“This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer at his death
How would I live if I knew that the government hated what I was doing? How would I act if I knew that living in the Kingdom of God and walking in that manner could very well mean my painful demise? These are tough questions to think about, yet a simple pastor went through a time like that. He exited this world with the conviction that he needed to do what was right, even if the consequences proved fatal. That man was the modern day martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who lived under one of the most evil regimes in modern history. Even though he lived under the Third Reich, he chose to not be complacent in those dark times and keep his head down. Bonhoeffer chose to remain faithful to God even when others in the church compromised their message. He was convinced that he could not remain silent about the evils that the state was performing. In fact, to be silent in his mind meant that you were complicit in those heinous acts.
With the church either hiding or condoning the acts of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer sensed the need to train young men to be faithful proclaimers of the Word of God. As a result of this, he formed an underground seminary to accomplish his goal. Out of this experience, the marvelous little book “Life Together” was born, encapsulating his view on life in Christ and community.
Living in fellowship with other Christians is a non-negotiable. For Bonhoeffer, it was a good thing when people who belonged to Jesus lived in unity. For people who lived between the “death of Christ and the Last Day,” it was and is a privilege to be in fellowship with others. Those who might not have the opportunity (the sick, imprisoned, solo missionary) miss the connection with others (yet those who are alone still have Christ). If it was at all possible, physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy.
Christian community is more than a place. As he wrote in Life Together, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” A Christian needs others because of Jesus. They come to others only through Jesus, and they (in Jesus) have been “chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”
To understand this train of thought, one must know that those who are in Christ are not good in themselves. They have been justified (declared righteous) and had their filth wiped clean in God’s eyes. Any good, or righteousness, they do comes from God. It is an alien (other) righteousness. If they were asked where his/her salvation was, they would point not to themselves but to the Messiah. They would point to Jesus, who would assure them of their salvation.
If you’re still with me, you may ask, “Jeremy, why the journey into theology and theologizing?” And that’s a great question! The reason I raise this is because from Bonhoeffer’s perspective, people needed to be rooted in Jesus before they could be rooted in a community.
Fellowship is founded in the “alien righteousness” of Jesus. Community springs from the message of justification of humanity through grace alone. In this context, Christians will long for community. Without the intermediary Jesus, we would neither know God nor peace. And we would never be able to connect with others in community without Jesus. For Jesus is our brother and through union to him we develop brotherly love for others. When we received forgiveness, we could provide forgiveness towards others. In other words, the more we received, the more we could give.
Community and the love of the other allows for the freedom to meet the person as Christ’s own. They are not made in my image, so I am free to enjoy being with that person. If that person is in Christ, then I am able to respect who they are as a person and let God work on them as he is so inclined.
Lastly, the body of Christ must be understood as catholic, it is global and universal in scope. One community has not arrived at perfection, instead it is just one part of a broader world, of a broader church. Though the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” might not meet all at once, it is connected by something more. The community of Christ is bound together by faith, not by experience. It is through him and by faith in him that unity can be found among the diverse church.
Next: Life in Community