Five hundred years ago there was a group of Christians living in Europe known as the Anabaptists. These are not to be confused with today’s Baptists, though the groups do share points of common history. The name Anabaptist was not so much a description as it was a condemnation.
The Anabaptists were “anti-baptizers,” scorning infant baptism and a heap of other cherished church doctrines. Because of this, and their refusal to join their faith to the ruling civil powers, they were violently persecuted by governments, Catholics, and Protestants alike.
One such persecution broke out in 1569 in Holland. Yes, there were some fanatics in the Anabaptist tribe, but the simple, compassionate, and innocent Jesus-followers were gobbled up as well, as is always the case. One such innocent was a man named Dirk Willems.
On a winter day a bailiff was sent to arrest Dirk on the charge that he had been holding secret religious meetings in his home and had allowed others to be re-baptized there. Dirk ran for his life with the bailiff right on his heels, throwing himself across a small ice-covered lake.
It held his weight as he ran, and he crossed safely to the other side. But the ice did not hold for his pursuer. The bailiff chasing after Dirk crashed through the ice into the freezing water. Dirk Willems immediately turned back and rescued the struggling man from the ice. For his kindness Dirk was immediately arrested, and after refusing to renounce his faith, was later burned at the stake.
Now, here is the question asked by today’s Anabaptists: “Why did Dirk Willems turn back?” Put yourself in his vulnerable shoes. You are running for your life, the air is so cold it can freeze rivers and lakes, but the sweat is running down the small of your back. Your pursuer is so close to snatching you, you can feel his breath on your neck.
Your heart pounds in your chest and your pulse is deafening in your ears, but from behind you still hear a crack and a splash. There in the icy water is the man who came to take you to your death. What do you do? Do you raise your praise to heaven as God has triumphed over injustice? Do you continue running into the wilderness where eventually your hands will stop shaking and you pray you will see your family again?
Dirk Willems did none of these things. He instinctively, reflexively turned and rescued his enemy, though he knew death would be the price he would pay. In the words of Joseph Liechty, “It was not a rational choice. It was not an ethical decision. It was an intuitive response. No combination of mental calculations could have carried him back across the ice…The only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love, and the only love I know [like that] is the love taught and lived by Jesus.”
Liechty’s phrase “intuitive response” rings in my ears and pulls at my heart. Can we reach a place in our walk with Christ, that when we encounter hate, suffering, injustice, frustration, or tribulation that our immediate and reflexive response will be Christ responding through us; a place where we don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to plan a response, but supernaturally and instinctively, Jesus comes alive in our hearts.
It’s like going to the doctor and sitting on the examination table. He pulls out that little triangular, rubber mallet and strikes the patient on the knee. Automatically, the patient kicks. There is no thinking, planning, or fretting. It is reflexive. It is your natural response.
Dirk Willems acted as he did because he had been so spiritually shaped and formed by the person of Jesus, that his response was the only response he was capable of making. Dirk’s life and identity had been swallowed up in the person of Jesus, and it was Christ who now lived through him. That is why Dirk Willems turned back.