In sixteenth century Holland it was against the law to worship anywhere outside of the official institutional church. Among the free-thinking Reformers, there was a group that have since become known as the Mennonites. In 1569 a man from this group named Dirk Willems was arrested for being illegally baptized and for holding illegal worship services in his home. He was locked in the castle prison for many months as he awaited his trial. He was poorly fed and eventually weighed less than 100 pounds. But his small frame now made it possible to attempt an escape.
In the middle of the night he was able to squeeze through a small window in the prison wall and then, with a rope he had made out of old rags, he lowered himself down the outside wall of the castle. At the bottom of the wall was the moat which surrounded the castle, and Dirk lowered himself gently onto the thin ice. Again, his reduced weight helped him as he was able to make it all the way across without breaking through.
Just as he took off running, he heard the prison guard call for him to stop. Dirk had no intention of returning to prison, so he kept running. The guard ran out of a side door and took off across the thin ice. But being better fed and much heavier, the guard broke through into the freezing water.
“Help me,” he cried, “please help me.” Dirk stopped and looked back. No one else was there to help the drowning man. At that time, in the middle of the night, no one else would be coming for the man in the water, or, for Dirk. Freedom was at hand. There would be no pursuit, no capture. But another man would die and Dirk Willem’s Christian conscience would not allow him to let that happen. Dirk turned back, and carefully laid himself out on the ice, and with his arms outstretched he was able to reach the man and pull him to safety. The less than grateful guard then held on to the arm of the man who just saved him, and dragged him back into prison.
Dirk Willems was then put into chains so there would be no further chance of escape. There he remained until his trial, at which he was found guilty and sentenced to death by being burned at the stake.
The natural thing for Dirk Willems to do after finally escaping from jail, would have been to keep running. That guard drowning in that moat would not have had to be his problem. Willems was free and gone. But he turned back because his heart and mind had been formed by Jesus Christ who had commanded his followers to love their enemies and to do good to those who hurt them, and who had himself forgiven his enemies and died for them. And so Willems could not keep running knowing that his escape would mean the death of another man, even though turning back might well mean his own death. He had learned from God’s Word that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord, and so he went back.
Luke 23:32-34a — Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals– one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 6:26-27 — (Jesus said), “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Romans 5:6-10 — You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Romans 14:7-9 — For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
O Lord Jesus, because we so often sin and have to ask pardon, help us to forgive as we would be forgiven; neither mentioning old offences committed against us, nor dwelling upon them in thought, nor being influenced by them in heart; but loving our brother freely, as you freely loved us. For your name’s sake. Amen.