”We can never achieve this ‘wholeness’ simply by ourselves, but only together with others.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words while experiencing an intense lack of daily Christian community during his time in prison. In honor of Bonhoeffer’s birthday this past Saturday, I’ve decided to take you lovely readers on a tour this week of Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison to discover what Bonhoeffer had to say about what it means to live in community as the body of Christ.
Bonhoeffer has so much to say about community, but I’ve chosen to break down his requirements for healthy community life into three categories. We’ll look at the first one today.
1) Jesus as the mediator
This sub-theme is prevalent throughout Bonhoeffer’s writings, so its importance to his understanding of community cannot be denied. In Life Together, his manual for living in community, Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” and later reiterates, “Only in Jesus Christ are we one, only through him are we bound together. To eternity he remains the one Mediator.”
In his book Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes this concept in more detail: “But it is precisely this same mediator who…becomes the basis for entirely new community….He separates, but he also unites. He cuts off every direct path to someone else, but he guides everyone following him to the new and the true way to the other person via the mediator.”
This concept of Jesus as mediator has a profound impact on the way we interact with others. Bonhoeffer writes that “everything should happen only through [Jesus]. He stands not only between me and God, he also stands between me and the world, between me and other people and things…between person and person, and between person and reality.”
The effort to continually invite Jesus to stand in our midst and mediate between us and whoever we are with has the opportunity to make us increasingly mindful of Jesus’ presence in our lives as we live among fellow Christians. If Jesus mediates for us not only with God but also with people, then all the commands and requirements of a holy Christian life are made possible.
Suddenly, it is not the effort in our own power to intellectually strive for righteous living. “This [realization],” as Bonhoeffer explains, “leads us away from any kind of abstract ethic and towards an ethic which is entirely concrete.”
Community is, then, the conscious invitation to Jesus to enter into our lives in this physical, tangible way and be the filter through which we live and experience life. With Jesus standing between us and the world, we are able to guard our tongues and practice self-discipline because our words and actions must pass through Jesus to get to the world.
Likewise, we are able to forgive, to give up our own rights, and to suffer injustice because the words and actions of the world must pass through Jesus to get to us. What a different way of experiencing life!
Bonhoeffer notes, “The way to one’s neighbor leads only through Christ. That is why intercession is the most promising way to another person, and common prayer in Christ’s name is the most genuine community.” When we are interacting with each other through Christ, we are in community the way Jesus exemplified when he came to live among us.
Truly this intentional living in community through Jesus is the way to understand the freedom and abundance of life that Jesus arrived in human flesh to make possible for us. Truly this is how peace, grace, mercy, and agape-love are made manifest on earth. As Bonhoeffer stresses, “Jesus Christ alone is our unity.”
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the second category: discipleship.