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.