Faith in Community Part I

6 04 2008

My Spiritual Director has requested I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work, Life Together, which is about Dietrich’s thoughts on what it really means to be in Christian Fellowship and Community. Instead of sermons for the next month or so (which may still pop up occasionally if the readings for the week move me), I will share my thoughts and notes on what Dietrich has to say. Citations are from HarperSanFrancisco’s publication, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

Chapter I: Community

We cannot take for granted that Christians live among other Christians. “Jesus came to bring peace to the enemies of God” (p17) so, too, the Christian does not work among fellow believers but around those hostile to the Christian faith, or if not hostile, then indifferent as an option among many. The Body of Christ is not a unified earthly entity but is scattered to the four winds to be the seed for the Kingdom of God. Our identity and our community is based in him.

In the West, we take for granted a place to worship and fellowship, but in places where we are a minority (eg Asia and the Mid-East) visible fellowship is seen more for what it is: a blessing. It is natural to yearn for the physical presence of other Christians. Even in the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, you will find a yearning to be part of a fellowship. Our faith is very much physical as it is spiritual. In other way, think about someone who is someone who is sick or lonely and meets another fellow Christian, and how wonderful it is for them to fellowship. How much greater then, should our joy be if we have the privilege of gathering regularly week after week, “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (p20) Community means belonging to each other in Christ, whether it is a one-time encounter or a sustained fellowship.

Through and In Christ

DB then turns to what it means to be righteous or guilty in the sight of God. Our justification is not found in our own standards but in Christ who is our judge, redeemer and saviour. By ourselves, we are nothing and cannot live up to our own expectations, but when Jesus breaks into our lives, he brings “redemption, righteousness, innocence and blessedness” (p22).

Christians need other to be Christ to each other. In community, where “two or three are gathered” we bring Christ. Without Christ, DB says, we cannot know God but we also cannot know our brother or sister or even recognize them. As God bestows mercy upon us, we are to grant mercy on our own people. God stooped to our level, so to speak, by becoming one of us in the Incarnation. As Jesus has done, we must do to each other and meet each other where we are. “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely Jesus Christ and his work become the only thing vital between us” (p26).

Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality

We all have our own ideas as to what community or fellowship should be, but God quickly dispels those illusions. He is not a God of dreams, but of reality. A community which cannot bear the reality of the messiness of people’s lives will ultimately collapse. In fact, if you love your own notion of community of the dream of community more than the community itself, you will lend your own energies to destroying it. It is not our own dreams or wishes or ideas which lay the foundations of fellowship, but God. It is God who has called the community together.

When we are disillusioned with each other, that is when we learned we need each other the most. What binds us together is not ideas, dreams or wishes or even doctrine or worship but the grace and forgiveness we all receive in Christ. Community is a gift from God. If we are not thankful for what GOd has given us in his gift of each other, we rob ourselves of “the little things” and prohibit the grown of “the big things.”

Likewise, a minister (or priest or pastor) should not complain about his congregation, for it, too, is a gift from God. Fellowship or community is not an ideal we try to realize but is “a reality created by God” (p30).

Spiritual but not Human Reality

The Christian community is different from other kinds of Community because it is spiritual in the sense that it is created by the Holy Spirit and a fellowship called by Christ. Human community, on the other hand, is formed out of desire. …. and not necessarily bad desire, for desire can also be good. However, without that spiritual element (again, meaning of the Holy Spirit), the human parts of the community will ultimately become self-serving.

Dietrich takes great lengths to describe how human community “reflects the distorted image of everything that is originally and solely peculiar to community mediated through Christ” (p33). In fact, he takes a very “low” view of humanity (think traditional doctrines of Original Sin). I disagree with him on some points, but then again, if I were a dissident Christian living in Nazi Germany especially after having spent time in New York City, I would probably have a very low view of humanity too.

Once you read through about how miserable human community is and how wonderful spiritual community (he gets almost .. but not quite …. gnostic in how far he takes it, IMHO), he compares human community and also human love to spiritual community and spiritual love like this (a little too black and white for my tastes but I see his point):

Human love desires, but spiritual love serves. Human love is an end in and of itself, it cultivates and idea and loves itself. Spiritual love comes from Christ and stands between the lover and the loved. Human love constructs an image of the loved by the lover based on desire, but Spiritual love recognizes the loved based on who they really are as image bearers of God. Human love can produce subjection and domination; spiritual love produces freedom.

Excluding the weak and marginalized from our community may mean the we are excluding Christ for we have not realized how to recognize Christ in the other person.

Sometimes we are blessed to experience spiritual community in the form of retreats and conferences and the like, and generally at times when we meet new people or spend some extended period of time with people we know but haven’t spent that kind of time with. Dietrich also says, however, that “nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober brotherly relationship of everyday life” (p39).

In sum, if our life in community is to be truly “spiritual” then it must be based in Jesus, not merely desire or experience (in spite of what Dietrich says, I think desire and experience must come into play on some level). In God we can know the reality of each other as God sees us, find joy in one another and find true fellowship and community.

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3 responses

7 04 2008
Anthony

I had to opportunity to lead a book study of Living Together, and ever since, I from time to time reference the book, it has an honored place in my library. Maybe one day you will also get around to reading The Cost of Discipleship.

7 04 2008
ron

Insightful stuff.
Its good to remember to look for Jesus when we look at others. No matter who they are or where they’ve been.
As the people at the church I attend have been saying, “Don’t try to live Jesus’ life. But try to live your own life as you think Jesus would.”
We are not meant to be Jesus.
But He should shine out us.

8 04 2008
FranIAm

This is a very thought provoking post and I am glad that I stopped by.

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