I know, I know. I promised new posts for last week and didn’t deliver. Getting back into the swing of things after being in Arizona for two weeks proved more time-intensive than I expected. But now I’m back and ready to write!
If you’re wondering about my experience in Arizona, you can read my daily reflections over at my old spirituality blog: Of the Garden Variety.
This week I have a few disconnected thoughts to share with you lovely readers. Let’s dig into it.
For me, I’ve been so preoccupied with preparing for Arizona, being in Arizona, recovering from Arizona, and looking ahead to my next trip, that I’ve pretty much lost sight of Lent this year. Rather than a season of reflection, contemplation, and experiencing the disconsolation of being without, I’ve been rushing, working, and experiencing sensory and information overload.
So what do we do when our season of life does not match up with the church calendar? What do we do when the sermons and sharing of our community of God don’t resonate with our current experience?
I think we run into this dilemma more often than we like to admit. We experience loss, but our community is full of celebration. We experience rest, but our community expects more participation. We experience peace, but our community is full of unrest. We experience doubt and distance with God, but our community seems threatened by our questions.
Sometimes it’s so much easier to walk alone.
But community is central to our Christian faith for a reason. Yes, we need the freedom to be who we are and where we are on our spiritual journeys, but we also need the experience of community to help us grow and change. Community can be challenging, but it can also be revealing and healing.
When I think about participation in the community of God, I always return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
We can never achieve this “wholeness” simply by ourselves, but only together with others. – Letters and Papers from Prison
(If you missed it, you can find our 4-part series on community in Bonhoeffer’s writings here.)
We need each other not only to fully experience God but also to become fully whole in ourselves. I may not be in a season of life or a frame of mind to really engage in Lent this year, but being surrounded by a community of God that is engaged in Lent helps keep me linked to the seasons of the church year and reminds me that there is more to life than my momentary experience.
And who knows? Maybe next year I will be the one reminding my community just what the season of Lent brings to our experience of God.
That’s what community is all about.
Community, as Bonhoeffer describes it, requires Jesus as mediator, discipleship, and participation in the incarnation. Today, we’ll conclude with a brief look at the benefits and challenges of community as well as how Bonhoeffer’s theology relates to holistic body theology.
Challenges: pride and disillusionment
Bonhoeffer criticizes those who live apart for their pride, which separates them from living in a right relationship to God and to others. “The wish to be independent in everything is false pride,” he writes in one of his prison letters and continues, “Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves and is a part of our own lives, and any attempt to calculate what we have ‘earned’ for ourselves and what we owe to other people is certainly not Christian.”
Bonhoeffer recognizes the difficulty of this kind of intentional Christian life and takes great pains to acknowledge that sin happens. He warns against idealizing community life by glossing over sin: “In Christian brotherhood, everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.” The greatest harm to a community comes through disillusionment when sin enters in (as it inevitably will) and is revealed or is kept hidden.
Shame is a deeply crippling issue universal to the human experience. Christian or not, we deal with shame because of our fallen nature. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics: “Man perceives himself in his disunion with God and with men…Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.” Shame requires hiding (i.e., we were ashamed because we were naked), and hiding creates an environment of isolation and loneliness within the community, exactly that which community is designed to eradicate. When sin comes out, disillusionment sets in and the community rarely survives.
Benefits: freedom from shame and loneliness
For Christians, however, there is hope: community. Bonhoeffer urges “brotherly confession and absolution” to correct this tendency toward shame. “Lying destroys community,” Bonhoeffer observes, “but truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship.” It is this truth spoken to one another in community that keeps accountable for the sin that cannot be avoided completely.
Confession and intercession are essential for a healthy community life. Bonhoeffer encourages his readers to confess to one another when he writes, “If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.” When we confess sin in a safe space to a safe person, that sin no longer has power to shame and isolate us from the rest of the community. “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, ” I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” When we pray for someone, it is infinitely more difficult to remain distant from that person. Prayer brings us together, whether we are praying with or for one another, because we are looking to Christ who mediates between us all. Church, like the home, should be a safe environment to make mistakes and be encouraged.
Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together that the “fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship.” However, the imprisoned Bonhoeffer feels the lack of community on a much more human level: “I very much miss meal-time fellowship…So may not this be an essential part of life, because it is a reality of the Kingdom of God?”
Living and acting out the spiritual disciplines within the community are certainly essential, but Bonhoeffer realizes while he is in prison that we most feel the lack of simple coming together, sharing life together; not just the Lord’s Supper but any supper. Not just confession but communication. Not just the visible church-community but daily and freely communing with fellow believers. It is the sense of togetherness that Bonhoeffer suggests as the greatest benefit of community. After all, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ among them.
Holistic Body Theology: The Body of Christ and the Body of Christ
Part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy community as the body of Christ. We are the community of God, and through Christ we interact with one another to build each other up as we seek to live fully into our identity as the image of God. Likewise, another part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy interaction with the world, both as individuals and together with the community of God. This is the body of Christ, the activity and impact of the community of God as we participate in the incarnation of Jesus.
As we learned from our tour of Bonhoeffer’s writings this week, community and Christian fellowship are infinitely vital to the Christian life. Equally vital, however, is the role of the visible church-community in the world and the impact it should have through participation in the incarnation of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer writes, “A man’s attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good or an evil which is good or evil in itself…and if he acts in accordance with this view,” that is, idealistic interaction with the world is lacking in the reality of the call of Christ to the action of the disciples. Rather, “his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.” (This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ transforming culture.)
We are called to be a city on a hill, but we’re not supposed to be a gated community, inaccessible if you don’t know the secret code. Jesus entered into the context of his day, and so should we. The role of the Christian in the world is to think and act according to the ever-changing reality of events in the world. Bonhoeffer makes community life seem so apparent and logical, so clear in scripture, so necessary a part of the live of the disciple who is participating in the incarnation and acting on behalf of those who need justice.
Let’s take our cue from Bonhoeffer and follow his example into a community that has Jesus as the mediator, is made up of costly disciples, and is determined to participate both individually and communally in the incarnation as the body of Christ.
This week, we’ve been honoring Bonhoeffer‘s birthday by taking a tour of some of his writings to discover what he teaches about community. In addition to Jesus as mediator and discipleship, let’s look at the third requirement for community.
3) Responsibility and deputyship (participation in the incarnation)
Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians should be in community because Christ exemplified it for us every day he walked on earth, especially in the way he interacted with his disciples: “In bearing with men God maintained fellowship with them.” We are God’s deputies here on earth, participating in the incarnation of Christ. If Christ is our example of community life, how much more are sacrifice and service to be the themes of our interaction with community members on a daily basis? “If you reject God’s commanding word,” Bonhoeffer warns, “you will not receive God’s gracious word. How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point?”
Repeatedly, Bonhoeffer stresses the fact that community is about dying to self. In agreeing to participate in the incarnation by becoming a disciple and taking on the responsibility of entering into the lives of others, we are freed to suffer—“The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death”—and freed to forgive—“Jesus’ call to bear the cross places all who follow him in the community of forgiveness of sins. Forgiving sins is the Christ-suffering required of his disciples…of all Christians.”
When we give up the claim to our own rights, we are freed to turn our attention and concern to the rights of others. This freedom is the deputyship Bonhoeffer charges to each Christian; it is an ethic of relationship and community, the requirement of incarnational service for others. In one of his prison letters, Bonhoeffer writes, “It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves.”
Our human nature has been designed for community life. It is a sacrifice to be in a position to love others rightly, but it is a sacrifice only because of our sinful nature, not because of our true natural inclination. Dying to the self makes us able to live the life we have been designed for, which is why Bonhoeffer can create an ethic that requires our participation in the lives of those around us.
Regardless of the environment in which we live, community living is still a responsibility and expectation of every disciple. Bonhoeffer asserts, “This principle [of deputyship] is not affected by the extent of the responsibility assumed, whether it be for a single human being, for a community or for whole groups of communities….[E]ven the solitary lives as a deputy, and indeed quite especially so, for his life is lived in deputyship for man as man, for mankind as a whole.”
Whether we’re in a position to live intentionally among other Christians, or whether we find ourselves in a position of being a solitary light to the world, we are all called to participate in the incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ in the world.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the challenges and benefits of being in community and what it means to be the body of Christ.
Yesterday, we looked at the first requirement for community: Jesus as mediator. Today, we’ll continue our tour through Bonhoeffer‘s writings about community.
2) Individual commitment (discipleship)
When Bonhoeffer writes, “The call to discipleship here has no other content than Jesus Christ himself, being bound to him, in community with him,” he means that discipleship is entering into community with Jesus Christ, participating in the cost of his grace through the incarnation.
As we looked at yesterday, Bonhoeffer builds his understanding of discipleship and the call of each individual Christian to live according to Christ around the sub-theme of Jesus as the mediator. Jesus enters incarnationally into our lives and calls us to follow the example by entering incarnationally into the lives of our fellow Christians, with Christ as the mediator. Every assertion Bonhoeffer makes stems from this central belief in the position of Christ in our lives.
Whether we are communicating with God—“Always there must be a second person, another, a member of the fellowship, the Body of Christ, indeed, Jesus Christ himself, praying with him, in order that the prayer of the individual may be true prayer”—or whether we are worshiping among fellow Christians—“It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song”—everything we do is filtered through the incarnation of Christ.
Bonhoeffer returns again and again to this theme: “The image of Jesus Christ shapes the image of the disciples in daily community.”
As Bonhoeffer develops, in The Cost of Discipleship, his discussion of what it means to be a disciple of Christ–to answer the call to participate in the incarnation by obedience to that call–he stresses the need to come to Christ alone: “Each is called alone. Each must follow alone.” Discipleship is first and foremost individual.
Bonhoeffer warns, “If you refuse to be alone (i.e. to worship, pray, meditate, and generally seek God on an individual basis) you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.” Community life is designed to enhance and bolster the lives of Christians but not to serve as a substitute for finding all of our needs met in God alone.
However, most of us are not called into seclusion, either. Bonhoeffer believed strongly in intentional Christian community and warns in Life Together, “If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject all of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” We must deal only with Christ and through Christ, but Christ has entered incarnationally into our lives in order that we might live in right relationship to each other as well as to God. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Man is an indivisible whole, not only as an individual in his person and work but also as a member of the community of men and creatures in which he stands.”
In fact, community and individual discipleship are closely related in Bonhoeffer’s famous argument against cheap grace: “Cheap grace is…baptism [i.e. the symbol of individual commitment] without the discipline of community….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer does not neglect to add that while it is the individual’s responsibility to live in community, it is also the responsibility of the community to impact positively the individual’s life. “The right of the individual,” Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics, “is the power which upholds the right of the community, just as, conversely, it is the community that upholds and defends the right of the individual.”
Bonhoeffer warns that Christians must be aware of the health of the surrounding community, for when “a community hinders us from coming before Christ as a single individual, anytime a community lays claim to immediacy, it must be hated for Christ’s sake.” Community is important and even essential to the Christian life, but it does not have the right to supersede the position of Christ as center and mediator for all disciples.
(Current heated debates surrounding certain celebrity pastors come to mind.)
Bonhoeffer repeats so that his readers cannot forget, “Discipleship is bound to the mediator, and wherever discipleship is rightly spoken of, there the mediator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is intended. Only the mediator, the God-human, can call to discipleship.”
Jesus calls individually; we answer individually and respond communally. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the third requirement of community: participation in the incarnation.
“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.