Monday, February 27, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 81

“…all the members of the community are given their special place; this is no longer the place, however, in which they can most successfully promote themselves, but the place where they can best carry out their service. In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain.

“A community that allows the presence of members who do nothing will be destroyed by them. Thus it is a good idea that all members receive a definite task to perform for the community, so that they may know in times of doubt that they too are not useless and incapable of doing anything.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 72.

One of the warnings reiterated throughout the chapter on Service is the danger of self-promotion. Self-promotion, judging others, self-justification, seeking to force others to conform to our image of what they should be – all of these elements are interwoven with each other; Christian community is not a place for self-promotion, but rather a place for service. Self-promotion is ingrained in our fallenness, and it is ingrained in Western culture. Furthermore, we are a society that tends to idolize success and charisma and talent, and we are often only too willing to let others entertain us and take responsibility for us. Self-promotion thrives in laissez-faire cultures, including the cultures of Christian communities.

Self-promotion may be overt or covert; it may be obviously aggressive, or it may take subtle forms. It may be patient, or it may be impatient. The poison may work quickly or it may do its work over time. We are all carriers of this disease and we ought to fear its work within us; we ought to know that the moment we think we are immune from it that it will take root and sprout and do its insidious work. Thankfully, our Father’s grace shows us who we are outside of Christ, and as we reflect on His Word and learn to love Him with all that we are and to love others as ourselves, the Holy Spirit mercifully reveals to us the things in our lives that need to experientially be put to death through the Cross.

I would like to ask Bonhoeffer what he meant when he wrote, “A community that allows the presence of members who do nothing will be destroyed by them.” Certainly when there is a group of people that has a number of members who do nothing we cannot call that group a community, not if we use the word “community” to denote a people living in relationship. Of course then we are confronted with the question of whether what passes for “church” in our society is Christian community, whether it is life together, for most congregations have many more people who do nothing than they have people who do something. We get around that problem by making “doing something” the lowest common denominator, such as attending services and financial giving – we’ll typically justify ourselves before we will engage in congregational critique. Also, allowing the many to “do nothing” ensures job protection for some and ensures that others will have no opposition to self-promotion.

Having a “task to perform” is not enough – and again I’d love to be able to discuss this with Bonhoeffer. All too often in congregational life people are given tasks just so they’ll have something to do, and while this may be important to some degree, it is also vital that we recognize that each person is also a reflection of the image of God – not in terms of what they do but in terms of who they are. Therefore, each person has something of the grace and truth of God to share with the rest of us – and if we cannot readily discern and receive what others have to share, it is an invitation for us to listen, watch, and lay down our images of what we think others ought to be. We ought to be affirming in others that they not only have something to do, but that they also have something to share. I think in the previous paragraphs that Bonhoeffer lays the foundation for this (see previous posts) perspective.

If we focus mainly on having something “to do” we may fall into a utilitarian trap of valuing one another based on functionality – this is obviously not what Bonhoeffer meant, till his dying breath he stood for the image of God in humanity and fought against a utilitarian view of humanity – he defended those who had limited functionality. When we view “church” as primarily an organization rather than an organism we will focus on people having jobs to do, when we view church as an organism in Jesus Christ, as we view church as the Body of Jesus Christ, then we will see one another in terms of our intrinsic worth in Christ.

The weaker members of the body ought to have special honor given to them, and rather than promoting ourselves we ought to seek to promote them. Having a job to do may enrich weaker members, while not having a conspicuous job to do may be needful for those with many talents so that they learn to focus on others and to submit their talents to the Cross.

Well, there are tensions to all of this, challenges, ebbs and flows…but isn’t this what it means to live in koinonia with the Trinity and with one another? There are no formulas, but there are two commands: to love God with all that we are, and to love one another. If Jesus laid down His life for us, we are to lay down our lives for one another. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Making the Invisible Kingdom Visible (Hebrews 11 – Part 10)

As I ponder Hebrews Chapter 11 I ask, “What am I seeing in this account of men and women of faith in God? What is this showing me?” An element of the answer came in rereading a book I’ve had for close to twenty years, Hurtling Toward Oblivion, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.

On page 126 Swenson writes, “John Calvin suggests the first duty of the Christian is to make the invisible kingdom visible.” Isn’t this what we see in Hebrews Chapter 11? Why it might not be understandable to all, while all might not discern the reason that these men and women lived the way they lived, and died the way they died; they lived against the grain of the visible, hearing a music that others either could not hear or chose not to hear. The invisible was palatable to the men and women of Hebrews 11 – their faith had substance, they themselves possessed evidence of “things not seen” – in fact they saw things that could not be seen…ponder that. Moses “saw Him who is invisible” – how does one do that, how does one see the invisible? Is this our way of life?

Then on page 127 Swenson has another quote worth noting from French Cardinal Suhard (1874 – 1949), “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” (Italics mine).

The lives recorded in Hebrews 11 only make sense in light of the existence of God. These people had a willingness to be identified with the true and living God in cultures, including apostate religious cultures, that were suppressing the knowledge of God and casting away the truth which God placed within humanity, revealed in creation, and specifically revealed in His Word.

Can our lives be best explained by the things that are seen or the things that are unseen? Can our churches be best explained by the things that are seen or the things that are unseen?

Are we living mysteries or are we easily explained because we live as our society lives?

What about me?

What about you?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 80

In his chapter on Service Bonhoeffer deals with the complex questions of criticism, judging one another, allowing one another freedom in Christ, and self-justification. I term these questions complex because we live in a time when criticism and judging in any form are often considered wrong and inappropriate; a time when freedom is often considered to be license; and a time when the self has been exalted to the point where self-justification is a way of life.

Many of the New Testament letters deal with correction, pointing out sinful and disobedient behavior among Christians as well as false teaching by pseudo-Christians. Following Jesus is not a “different strokes for different folks” proposition, nor is it a community that subscribes to the maxim, “go along to get along.”

When we find our sole justification in Jesus Christ we can allow others to do the same and we can “stop constantly keeping an eye on others, judging them, condemning them”…we can “allow other Christians to live freely”. This in turn allows us to be among those who see “the richness of God’s creative glory shining over their brothers and sisters (page 71).”

It is one thing for us to seek to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29), but it is quite another thing for us to seek to conform others to our own image of what we think they should be. Bonhoeffer writes, “God did not make others as I would have made them (page 71).”

Our own images may include the way people express themselves, the way they dress and talk, certain doctrinal emphases, social or political positions, tastes in worship expressions and music, their favorite authors or popular teachers – the list could fill many pages. We tend not to tolerate nonconformity to the group, we tend not to give people freedom of expression in Christ, we tend not to listen and understand others. Bonhoeffer writes, “God did not give them [others] to me so that I could dominate and control them…”

And follows with “…but so that I might find the Creator by means of them.” How is my Father expressing Himself through my brother and sister? How can I see Jesus in the members of His Body? Being in relationship with the Body of Christ is sacramental, when I experience koinonia, life together, I partake of Jesus Christ in His people, in His community. In C.S. Lewis’s essay, The Weight of Glory, he recognized that if we saw the divinity in each other, which believers have in Christ, that we may very well fall prostrate – we usually treat one another as men and women, when in fact we are more than that – we are sons and daughters of the living God and the Trinity lives within us. Paul chides the Corinthians that they are carnal and behaving like men (1 Cor. 3:1-4) – do we think and behave like men or do we live as the children of our Father?

Do I respect the work of Christ in my brother? Do I seek to understand and see the reflection of Christ in my brother or do I insist on my brother being conformed to the image I think he should have? Am I the measure of my brother or have I surrendered my own measure and find my justification in Jesus Christ, thereby allowing me to give my brother freedom to reflect the glory of God according to the grace of Christ in him?

How many insights to God’s grace have I missed in my insistence that others be conformed to images other than that of Jesus Christ? How can I seek to avoid this pitfall?

“Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).”

Bonhoeffer writes, “I can never know in advance how God’s image should appear in others” (page 71). This is a good thing for me to remember. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Truth that Determines

"As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation." (C.S.Lewis)

"In the end, the fate of the world will not be determined by our view of things, but instead by the truth of things. We do not judge that truth - it always judges us." (Richard A. Swenson).

Last night, as Vickie and I were watching a college basketball game, I questioned a coach's play calling. Once the play had been run and it had failed I said, "I can't understand why he did that. If they had deliberately fouled it would have limited the opposition to two points instead of the three points they scored. Now the game is tied and going to overtime."

When I watch sports my view of things tends to dominate my perception of the game - whether or not my view of things is the truth of things doesn't matter that much because, after all, it's only a game and I'm watching for enjoyment. 

When I was growing up sports commentators pretty much called a sporting event as they saw it, describing what they saw, sometimes conjecturing what might happen next. Today there has to be a storyline in every sporting event - whether real or imagined. Sports announcers now purport to be able to read players' minds and discern their motives - it's all part of the storyline; color commentators and play-by-play announcers want us to believe they are omniscient - we go along with the charade's only a game. 

But the trajectory of the world, of humanity, of our generation is not a game - it is life and death, we are born, we live, we die...and then what? "In the end"...whether the "end" is our individual lives or our collective world - our view of things is not the determining factor - the truth is the determining factor  - and we will not judge the truth, the Truth will judge us. 

There are Christian color commentators and play-by-play announcers who are so sold on prophetic storylines that they are unable to consider other possible storylines unless it is for the purposes of criticism. They cannot entertain the possibility that they may not have the right storyline. And just like sports announcers who adjust storylines to fit the ebb and flow of sporting events, Christian prognosticators are adept at adjusting their prophetic timelines and trajectories to fit current events.

There is a lot to be said for not acting as if we are giving God advice on the consummation of the ages. I don't need to question the play-calling of God, nor do I need to act like I know the hows and whys of everything that is transpiring. What I do need to do is to love God with all that I am and to love others. I think that's why God put me on the field of play; I can trust Him with the rest. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

There is Hope

Two brothers arrive in the city to attend seminary – this is what they find:

In the churches there is “little belief…attached to the characteristic doctrines of the church, and those which were preached were sadly diluted. The sermons of many breathed a spirit of rationalism…”

“Religion was a Sunday concern without the least influence on heart and life. Conversion was an antiquated word.”

“The Holy Spirit appeared to have been replaced by the spirit of the age.”

“The greatest tolerance was displayed towards all manner of strange views, and men of all schools made this broadmindedness their boast” (italics mine).

As I read the above, the syncretism of the last quotation struck me. Syncretism was what people were boasting in, it permeated the faculty of the seminary and the clergy of the nation. It also permeated the seminary’s student body to the point that when the two brothers in question started meeting with a small group of other students who desired to follow Jesus rather than the spirit of the age, that this faithful group of disciples was ridiculed and ostracized by the student body. There was no professor on the theological faculty who taught the Bible as the Word of God.

The year is 1845, the place is the Netherlands, the brothers are John and Andrew Murray – and they have no choice as to where they will attend seminary because they are preparing to return to South Africa and serve in the Dutch Reformed Church – therefore they must perfect their Dutch and attend a Dutch seminary.

The spirit of their age dictated that there was one law, one truth, which at all costs must be preserved; “There is no one truth. All points of view are equally valid.” Of course this “truth” is contradictory in that it becomes that which it insists does not exist – and it does so in a dictatorial fashion that seeks to crush all opposition.

I see this same “spirit of the age” on a daily basis. People are afraid to call a duck a duck or a mailbox a mailbox. Statements are prefaced with, “My opinion is,” when what is needed is not an opinion but a statement of fact that can be tested. Then there are the instances when absurd statements of “truth” are made that have sweeping sociological implications and results that we are expected to accept as “true” because an expert or a political leader or a court has declared it to be so – when such pronouncements are against all common sense.

Our conditioning is such that people doubt their common sense, their innate sense of right and wrong; we have been taught to rationalize away morality and true ethics.

And in the professing church? Jesus did not really mean that we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. John did not really mean that we are not to love the world or the things in the world. Paul did not really mean that knowing Jesus Christ and Him crucified is to be central to all that we do. Jude did not really mean that sexual sin is toxic to the church and humanity. Peter did not really mean that we are to suffer for Jesus.

There is hope when God’s people are faithful. The Murray brothers would remain faithful to Jesus Christ and God would use them to renew His church and bring others to Him.

There is hope when God’s people are faithful.

Will we be faithful…to Christ…and His Word…His Gospel…no matter what the spirit of the age may be?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 79

“It is certain that the spirit of self-justification can only be overcome by the spirit of grace; and it is just as certain that the individual judgmental thought can be limited and suppressed by never allowing it to be spoken except as a confession of sin…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 70.

Bonhoeffer writes that we should not talk about others in secret and that we ought to “absolutely refuse” to allow our competitive judgmental thoughts to be verbalized.  He also makes clear that he is not talking about words of admonition spoken personally to others, and he acknowledges that there are limitations to the rule, but that “this is not the place” (page 70) to specify the exceptions.  

“Where the discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the start, individuals will make an amazing discovery. They will be able to stop constantly keeping an eye on others, judging them, condemning them, and putting them in their places and thus doing violence to them” (page 71).

The first word of criticism, the first word of competitive judgement, is never the last word. We may think that we can control our tongue, we may think that we will only make a brief negative statement about a brother or sister – but that is impossible. Once the first word is out another follows, once the first sentence is out another follows. When we are done we have polluted our hearers, we have polluted ourselves, and we have polluted the body of Christ.

The cup of grace is the cup of Christ; the cup of slander and accusation is the cup of the enemy. Which cup shall we offer our brothers and sisters? Which cup shall we drink from? A cup 99% pure and 1% poison is not pure – it is a cup of poison. When we awake in the morning there is only one cup in our hand, the cup of grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is our choice whether to put that cup aside during the day and take another cup from the demonic peddlers who ply their wares. We may not be able to stop the demonic solicitors who knock on our doors, but we do not have to answer the doors, and if foolishly we answer the door – we need not engage in conversation with the purveyors of darkness – better to slam the door shut than allow poison to enter our life together.

The beauty of the cup of grace is that its supply never ends. We may begin the morning with a small cup, but as we pour it out the cup expands and expands as the supply increases and increases – perhaps by the end of the day we need the help of brothers and angels to carry the cup as we continue to pour it out to those around us. It is a mystery, but the more we give others to drink the more our own thirst is quenched.

When we find our sole justification in Jesus Christ we need not judge our brethren in order to justify ourselves. When we see that outside of Christ Jesus we are wicked and are capable of the deepest and grossest sin – we have no ground to judge others in order to look good.

Our insecurities often tempt us to judgment. Let us recognize this temptation and seek Christ alone as our wisdom, sanctification, redemption, and seek His glory alone. Jesus justifies those who believe in Him, that is enough, it is more than enough – let us learn to rest in His justification and His alone. When I judge my brother in seeking to justify myself I not only do violence to my brother, I repudiate the justification that is mine in Christ. Is that what I really want to do? Is that the testimony that I want to display to the principalities and powers?

Better to extend the cup of grace to others as Jesus Christ has extended His cup of grace to us.

Have I engaged in the judging that comes from self-justification, in a desire to be exalted above others, in an effort to look better than others….that I should confess and repent of…turn away from?

Who is there today that I should seek out with the cup of grace?

Who is there today that you should seek out with the cup of grace?

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Woe and a Hope

From Matthew Chapter 11:
20 Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24 Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Jesus confronts His audience by denouncing entire cities – He is not the Jesus of cotton- candy theology, of feel-good religion, of “what’s in it for me” preaching – He says, “Woe to you! You are following me because you are fed, you are following me because you want to see the miracle show, you are following me because you think there is something in this for you without surrender to Me – but you haven’t got it, you haven’t seen it, you haven’t repented.

“I’ve been among you, I’ve taught, I’ve fed you with loaves and fishes, I’ve healed, and I’ve delivered you from the devil – but you haven’t repented. You may talk about the heathen of Tyre and Sidon, you may talk about their idolatry, you may talk about the times they’ve faced the judgment of God, and you may think that you are so much better than they are – after all you are Israelites.

“And yes, you may look back to Sodom and talk about the gross wickedness of that city, and when you compare yourselves to Sodom you may think, ‘We are so much better. Fire and brimstone will never fall on us. We haven’t sunk to the abyss of debauchery that Sodom did.’

“Ah, but to whom much is given much is required. If Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, and so many others, had seen and heard what you’ve seen and heard they would have repented long long ago. So let me tell you something that you will not believe – it will be better for Sodom and Sidon and Tyre than for you on the day of judgement – for you have great light and they have had little light.”

It is a dangerous thing to judge by appearances. To all appearances Sodom would deserve harsher judgment than Capernaum – yet Capernaum will descend to Hades. Sodom looks worse than Capernaum – to the natural eye. Perhaps the people of Capernaum thought that because Jesus used their town as a base of operations that they were righteous, that they were better than others. How could their town possibly descend to Hades?

When we judge by appearances we place our own evaluation on things, when we judge by appearances we often make ourselves the benchmark of evaluation, when we judge by appearances we nearly always make ourselves look better than we are. When we judge by appearances we often take pride in ourselves and we disparage others.

During the past few centuries few nations have had the light of the Gospel as the United States of America and its predecessor English colonies. But what now? It has codified repudiation of the image of God, it has codified repudiation the sanctity of life, and much of the professing church within its land has traded the Cross for the dollar and for political agendas.

Tyre and Sidon and Sodom would have perhaps repented had they had what we have had.

Our hope is in Matthew 11:25 – 30; let the great and powerful and fear mongers do what they will – if we will humble ourselves and take the yoke of Jesus Christ we will find rest in a world of turmoil. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 9

“By faith he lived as an alien…” Hebrews 11:9.

Do we embrace the words of Jesus that we are in the world but not of the world (John 17)? Do we live as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20)? Do we confess that we are strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13)?

It takes faith in Jesus and His Word to live as an alien. Only by faith in Christ can we make the daily decisions that are based on our hope of an eternal future with the living God. Only by faith can we make the big decisions, which are built on the daily decisions, that reflect that we are going to live life not for immediate gratification and narcissistic satisfaction, but that we are going to live for the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor.

Only by faith can we tell the truth in a world of lies. Only by faith can we show fidelity in a world of infidelity. Only by faith can we protect our hearts and minds and souls from the pollution and toxicity of society. Only by faith can we live differently.

How different was Jesus Christ from the world around Him? The answer is the measure of how different we are called to be…not for ourselves but for Christ and for others.

O Lord Jesus, increase our faith in You and in Your Word, teach us to live as aliens…and teach us to bring others with us when we return to our home country.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What Is Our Message?

“Here lies the great religious issue of the hour – [are we preaching and teaching a message of] a God that serves Humanity or a Humanity that serves God?” P.T. Forsyth.

This was written some 100 years ago – if it was a question then it is not much of a question now. In much of the professing church we are preaching a god whose one desire is that we should feel good about ourselves; we now have a great therapist in the heavens. We are worshipping the ultimate idol – ourselves. Will we be surprised when we find that God does not worship us? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Red State or Blue State?

A friend of mine who lives in CT made a comment about the challenges of living in a blue state; the context was valuing the sanctity of life. As I thought about his statement I considered the possibility that it is more difficult for a follower of Jesus Christ to live in a red state than in a blue state – or at the least both are difficult and each has its own challenges.

The problem with living in a red state is that many people closely associate church culture with a certain type of political culture, they see them as one and the same – and in fact they can be. People in a red state can associate a way of thinking and a social way of life with Christianity, and if Christianity, in its foundational meaning, means following Jesus Christ as Lord, then the thinking that focuses on political and social life lulls people into thinking that Christianity is something that it is not. People in a red state are more likely to merge the Cross and the national flag – and that is toxic – because the Cross always becomes the servant to the flag.

Professing Christians in a red state often think that if their political candidate wins that the Gospel wins – but sadly, often when their political candidate wins the Gospel of Christ loses because these professing Christians often put their trust in political agendas rather than in Christ. In this environment, when other Christians challenge this thinking they are just as likely, if not more likely, to face ostracism from others just as Christians in a blue state who stand for the Gospel might face opposition. The difference in this is that Christians in a blue state face opposition from those who do not profess Christ, but Christians in a red state face opposition not only from those who make no profession of faith, but also from those who do. Furthermore, there is nothing quite like being opposed by religious people who think they right, and when religious people wrap the Cross in the national flag we have a lethal mixture of religious self-righteousness and national fervor.

The Biblical  state for Christians to live is not colored red or blue, it is colored the Kingdom of God, it is colored having our citizenship in heaven, it is colored knowing Jesus Christ and Him crucified – perhaps it is the white state of the glory of God in Christ. Our identity must never be red or blue, it must always be Jesus – otherwise we cannot have a credible Gospel witness, no matter what color of the earthly state we live in. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Last Miles With Bonhoeffer

For the past year or so, maybe more, I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer – A Biography, by Eberhard Bethge. Bethge was not only a friend and coworker of Bonhoeffer’s, but he was also married to Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate.  At 941 pages this book requires an investment in time and attention. There are sections that are slow going for me, especially in Bethge’s extensive treatment of Bonhoeffer’s work in the German church and the ecumenical movement – unfamiliar names, at times unfamiliar issues, and detail after detail. However, to experience Bonhoeffer one must, I think, experience as much of his life as possible, and that includes experiencing the focus he had on theological and organizational matters in the German church and the ecumenical movement. Only by living with Bonhoeffer in these details can one sense the pain as Bethge describes Bonhoeffer’s increasing isolation from much of the German church and the ecumenical movement – pain for Bonhoeffer and pain, I think, for Bethge as he wrote the story.

In my reading I am approaching Bonhoeffer’s arrest in April 1943, I want to put it off for two reasons; I know what will happen and I don’t want the book to end. A couple of months ago I put the book down for a few weeks because I didn’t want it to end, I’ve been living with Bonhoeffer and Bethge for a long time. I do this with long books and with multi-volume books, I live with them so long that I don’t want to say “goodbye”.

I had this problem when I was reading three volumes of letters by C.S. Lewis, especially when I came to the last year of his life. I’d invested two or three years in reading the letters and Lewis through his letters had become a companion of sorts – I just didn’t want to say “goodbye”. When I was finishing the fifth volume of Sandberg’s Lincoln it was a similar experience. Well, it is a pilgrimage isn’t it? We have our own pilgrimage and there are times we can share pilgrimage with others, both contemporaries and those who have preceded us.  

Of course I’ll keep reading Bonhoeffer. I’m still writing about his book Life Together, and I need to finish his Ethics, and I want to reread Discipleship and perhaps write some reflections on it. There is also much more material that he wrote, more letters beyond Letters and Papers from Prison – but we’ll see. I’ve been drawn to Bonhoeffer these past few years because he lived in turbulent times, he lived in a nation and in a church that was unraveling. He thought obedience to Christ mattered, he thought theology mattered, and he thought life together mattered. He also thought that the relationship of the church to the nation and world mattered. This is all both encouraging and challenging to me.

I first encountered Bonhoeffer’s writings when I was a teenager – he has been a good companion. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 78

Bonhoeffer begins his penultimate chapter, titled Service, in Life Together by quoting Luke 9:46, “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” He then writes, “We know who sows this dissension in the Christian community. But perhaps we do not think enough about the fact that no Christian community ever comes together without this argument appearing as a seed of discord. No sooner are people together than they begin to observe, judge, and classify each other.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 69.

Bonhoeffer calls the above a “life and death struggle” (page 69).

As I look back over my own life I have much to repent of regarding the above; and I am certain that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg – thank Jesus for His mercy and forgiveness. Frankly I could not bear the full unveiling of my pride and vanity and envy and jealousy – frail as I am, I would turn to dust and the wind would blow my particles away. It is truly of the Lord’s mercies that I am not consumed.

But His mercies are not only manifested in His forbearance, they are also glorious in His teaching – for our Father reveals to build up and form us into the image of His Son. He wounds that He may heal.

The disciples’ argument about who would be the greatest was not settled in Luke Chapter 9, we see it again in Luke 22:24, “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.” The tragedy and warning surrounding this statement is that it arises in the Upper Room during the Passover, when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper and speaks of His death. As Jesus speaks of His impending holy sacrifice the disciples are caught up in themselves. If we ask, “How can this be?” we need only look at ourselves – or at any rate, I need only look at myself.

As Bonhoeffer writes, “We know who sows this dissension in the Christian community.” Yet, it is I who succumb to the temptation. The enemy can only offer, the enemy cannot force me to accept and participate.

This is a life and death struggle, for while the congregation may continue as an entity, it may be a divisive entity, or a mediocre entity, or a hardened entity, or a people living in delusion in order to avoid unpleasantness. The New Testament has much to say about our unity in Christ, about the way we think about one another, the way that we treat one another, the role we are to play in one another’s lives. We are called not just to know others, we are called to allow others to know us – ah…that can be a problem. We are called not just to serve others, we are called to allow others to serve us.

There are those who only want to be served, and there are those who only want to serve and who will not allow others to wash their feet and refresh their souls. Neither is healthy.

Bonhoeffer thinks that “…from the first moment two people meet, one begins looking for a competitive position to assume and hold against the other” (page 69). I’d like to ask Bonhoeffer to reread this and tell me if he thinks this is true. Yes, I realize he wrote it but sometimes we write things without thinking them through, sometimes thoughts are not fully filtered and tested. Sometimes we write things to make a point and engage in hyperbole – but if the hyperbole isn’t apparent then we do the reader a disservice for the reader is left asking, “Does he really believe this?”

While I can’t imagine what lies beneath the tip of the iceberg in my own life in terms of vanity, I also can’t imagine living like Bonhoeffer describes in the above sentence. This is not to say that I haven’t met people and succumbed to competitiveness; it is to say that if this were the norm in my life that I think life would be miserable and dark and without meaningful relationships. Thankfully Bonhoeffer will balance this statement about “the first moment” with an exploration of the dynamics of service in our life together.

Bonhoeffer points out that in community we have the strong and weak, the sociable and the loner, the talented and those without obvious talents, the simple and difficult, the devout and less devout. He terms arguments concerning who is the greatest as “…the struggle of natural human beings for self-justification” (page 70). Bonhoeffer writes that we find our self-justification by comparing ourselves with others and judging others (page 70).

Because Bonhoeffer treats this problem in detail we’ll be pondering it in the next few posts. For now let’s remember that the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest even as Jesus prepared to walk to Gethsemane, even as He prepared for the Cross – let us not deceive ourselves into thinking we are exempt from this temptation, and let us not think that we are immune from falling into the temptation.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…” Philippians 2:3

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 8

“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Hebrews 11:8.

“Where are you going Abraham?”

“I don’t know.”

“Excuse me? You don’t know where you are going?”

This morning you walk out of your house and see a moving truck at your neighbor’s. You go over and say, “I didn’t realize you were moving. Where are you going?”

What do you think when he says, “I don’t know”?

When we are on pilgrimage with Jesus we don’t always know where we are going – we know the way as we walk the way, and we see glimpses of that City, but since the life of faith is a life of seeing the unseen, and since we are recovering our ability to see the unseen, we often don’t know where we are going – other than we are going where we are called to go.

While our natural eyes may dim with age, hopefully our eyes of faith grow stronger.

Abraham was called and he obeyed by “going out” and he “went out” and lived “as an alien in the land of promise” (verse 9). There is a sense in which our bodies are a land of promise, for they will be redeemed at the resurrection (see Romans 8:18 – 25; Ephesians 1:13 – 14). There is another sense in which the earth we live on is a land of promise, for we know that the people of God will inherit the earth – the New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens and be manifested on earth. Our pilgrimage has many dimensions, but our destination is one – the face of God, the Throne of God and of the Lamb.

Will I trust God in my “going out” today?

If I insist in knowing where I am going I may stay where I am.

What will I do? How will I respond to God’s call?

What about you?