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Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 2

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.

Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 1

 “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.

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