“When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.” Bonhoeffer cuts through our idealism when it comes to community life. It isn’t all hugs and holy kisses but rather a messy, difficult, and yes beautiful thing to do life together. In a world where community has become a buzzword this is a classic and refreshing book on what it means to live with others in genuine Christian community.
(First published in 1939 in German and uses gender exclusive language.)
Bonhoeffer affirms the wonder of Christian community saying “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” The reason that this is so is because Christian community is grounded in relationship with Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer argues that Christian community is not an ideal but rather divine reality. It is not a human reality, but rather a spiritual reality. Bonhoeffer can therefore say: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
All Christian community is formed through and in Jesus Christ. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ”
This leads Bonhoeffer to be critical of any human dreams of community that get in the way. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Bonhoeffer contrasts what he calls spiritual love and human love. Human love desires and spiritual love serves. “Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him.” On the other hand spiritual love serves the other because “Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves.” Spiritual love teaches us to see others differently by viewing them through what Christ has done for them too. In this way one can not only love those that they get along with but also through Christ learn to love their enemies.
The Day with Others
This chapter talks about sharing with others a common life of worship and devotion and the everyday life of work and play.
Common Devotion – Bonhoeffer insists Christians should begin their day with worship and devotion. “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the days’ work.” (In other words don’t start the day by opening your inbox). Rather, Bonhoeffer sets out a pattern for common devotions with others. Bonhoeffer gives some practical tips:
1) Pray the Psalms. “The Psalter is the great school of prayer.”
“Here we learn, first, what prayer means. It means praying according to the Word of God, on the basis of promises…Second, we learn from the Psalms what we should pray.”
2) Take the time to read Scripture. Read big chunks and read it all. Bonhoeffer is no fan of memory verse style devotions but rather encourages us to read consecutively, hearing the whole story. We won’t necessarily discover that Scripture is “relevant” on our own terms. In words challenging for our often egocentric contemporary world Bonhoeffer says: “It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, that to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day. Our salvation is ‘external to ourselves.’ I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ.”
3) Sing! Bonhoeffer encourages Christians when they gather to sing. He gives Biblical examples of singing to praise God in the Psalms and the victory songs of Exodus & Mary.
4) Pray together. Bonhoeffer speaks of the discipline of prayer together. Even when we don’t feel like praying this is exactly when we should. Bonhoeffer sees the strength of formal prayers for a group but also warns that often “often a ritual becomes only an evasion of real prayer.”
Our Daily lives…
5) Eat together. Bonhoeffer grounds the importance of shared meals in the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. To engage in this reality is to know that God is the giver of all gifts, that Jesus is the bread of life and not only the giver Himself but also the gift to us, and that finally the “congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord wills to be present when it prays for his presence.” Bonhoeffer makes it clear that eating around the table has a festive quality to it. It is a constant reminder in the world of everyday work of the Sabbath and for us to rest in the joy and goodness of God’s love.
6) The Days’ Work. Bonhoeffer says: “Work plunges men into the world of things. The Christian steps out of the world of brotherly encounter into the world of impersonal things, the “it”; and this new encounter frees him for objectivity; for the “it” – world is only an instrument in the hand of God for the purification of Christians from self-centredness and self-seeking.” Work for Bonhoeffer then is the space where we give ourselves to the tasks we are called to do not for our own glory but so we glorify God in our labour. He sees work tied intimately to prayer saying that “the organization and distribution of our time will be better for having been rooted in prayer…our strength and energy for work increase when we have prayed to God to give us the strength we need for our daily work.”
The Day Alone
In this chapter Bonhoeffer speaks of being with oneself. He begins by addressing solitude and silence. He says:
1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.”
2) “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
The first person cannot be with themselves and are afraid of facing themselves and the second has an unhealthy isolation from others. When we can be alone we learn to live well with others and vice versa.
“The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.” The kind of silence that Bonhoeffer speaks of isn’t a mystical silence where one clears their mind of all thought in an attempt to create an empty slate. Rather the silence Bonhoeffer speaks of is silence which is “simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God…we keep silence solely for the sake of the Word, and therefore not in order to show disregard for the Word but rather to honour and receive it.”
Why be alone and when? Bonhoeffer insists on the importance of Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession.
Scripture meditation – “The time of meditation does not let us down into the void and abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word.” Rather than recommending big chunks of Scripture as in common devotion with others, here Bonhoeffer recommends a short passage which we may repeat for days or weeks. Meditating on Scripture doesn’t mean analysing it or seeking what it might say to others, it is to let the Word speak directly to us. Therefore every meditation begins by asking the Holy Spirit to speak through the Word. What is important for many of us today to hear from Bonhoeffer is his insistence that we need not have an “experience” for this time to be fruitful. “Seek God, not happiness – is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness: that is its promise.”
Prayer – Scripture meditation will lead to prayer. “Prayer means nothing else but the readiness and willingness to receive and appropriate the Word.” This is the space we let God speak to our particular situation – our “tasks, decisions, sins, and temptations.”
Intercession – All of us are asked to pray for one another. Bonhoeffer insists that the strength of our community will be in our prayer for one another. “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” Intercessory prayer is not vague but rather clear and specific, lifting particular people and situations before God.
Some practical advice for meditation, prayer, and intercession – “Set apart a regular hour for it.”
Here Bonhoeffer speaks of our ministry to one another in Christian community.
The ministry of holding one’s tongue – “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.” Citing James Bonhoeffer speaks about how we ought not to speak badly of each other but rather that the weak and strong members of a community need each other like links in a chain.
The ministry of meekness – “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.” Humility and brotherly service is central in Christian community and is grounded in a realistic understanding of ourselves as sinners.
The ministry of listening – “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” Many people are just looking for someone to listen to them. Bonhoeffer connects our listening to each other with listening to God and points out that if we fail to listen to each other we soon will fail to listen to God too.
The ministry of helpfulness – There are lots of ways we can help each other in practical and simple ways. This is ministry. This will involve letting ourselves be “interrupted” by others. We are never too good for any service that God calls us to do for one another.
The ministry of bearing –We must suffer and endure our brothers and sisters. This begins by recognizing others are made in God’s image and created free. “The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weakness and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience…to bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.”
The ministry of proclaiming – This is where we bear witness to Jesus with words. This is one that many people find difficult. Bonhoeffer says: “What a difficult thing it often is to utter the name of Jesus Christ in the presence of even a brother…Who is entitled to accost and confront his neighbour and talk to him about ultimate matters?” We can only speak to one another in such ways when we can acknowledge that each of us are in need of God’s grace. We need each other to remind us of our own sin and need for God. “Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is a ministry of mercy.”
The ministry of authority – “Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service…the Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.” Often we desire super leaders who are impressive but this is not what is required for the growth of genuine Christian community. Rather the authority of Christian ministry is grounded in the servanthood of Jesus, the ultimate servant.
Confession and Communion
In this final chapter Bonhoeffer paints a picture of sin and grace. “It is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone.” Christ became just like us, took on flesh for us and became our brother. Through him sinners can receive the help they need. Jesus gives his followers the “authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in his name.” (See John 20:23). This is why Bonhoeffer thinks confession in community is important, that is why he can say “When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” We also remind one another of the grace we receive through Jesus and celebrate our reconciliation with God as we partake in the Lord’s Supper. “The fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfilment of Christian fellowship. As the members of the congregation are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and his community is complete.”