“Like the Christian’s sanctification, Christian community is a gift of God to which we have no claim. Only God knows the real condition of either our community or our sanctification…the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 13.
When Bonhoeffer writes, “…Christian community is a gift of God to which we have no claim,” my sense is that he means that we didn’t produce it and we can’t sustain it – thus our community in the body of Christ is like our individual sanctification – it is not of us, through us, or unto us – rather God is the author, the sustainer, and the perfecter. I am reminded of these words from a prayer, “Through grace let my will respond to thee, knowing that power to obey is not in me, but that thy free love alone enables me to serve thee.”
If I read Bonhoeffer correctly, he shares with C.S. Lewis the belief that Christians need to beware of self-analysis, of taking their vital signs, of being self-focused. Both of them had the same reason for their thinking; Lewis believed that no one could truly know himself or herself and that introspection was a voyage that would never end; Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only God knows the real condition of either our community or our sanctification.”
As is characteristic of Bonhoeffer, there is little simplistic about his thinking, and we’ll find later on in Life Together that he writes of confessing our sins to one another, corporate worship, and daily living in community – and when we writes of these things he gives form and definition to them; he writes of what they should look like and what they shouldn’t look like. As a good teacher, as a wise master builder (1 Corinthians 3:10), Bonhoeffer is laying a foundation to build upon, there must be a theological understanding of the essence and nature of our life together before there can be discussion of what life together looks like in daily life and of how we participate in life together. If I am going to plant a tree and nurture the tree and feed the tree and prune the tree, if I am to be a wise arborist, I should know the nature of the tree I am planting – otherwise I will not know how to plant the tree, feed the tree, how to prune and what season in which to prune. People kill trees when they fail to plant, feed, and prune in harmony with their nature.
I contend that we, at least in the West, do not know the nature of the church of Jesus Christ. We are Galatians in practice, if not in theology. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). We do not ask ourselves, “How does the nature of the church, the body of Christ, inform our congregational decisions?” If the body of Christ is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh (Eph. 5), if we are eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6), if we are abiding in the Vine (John 15) and really can do nothing of ourselves – then the nature of the church is the nature of Christ and we must respond to and respect His nature and allow Him to guide our life together, including our “pragmatic” decisions.
Bonhoeffer writes Life Together in the midst of political, social, military, and spiritual chaos. My sense is that he writes in order to give professing Christians and pastors something they can build upon and which will withstand the intensity of the storm engulfing them. He sees things in the church that few others see; the propensity to compromise, the inevitable results of compromise, the danger of the church accommodating itself to the state, cheap grace, a failure to follow Jesus – and I sense that when he asks himself, “What can I give to young people in training for ministry, what I can give to those who are currently pastoring, and what can I give to Christians living in these times,” that his answer is Life Together.
“The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” Gratitude to God and thankfulness for one another in Christ promotes growth in community just as it promotes growth in friendship and in marriage. If we will give thanks for what we have, as opposed to complaining about what we don’t have, we will find our Lord Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes. As Bonhoeffer writes (page 13), “What may appear weak and insignificant to us may be great and glorious to God.” If we throw away the few loaves and fishes that we have we will have nothing to feed the multitude. If we insist on consuming the few loaves and fishes ourselves we will have nothing to feed others. If we hoard the loaves and fishes they will spoil. If we give back to God what God has already given to us then our kind and gracious heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus will once again confirm to us that their grace and provision are sufficient.
Unfortunately our pastors and churches are inundated with religious marketing ploys that insist that who they are is not enough and that what they are is not enough. Community is not enough. Witnessing to others of Christ is not enough. The Word and sacrament are not enough. Worship is not enough. The nature of the church is not enough. The Bible is not enough. Jesus Christ is not enough. We compare ourselves to corporations. We compare this church to that church. We compare the gifts of that pastor to this pastor. We take pride in ourselves rather than seeking the glory of Jesus. We have the world’s culture displacing the nature of Christ in His church – a culture of covetousness which is idolatry – a culture always crying, “More, more – what we have is not enough.”
“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 1:30 – 31).