Christian community, conflict and witness

AndreGingerichStonerAndre Gingerich Stoner is director of Holistic Witness and Interchurch Relations for Mennonite Church USA.

One of my favorite hymns is in Hymnal a Worship Book number 420 “Heart with loving heart united.” This is a hymn about God’s love, Christian community, and a powerful witness to the world.

The hymn was written by Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, a leader in what is now known as the Moravian Church.

Moravians, including Zinzendorf, have become known for extensive mission work. The third stanza reflects this commitment: “so we wait to be commanded forth into your world to go.”

I’m particularly struck by the last lines of the third stanza: “Kindle in us love’s compassion so that ev’ry one may see, in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.” The fellowship of those who have been “ignited” by God’s love, is a foretaste of what God intends for the whole world. It is the love of brothers and sisters in Christ that is the most powerful witness to God’s love. It is this love which gives all words and invitations credibility and potency.

Zinzendorf knew that this kind of fellowship was not easily achieved. When he wrote “Heart with loving heart united, met to know God’s holy will” his community was embroiled in deep and protracted conflict.

Zinzendorf was a noble with significant landholdings.

In 1722 he offered asylum to persecuted refugees from various parts of central Europe, who built the village of Hernnhut on one corner of his estate.

The village came to be known as a haven of religious freedom, but the concentration of differing beliefs led to serious conflict. Eventually Zinzendorf gave himself full time to work to resolve the conflicts. He visited each home for prayer and convened members of the village for intense Bible study. Over time, many became convicted that their disunity was contrary to the teaching of Scripture and that they were called to live together in love.

Zinzendorf published our beloved hymn in 1725, in the midst of these troubles.

In the hymn he challenged members of the community to love each other as Christ loved us: “May we all so love each other and all selfish claims deny, so that each one for the other will not hesitate to die. Even so our Lord has loved us, for our lives he gave his life. Still he grieves and still he suffers, for our selfishness and strife.”

These are not words to be repeated glibly.

Finally in 1727, members of the community agreed to the Brotherly Agreement, which establishes a code of Christian behavior for those in the church. This was followed by continued acts of reconciliation. A few months later the community experienced a powerful spiritual renewal during a communion service known as the “Moravian Pentecost” when it is said that the inhabitants of Herrnhut “learned to love each other.”

This time of profound conflict and reconciliation set off a period of significant growth and a world-wide missionary movement. Zinzendorf’s deep desire became reality: “Kindle in us love’s compassion so that ev’ry one may see, in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.”

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