It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.
We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.
We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.
And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.
How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?