One of the major reasons I felt compelled to write Better Together was because of the central focus on community in the Christian story. Few authors and few other books have portrayed this more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his classic, Life Together. Not only was it a major inspiration for me, but it also continues to be one of the most influential books on the Christian life of all time. Since we’re focusing a lot on the concept of community at Real Life Church as of late, with both my book being released and going through a series on the topic, I figure this would be a good time to blog through and introduce you to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together by focusing on a chapter a week for the next few weeks. I hope you find it helpful whether you’re reading through Better Together, Life Together, just keeping up with the weekend messages at Real Life, or wondering why we do what we do at all.
For those of you who don’t know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor and theologian during Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany in the time of WWII. Though he was committed to pacifism, he was imprisoned for being involved in an assassination attempt of Hitler in 1943 and was killed by the Gestapo in 1945. Ten years before that, however, is when he wrote Life Together while living in emergency houses for Christian pastors and leaders who refused to reconcile Nazi leadership and the Christian faith.
Through trying times such as those, it should be obvious to note that for Bonhoeffer community was not optional. “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians” (17). As he’ll say elsewhere, more than just an ideal, Christian community is a reality. It is a pure gift that we should receive with joy that we do not live this life alone, but are unified with others in a special way by Jesus. We need other people in our lives in order to live it successfully and fully; particularly in the area of our faith. The Christian faith is not a solo act, we need others to hold us accountable, encourage us, laugh with us, and cry with us.
But what creates this sort of special bond? It is certainly not something that comes along easily.
Bonhoeffer distinguishes Christian community from the regular sort of relationships we encounter in everyday life. Though it is natural for humans to desire relationships, the relationship that those who share the love of Jesus are a special one that deserves distinction. He says, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ” (21). Ever wondered what that whole “body of Christ” thing is all about when Paul mentions it in the New Testament? Look no further. He calls this sort of community “spiritual love.” He says that human love comes by desire, but when that desire is extinguished or when there is strife and these desires create contempt, spiritual love begins when we still make the choice to love other people despite all this. This type of love, he says, can only come from Jesus and this “spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother” (35).
Spiritual love creates relationships where they would normally not be found, and it does so through the person and love of Jesus. Through Jesus, there is peace and we are all one. In true, spiritual community, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Take it from a pastor; the church can be the hardest place in the world to find this sort of love. Many of you have had experiences that have been completely contrary to the statements we’ve highlighted so far. You’ve been burned, neglected, or mistreated by the church in your past and there is nothing of church left in you but a bad taste. But, this is exactly why it is so important. True Christian community, true spiritual love that is grounded in Jesus is a calling to be a part of the church and love it (and its people) despite its many and multiple shortcomings. It’s a dirty business this type of community, but… “Life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society… but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, Catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promise of the whole Church” (37).
We see this type of love most clearly on the cross where Jesus displayed an unconditional love not only to those he liked but especially to those who didn’t like him. The wider the gap of differences and disagreements, the more opportunity to fill those gaps with the love of Jesus and form an uncommon, spiritual bond where we least expect it. “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us” (26).
This is true community and this is what the church is all about, or at least, it should be. But we don’t get there unless we try.