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