We sometimes think that we are the church on our own — whether that’s our local congregation, our area conference or our denomination. But every time we pick up our hymnal, it connects us to brothers and sisters from around the globe and from many Christian traditions.
How many hymns in our hymnal are written by Mennonites? A dozen, or perhaps a few more? I like to look at the fine print at the bottom of the page to see what part of the broader body of Christ the hymn connects me to.
One of my favorites is “Heart with Loving Heart United” (420 in Hymnal, A Worship Book). It was written by Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, a leader in what is now known as the Moravian Church. Moravians 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 that gives all words and invitations credibility and potency.
Zinzendorf knew that this kind of fellowship was not easily achieved. When he wrote this hymn, 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. It came to be known as a haven of religious freedom, but the concentration of differing beliefs led to serious conflict.
Zinzendorf published this hymn in 1725, in the midst of these troubles. In the hymn he reminds the community that Christ is the head and we are members. In the body, not only do different parts have different gifts and roles but they are all connected and joined to each other. For a body to be alive there must be blood flow, nerve signals and many other connections. For a church to be healthy, the parts need to be in relationship with each other, recognize that they need each other, and listen carefully to each other.
The hymn goes on to challenge 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 . . .” These are not words to be sung glibly.
Zinzendorf gave himself full-time to resolving the conflicts. He visited each home for prayer and convened members of the village for intense Bible study. He and other leaders contended for the unity of the body. Over time, many became convicted that their disunity was unfaithful and that they were called to live together in love.
Finally in 1727, the community embraced a “Brotherly Agreement,” which established 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.” It is said that this was when the community at Herrnhut “learned to love each other.” These experiences intiated a period of intense mission and growth.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and director of holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.