This semester I get the privilege of studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under the teaching of Joel Burnell, a professor who has spent the last several years teaching in Poland, and who did his PhD work on Bonhoeffer. As I’ve reread and meditated on his classic book “Life Together”, I’ve come to the conclusion that it radically undermines my (our?) assumptions about the foundation and nature of Christian community.
For instance, we talk a lot about “creating community” at Evergreen but rarely step back to ask who is doing (or has done) the creating? After re-reading Life Together, I think we have made an ecclesiological error in thinking that community is created by our own human effort. I have certainly made this mistake.
Bonhoeffer writes, “In Christian brotherhood (community) everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a psychic reality.” (pg. 26).
Further he says, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” (pg. 30
The truth is, community is not created through any effort of our own. It is Jesus Christ who has brought us into community together. It is a spiritual reality that he has enacted in us.
Bonhoeffer states, “Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ. On this presupposition rests everything that the Scriptures provide in the way of direction and precepts for the communal life of Christians.” (pg. 24).
“One is a brother or sister to another only through Jesus Christ. I am a brother or sister to another person through what Jesus Christ has done for me and to me; others have become brothers and sister to me through what Jesus Christ has done for them and to them. The fact that we are brother and sister only through Jesus is of immeasurable significance. Therefore, the other who comes face to face with me earnestly and devoutly seeking community is not the brother or sister with whom I am to relate in the community. My brother or sister is instead that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, absolved from sin, and called to faith and eternal life.”
Surely we will have to work to figure out how to live and get along with one another. There are plenty of opportunities to learn to forgive, to forbear, to accept, to embrace, etc. Those kind of exhortations about how to live in community fill the pages of the New Testament. But whatever it is we are doing, we are NOT creating community. Christ has overcome human and spiritual alienation reconciling us with him and one another and has brought us together to the spiritual reality that is community. What we are working at is faithfully representing the community that Christ has accomplished in us.
In the past, I’ve spoken of our home communities in terms of “this is where we create community” but I’ve realized that is a misnomer. Home communities are in fact where we live out and give thanks for the community that has been created for us through Jesus.
Falsely believing that we “create community” leads us to an idealism that is unattainable and ultimately frustrating and destructive of true community. That is why Bonhoeffer can so strongly speak against the “wish dream” that destroys communal life. It also leaves us striving for an indefinite result always asking “are we there yet?” but never really knowing.
This week as we gather in home communities and on Sunday and any other time, we do so not trying to achieve something, but to celebrate what Christ has already achieved in bringing us together. That helps me sleep at night. It is not our job to create, but to enjoy.