I presume it was relatively cold, the 15th of January in 1549. That was the day the authorities entered Elizabeth’s house and found a Latin Bible: “We have found the right person,” they said, “we now have the teacher.” The authorities believed this woman was an Anabaptist leader. Elizabeth was taken from her home and arraigned the following day (MM, 481).
The story is chronicled in the Martyrs Mirror, and that massive book, Elizabeth’s story included, has been an important devotional read for Mennonites for several hundred years. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the Martyrs Mirror has been the most important book for Mennonites, next to the Bible.
Now, we need to be careful with this book today. We need to be careful with it because of the way it casts other Christians as non-Christians and because of the way it can make us feel like victims, when in many contexts we are in positions of power. That said, the Martyrs Mirror is an important part of who we are:
We are a people who believe faith is something we might be willing to suffer for, not something we will ever kill for.
So let’s listen to a bit of Elizabeth’s interrogation as the Martyrs Mirror records it.
Magistrate: “We say that you are a teacher, and that you seduce many. We have been told this, and we want to know who your friends are.”
Elizabeth: “My God has commanded me to love my Lord and my God, and to honor my parents; therefor I will not tell you who my parents are; for I to suffer for the name of Christ is a reproach to my friends.”
Magistrate: “We will let you alone on that matter, but we want to know whom you have taught.”
Elizabeth: “Oh, no, my lords, let me in peace with this, but interrogate me concerning my faith, which I will gladly tell you.”
I doubt that being interrogated in a public trial was part of the script Elizabeth had envisioned for her future. I doubt her parents hoped for this as she went through the stages of maturity. Elizabeth wasn’t an Anabaptist from birth; she had an earlier life and somewhere along the line things changed.
That was true for Paul too. I can’t help but smile at the little line the first chapter of Galatians where Paul says, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life.” Does he write it with shame or pride? Does he just state it flatly as useful information? In our political climate we see changes like these as a problem. We call it flip-flopping or inconsistency or lacking conviction. However, in the Christian Scriptures personal changes like this is simply a part of getting to know a living God. We believe God doesn’t let us alone and doesn’t let us stay as we are.
Paul was born in the Greek-speaking city of Tarsus. His father held Roman citizenship, so did Paul. But speaking Greek and being a privileged citizen of Rome weren’t determinative for Paul’s identity. In Philippians 3 Paul says he was a “Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.” In Galatians he describes himself as a Jew zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. The term ‘Hebrew’, which he uses in Philippians, actually tells us the most. According to the New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, it means that Paul came from a family that hadn’t been acculturated to the Greco-Roman world.
Many Jewish families had made the change. But Paul’s family still spoke Hebrew (or its variant Aramaic) at home and in the synagogue. Acculturated Jews spoke Greek in both places. They could do that because the Scriptures had been translated into that language some 200 years before. Paul, though, would have known them in Hebrew. Yet Paul’s enmeshment in the traditions of his ancestors went even deeper than that: in his teens he was sent to Jerusalem to study with the famous teacher Gamaliel.
Gamaliel was an influential legal scholar and the leading Pharisee of his day. Like other Pharisees he believed that the interpretive commentary on Torah, which had accrued in the community over the decades, was as equally binding as the Torah itself. Paul was a serious student of this, maybe even more zealous than his teacher.
Let me explain. In Acts 5 Peter and some of the other apostles were apprehended and brought before the Jewish high court in Jerusalem. Most of the court was deeply angry at their teaching and wanted to pass judgment quickly. However, it was Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people,” the text tells us, who stood up and calmed the others. Look, he suggested, if this teaching isn’t from God it won’t amount to anything. If it is from God we don’t want to be against it. Let’s leave these people alone. Gamaliel was subtle, patient and wise.
Paul, on the other hand, did not think he needed to wait. Today we would call that Paul a religious fundamentalist. As he writes to the Galatians, he persecuted the church violently. He tried to destroy it. “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life,” he would later write to the Galatians. Yes, they had.
In the verses we read from the first chapter we see Paul is trying to reinforce the point that gentiles do not need to obey Jewish tradition in order to follow the Way of Jesus. He defends this by claiming that the origin of this theology lies in his encounter with God. It didn’t come from other people. It wasn’t part of a government-funded program for national unity. It wasn’t one more ‘movement’ destined to lose energy spinning itself out. It wasn’t just the latest and greatest idea rolling around in Jerusalem or Damascus. It is the work of God in time and space. It was a gift.
It seems that the followers of the Way in Galatia were a bit skeptical of that. We often are too. We feel like earning something is more legitimate than being given it. So Paul is trying to show that he isn’t just telling the Galatians what they want to hear; there is something divine afoot. Beneath this, though, is the subtext of Paul’s own life, and in front of it is our own. Paul writes, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.”
One of the things we often do this time of year is attend graduations. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Paul himself would have had some such experience, a moment of completion and maybe the sense that the path of his life stretched out before him in a relatively straight line. It might be more of a stretch to think that of the woman with whose story I opened. Whether she attended school or not, I don’t know. Like Paul, though, there had been a time of conversion. Let’s return briefly to her interrogation:
“Who was present when you were baptized,” the magistrates asked her.
Elizabeth: “Christ said: Ask them that were present or who heard it.” (Here the Martyrs Mirror includes a reference to John 18:21. She was quoting Jesus from memory.)
Magistrate: “Now we perceive that you are a teacher; for you compare yourself to Christ,” the magistrate replied.
Back and forth the interrogation goes, the magistrates asking questions designed to expose her deviant views, Elizabeth answering with a combination of wit and memorized biblical passages. One can hardly imagine that this was what her parents had hoped for, their child publically interrogated. This was not the line to success they had envisioned. They certainly would never have wished for her what followed: her refusal to confess the error of the Way, screws tightened, fainting from pain, drowning in a bag.
If we’re being honest very few of us would say that there was no difference between our earlier life and the one we live now. Most of us are already a bit like Paul, a bit like Elizabeth. Things have not unfolded in a neat, linear progression. If we have climbed one ladder or a few they look like the ones in Super Mario. Climbing those ladders involves lots of running sideways, lots of banging our heads on things, a few wild leaps. That is, if we have climbed a ladder at all.
Neither Paul nor Elizabeth did. Their lives were characterized by conversion, not by ladder-climbing. If you would have asked them who or what they were both would have said that most significantly they were a follower of the Way: they were once on one path and now they were on another. Whatever intentions they once possessed they had since met something deeper.
That’s true but let me nuance it a little: it’s important for us not to nurture expectations for the dramatic in a world shaped slowly by blown sand and flowing water. In the first place, I have no reason to suspect that Elizabeth’s path to Anabaptism was as dramatic as Paul’s being knocked off his ass on the way to Damascus. It may well have happened little by little. I remember, as a seminary student, visiting a Catholic youth mass. It was the first time I had heard the word ‘conversion’ used in a plural sense for one person. The priest encouraged the youth to be open to conversions, that is to an ongoing relationship with a living God. In the second place, while Paul’s conversion today would be considered a change of religions, he would not have thought of it that way. In his own mind he did not become a “Christian”; rather, he became a true Jew. In revealing Jesus to him, God revealed a new way of being faithful to Torah. So to say that life with God assumes an openness to change or conversions, doesn’t mean we’re banking on one big moment. The conversions we experience might well be as subtle as the change of a few degrees on a compass—small at present, significant over time.
I can’t help but wonder if encountering God doesn’t inevitably lead to some sort of conversion, some distinctions, some letting go, some sideways turns in our lives. I can’t help but wonder if encountering God, the very God who took on the flesh of a first-century Jew, doesn’t inherently create differences between our future self and earlier self. How can this not be true? Who of us is born perfect? Who of us is born with the views that will carry us through our dying days?
Who of us is not even now prone to habits of a way other than the Way of Jesus? Who of us has not at one point or another been prone to disparaging anger? Who of us has not envied our neighbor’s this or that? Who of us has not sacrificed to some god of our own creation? Who of us has not harbored destructive desire? I imagine the answer is none of us. And so, encountering God leads to change.
Before we conclude let’s notice this: years after his conversion Paul could report that the leaders in Jerusalem would say, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And so it seems that God doesn’t waste our past; God puts it to good use. The student of Gamaliel now apprenticed to Jesus, joins together Jew and Gentile. Who could be better suited? The persecutor of the Way becomes it’s most globally significant advocate. To say that we are not who we once were does not mean it was all a waste.
It’s important for us to remember that that Paul’s life post-conversion was not exactly wonderful. For one thing he was never healed of something he called a “thorn” (II Cor. 12.7). Some speculate that Paul suffered from a visual impairment or perhaps from a mental illness. Of course we can’t know for sure, but we can conclude that our life with God will not release us from all suffering or from every temptation that plagued our former selves. We can expect to leave behind some of the things from our earlier life, we can expect new beginnings. We can expect to be drawn further and higher into the reconciling work of Jesus and into the love that is the Triune Mystery.