by Daniel Liechty).

These songs were central for Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality. A century later, some Dutch Mennonites complied another kind of spiritual literature: a huge book called The Martyrs Mirror–nearly 1,200 pages, story after story of martyrdom. In the early 17th century, a Dutch Mennonite, Thieleman Jansz van Braght compiled stories of Christians dying for their faith, starting with the death of Jesus and moving through the centuries. Mennonites raised their children on these stories of martyrdom. It was their devotional literature, what they read before going to bed, what they read to sustain their spiritual lives.

I’ll read a short excerpt from one of the entries. It’s toward the end of the book when we finally get to the Anabaptist martyrs. This is a prison letter from Elizabeth, a Dutch Anabaptist martyr. She wrote it before her execution in 1573 to her infant daughter whom she calls “my dearest lamb”:

“My young lamb, for whose sake I still have…great sorrow; seek, when you have attained your understanding, this narrow way, though there is sometimes much danger in it…. My dear child, if we would with Christ seek and inherit salvation, we must also help bear His cross; and this is the cross which He would have us bear: to follow His footsteps, and to help bear His reproach… He went before us in this way of reproach, and left us an example, that we should follow His steps… O my dearest lamb, that you might know the truth when you have attained your understanding, and that you might follow your dear father and mother, who went before you…. Follow us my dear lamb, that you too may come where we shall be, and that we may find one another there.” (from The Protestant Reformation, ed. by Hans J. Hillerbrand, chapter 14).


What kind of spirituality is this? It’s much easier to confine spirituality to our prayer life. But what kind of spirituality takes these stories, these songs, these prayers, these letters–what kind of spirituality takes them seriously? I have two thoughts.

This first one might make you think I’m crazy. Since our spirituality comes from the faith of prisoners, we should develop a spirituality that will sustain us in prison. Spirituality is our preparation for prison. What will sustain our faith when we are tortured and imprisoned? I know, that’s hard to imagine. It’s practically impossible to imagine people around here putting us in prison for our faith. Sure. But remember: the nature of governments can change in an instant, and our history books tell us story after story of how political powers can change over night, or over a few years. A few weeks ago, we heard the story of Joseph and Israel in Egypt. They were happy to live peaceably in Goshen; but they became Egyptian slaves in an instant. Our situation can suddenly change as well, and this could throw us in work camps or prisons.

So, we need to ask a question: what sustained the tortured faith of the martyrs? Well, they knew their bibles. Their hymns penned in prison testify to their biblical knowledge; the lines of the songs are quotations from Scripture sown together. They sang the bible from memory. We also have the notes from their torturers and interrogators–they kept decent records. And in those records we find the prisoners constantly quoting Scripture in response to interrogations, or as they were beaten. Their biblical knowledge was their source of comfort; memorized Scripture sustained their faith.

So, study Scripture, memorize it, struggle with the Word, listen and engage our Sunday sermons. There’s a chance that you may need those stories and words to sustain your faith in prison.

Here’s my second thought. It’s easy to dismiss stories of martyrs as irrelevant to our spirituality. We just aren’t in the same situation. They are a world away from us, and don’t have much to offer as we think about our lives. But this is why the Martyrs Mirror is so interesting. It was compiled and published in 17th century Holland, where the Dutch Mennonites definitely weren’t persecuted. In fact, their situation was quite the opposite. The tables had turned. Mennonites were enjoying the good life in Holland during the Dutch Golden Age. They lived comfortably among the most prosperous people of Europe at the time. And van Braght, a cloth merchant and minister, thought their prosperity was dangerous, so he gave his people the gift of the martyrs in book form.

This is what he wrote in his preface:

‘It is certainly more dangerous now than in the time of our [mothers and] fathers who suffered death for the witness of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Before ‘Satan came through his servants openly like a roaring lion,’ seeking to destroy the body; now Satan comes ‘as an angel of light,’ seeking to kill our faith through ‘the desire of the flesh, desire of the eye, and the pride of life.’” (taken from Brad S. Gregory, “Anabaptist Martyrdom: Imperatives, Experience, and Memorialization,” p. 501 in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spirituality, 1521-1700, ed. by John D. Roth and James M. Stayer).

Isn’t that interesting? Van Braght thought it was easier to be a Christian during times of persecution. The right thing to do was very clear back then. It’s harder now, and more dangerous, he says. That sounds true to our lives as well. I mean, what does it mean to be faithful? What does it mean to honor the faith of the martyrs? It’s not so clear. It’s a struggle; the struggle of spirituality. The best we can do is struggle together.

And our model is Jacob, struggling with God, in the dark–he can’t see so clearly. And through this struggle, Jacob gets a new name: Israel. No longer will Jacob be known as a deceiver. He and his people will be called Israel, which means “those who struggle with God.” And that’s who we are. We are people who keep the struggle alive. We keep on struggling with God, wrapped up in a wrestling match with the Lord. Spirituality is the name of this intimate embrace, holding onto God no matter what.

And the good news is that this way of life frees us from sin–all that stuff van Braght talked about: the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, and the pride of life. The good news is that this struggle with God liberates us, it’s the struggle of freedom. As Jesus says in our passage from Matthew: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29-30).

Benediction (paraphrased from Elizabeth’s 16th century letter to her infant daughter) :

May it be to God’s glory that I did not die for any evil doing, and may you strive to do likewise. Never cease from loving God above all, for God will never cease from loving you. And now go and follow that which is good, and seek peace, for you shall receive the crown of eternal life–the crown of our Lord: the crucified, bleeding, naked, despised, rejected and slain Jesus Christ, our faith and our hope.

Comment (1)

  1. Lisa C. Jantzen

    Thank you! I feel energized by this message, inspired to get my own copy of “The Martyr’s Mirror,” the most famous book I’ve never actually read. I now understand why I’ve spent much of my life worrying–>thinking about what would happen if/when I were put in prison/tortured and being so grateful for the memorized Scripture verses my father had me practice. It is so important for me to be able to connect the historical traditions of my ancestor’s faith with the current struggles of today, even if they would not be recognizable to my own relatives. A prison theology that leads to true freedom. Thank you.

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