On page 96 as Bonhoeffer moves into his concluding focus in Life Together, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he writes about the special place confession one to another has in preparation for the Supper.
“It is the command of Jesus that no one should come to the altar with a heart unreconciled to another Christian…The day before the Lord’s Supper together will find the members of a Christian community with one another, each asking of the other forgiveness for wrongs committed. Anyone who avoids this path to another believer cannot go to the table of the Lord well prepared.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 96.
Here Bonhoeffer is not only talking about confession of our sins one to another, but going to brothers and sisters against whom we have sinned and asking their forgiveness – Bonhoeffer points out that this is more than an apology, this is confession of sin.
In my own life I have stood before the communion table and asked forgiveness of someone in the congregation more than once before I could administer the bread and wine. Why? Why could I not have done this privately? I could have done it privately before our worship gathering if I had been convicted of it before then, or if I had been both convicted and had had time to do so before our worship gathering. In each instance I believed that if I proceeded in serving the Lord’s Supper without asking for forgiveness that I would be profaning the Table and serving the elements as a hypocrite.
So we have both the practice of confession of our sins one to another, a confession in which we hear the Word of Forgiveness in Christ; and we have the practice of going to a brother or sister against whom we have sinned and asking their forgiveness for the wrong, the sin, we have done against them. The is the path to the communion Table, and while we may struggle with the former practice and not be prepared to embrace it, we must not evade the latter practice, otherwise the roots of bitterness and sin will work their way deep into our souls. Tender and new weeds are easy to pull, deep-rooted weeds are difficult and can be dangerous to the good plants of the garden.
“What brought the accusation of blasphemy against Jesus was that he forgave sinners; this is what now takes place in the Christian community in the power of the present Jesus Christ” (page 97).
While I realize that some of us may resonant with the above, and others may reject it out-of-hand, I hope we will ponder Bonhoeffer’s words for they could not have been lightly penned, not in the context of the book Life Together; whether we agree with him or not I think it proper to give Bonhoeffer the courtesy of thinking about what he has written. Confession to one another is important to Bonhoeffer and we should ask “Why?” Bonhoeffer concludes his book with a focus on confession and the Lord’s Supper – why does he do this? Why is this so important?
If we are indeed the Body of Christ, if this is a present reality, if the Trinity lives within His Body, then as He is so are we in this world – whether we believe it or not, whether we consciously experience it or not. The Tree of Life in Revelation Chapter 22 is a picture of a tree, like the Aspen, which grows through its root system; one tree has become many trees yet the many trees are the one tree and they are genetically identical. The Aspen tree is considered by some to be the largest living thing, with the Pando “clone” over 100 acres in size and weighing around 14 million pounds – surely the Body of Christ dwarfs the Aspen tree.
Too often we recoil at a thought because we have seen it misunderstood and misused, we ought to know better – what riches in Christ have we forfeited because of this thinking? And just because my lack of faith may cause me to pragmatically think, “I’ll never see that in this life,” does not mean that I should not hope for a fuller expression of the glory of God in Christ in His people – just maybe God will surprise me as He has surprised others.
If we are a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” then we ought to discover what that means. (Peter does not write in 1 Peter 2:9 that we are a nation of sinners). John writes that Jesus Christ “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6 – see also 5:10; 20:6). Surely the New Testament writers understood what the image of a priest would convey, surely when the writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our High Priest, rather than simply “our Priest”, he understands that a High Priest is surrounded by other priests. The NT teaching of the “priesthood of the believer” takes the OT priesthood and transposes it upward in Christ – yet this is not an individualistic priesthood, this is not a priesthood where people serve in isolation from one another, this is a priesthood, it is a communion, a fellowship, with our High Priest as our Head. Little wonder that Peter writes that we ought to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” and that when we speak we ought to speak as the “oracles of God” – for we have been made a holy nation and a royal priesthood.
Our world needs the Body of Christ functioning as a priesthood, the Body needs its members functioning one to another as a priesthood. Sadly we fear and we do not function. We are afraid to be who we are in Christ – we prefer the safety of Egypt. Slaves need not take risks, they are secure in their bondage.
“For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God,” (Romans 8:14 – 15). Better to live a moment in the freedom of Jesus Christ than a lifetime in chains.
Let us not fear to be who God has made us in Jesus Christ. Let us not fear to be the kingdom of priests, let us not fear to be Christ’s royal priesthood.
There is a sad irony that as we approach the 500th anniversary of what is commonly thought to be the beginning of the Reformation that we give but lip service to the priesthood of the believer which Luther sought to restore. Are we any better than the children of those who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29 – 31)?
Bonhoeffer left confession and the Lord’s Supper for the end of his book because he considered that in this “the community has reached its goal,” a thought that we will explore in the next post.