Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 63

“Many people seek community because they are afraid of loneliness…Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 55.

In the first few pages of the chapter titled The Day Alone, Bonhoeffer touches on the tension of our individual callings and lives in Christ, and our collective calling and life in Christ. One wishes that Bonhoeffer had the time to more fully explore this aspect of life together for his limited interaction with the subject could lead some readers to unbalanced conclusions. For example, in the first paragraph on page 56 he quotes Luther, “All must fight their own battle with death by themselves, alone…” Then in the next paragraph Bonhoeffer writes, “You are not alone even when you die, and on the day of judgment you will be only one member of the great community of faith in Jesus Christ.”

So we will die alone but we will not die alone. So we will live as individuals but we will not just live as individuals, we will also live as a people. We will live as people who can be alone but we will not live as people who can be alone, we will live life together.

“We recognize, then, that only as we stand in community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. Both belong together,” page 56. Bonhoeffer goes on to observe that those who want community with no space for the individual “plunge into the void of words and feelings”. These people, I think he means, live off of others and cannot stand to be alone; they feed off of others – demanding that they be with others without interruption. Some dangers inherent in this are: the person in question does not cultivate his own relationship with Jesus Christ; he does not develop his own understanding of the Scriptures (to be sure this is to be understood in the community of the church); his own prayer life languishes. The people among whom this person lives are often drained by this person’s constant demands for time and attention. There can be a temptation for others to control this person, fostering the person’s unhealthy dependence on an individual or a group – it can lead to manipulation.

Bonhoeffer then observes that those who reject community in favor of individualism “perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair,” page 57. In a sense this person hurts only himself; if he has a family then he also hurts his family. While he hurts the church by not being a functioning member of the body of Christ, the most apparent damage he does is to himself and his family.

Bonhoeffer quotes Luther again, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they (the community of faith) suffer with me.”

So we are individual members but we are one body; we have individual callings but we have a collective calling. We have a collective calling but we are individual members. John Chapter 17 informs us that we only have witness as we have Trinitarian oneness; that Trinitarian oneness can no more be explained than the mystery of the Body of Christ can be explained. We can partially describe Trinitarian oneness and we can partially describe the mystery of the Body of Christ – but only partially. Paul calls marriage between a man and a woman and the marriage of Christ and the Church a great mystery – and when he uses the term “mystery” in this context I understand it to mean not a mystery that has been unveiled (as it normally means) but rather a mystery that is being unveiled – the curtain is being drawn back – the process continues.

Bonhoeffer writes on page 56, “If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your being alone can only become harmful for you.”

As a practical matter we do not have litmus paper that we place on the tongues of believers to determine where they are in the spectrum of aloneness – community. We seldom have a realistic sense of another person’s heart, soul, inner workings – the labyrinth is too much for us to negotiate; why we don’t even know the depths of our own selves. So we ought not to be too quick to think we know where another person is or what another person needs or where a person has come from or where a person is going. Souls and hearts and minds take time to grow, to be pruned, to suffer, to grow again – to discover who Jesus Christ is, to discover who His body is, and to somewhat discover…incrementally discover, where he or she fits into the call of God individually and the call of God to the Body of Christ. Perhaps this is a voyage of discovery that never ends? Perhaps we ought to be patient with one another – after all, Jesus Christ is the Head of His Body. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Which Kingdom? What Voice?

“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm,’ ” (John 18:36).

What would have happened had the followers of Jesus Christ stirred up the populace and attacked the Jewish and Roman leaders? Could they have freed Jesus? Could they have freed Jerusalem and Judea from Roman domination? Would the church have been born on the Day of Pentecost? Would there have been a Gospel? Would we be yet in our sins? Would Jesus, the Prince of Peace, today be associated not with a cross but rather with a bloody sword due to the actions of His followers?

One of His followers did indeed use a sword in Gethsemane and was rebuked by Jesus. Prior to arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday this same follower sought to convince Jesus that Jesus should save Himself from rejection and death and was not only rebuked by Jesus but told that he was playing the role of Satan and not setting his mind on the things of God but the things of man (Matthew 16:21 – 23). Jesus followed this rebuke by stating that to follow Him meant taking up the cross, denying self, and losing one’s life for His sake and the Gospel’s. This remains the call of Jesus Christ, it remains the requirement of Jesus Christ – as Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Do we desire the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of man? Are we seeking to preserve the Gospel by loving Christ and others and peacefully articulating, in word and deed, the message of Jesus Christ? Or, are our hearts and minds engaged in self-preservation – desiring the kingdoms of this world, the American “dream”, and agendas which draw our souls away from the Kingdom of God?

At a time in our nation when our nation needs (as it always does) the church to be the church, the voice of Jesus Christ, articulating the hope of the Gospel and the coming Kingdom of God; our shallow theology and thinking, our tenuous confession of Christ, and lack of identity as the People of God, has shown us to be a confused and manipulated people – without unity, without the confession of Jesus Christ, and without moral courage – for it takes courage to say in word and deed, “I will stand with Christ and with Him alone. His kingdom is not of this world and I am in His kingdom.”

We can only have one God and we can only serve one master and we can only desire one kingdom…and we can only look to one savior. Our nation or political or economic agenda must not be the god of the Christian nor can these things be our savior. To be sure we must pray for our leaders and be good citizens, but no earthly citizenship should take precedence over our heavenly citizenship, and no interest should take precedence over the interest of Jesus Christ and His kingdom and His Gospel.

Where is the clear articulation of the church in America that we are the people of God and that we will live within a nation in chaos loving people, serving people, and clearly sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the peril of our own well-being? Where is our willingness to suffer and be marginalized for the sake of Jesus Christ? Where is our voice for the defenseless, for the stranger, for the politically and economically and socially disenfranchised?

Are we able to say that we will love and minister to people of all political agendas? Or are we so embedded in the political and economic life of this nation that we can no longer live as citizens of God’s kingdom? Have our actions and words renounced our heavenly citizenship?

Two of my historical mentors are Fran̤ois Fenelon and Andrew Murray; the former a French Roman Catholic archbishop and the latter a Dutch Reformed pastor in Africa. During wars between the English and French, Fenelon ministered to soldiers on both sides Рyes, he was a subject of Louis XIV but he was first and foremost a subject of Jesus Christ.

During the Boer War Murray also ministered to combatants on both sides. In Fenelon’s case both sides respected him for his ministry; in Murray’s case many on both sides disdained him for they thought he should choose sides. Sometimes people will understand us and accept us, other times they will not – that should not be our consideration. Both of these men were citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost – there could be little confusion about their testimony.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted by religious people with political agendas, using him as an argument to vote one way or another. What these people miss is that Bonhoeffer came to the place early on, during Hitler’s rise to absolute power, when he realized that the church must stand as the church and speak from the Kingdom of God into the world as a distinct voice, the voice of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer realized that the politicization of the church would be the death of its testimony to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer became increasingly isolated, he was considered too radical, he was not taking political and economic realities into consideration, those who had once stood with him separated themselves. Yes, there were others like Bonhoeffer, but they were few. Pragmatism and self-preservation caused many pastors, theologians, and the church to capitulate to evil – foolishly thinking that things would get better, stupidly arguing that they could moderate evil. They used the “lesser of two evils” as an argument and found that the lesser of two evils is still not only evil…it is absolute evil – for evil is evil and when we baptize an agenda as the lesser of two evils we anoint it as the authority in our lives – we subject our hearts and minds to it – we pollute ourselves and those around us. The lesser of two evils becomes the evil in our hearts and minds.

The choice of the church is not a choice to vote one way or the other – the choice before the church is whether we will live in the Kingdom of God and speak from that kingdom and live as citizens of that kingdom – serving all around us in love and charity and grace and seeking to bring them to Jesus Christ. If we must vote, then let us vote with our lives and not with our ballots – the world does not need our ballots, it needs our lives – it needs to hear and see the clear articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We have lost our voice for Christ for we have not used our voice for Christ; let us recapture an awareness of who we are in Jesus Christ – let us return to our first love – perhaps the light of our candlestick will be rekindled.