Updated: Oct 22
July 16, 2020
After months of being apart, why does it even matter that a church gathers together? Today Pastor Scott introduces an encouraging new devotional series, Reflections on Life Together, that will help us understand from the Scriptures and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book why there is no substitute for the gathering of the church-community.
Brief Meditations on Church-Community based on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together
Hopefully the absence of normal church life over the last several months has convinced you of the necessity of church-community. But maybe it also has made you ask the question, why do we even bother to go to church in the first place? Why don’t I just stay at home and read my Bible, listen to a good podcast, and stream whatever service seems like it has my favorite songs and the most interesting sermon title?
In Philippians 3:17, the Apostle Paul commands the church, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” If we read the Bible, then we’ll know: There is no normal way to live the Christian life that does not pursue intentional relationships with other disciples as an essential part in becoming like Jesus. That’s why church-community is so vital for our Christian lives and why, in part, we have missed it so much in this season of absence.
We need not just contemporary models we can look to, but also models of Christians in other times and cultures who can help us to learn, who can challenge some of our assumptions us to lose our blind spots and see more clearly things as they really are and as God’s Word says they ought to be.
And as I think about saints in the cloud of witnesses who have helped to shape my understanding of the essence and imperative of biblical church-community, I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a prodigy, one of the most popular young professors at the prestigious theology faculty of the University of Berlin with a promising career ahead. But he recognized the dangers of Hitler’s pretentions from the start and didn’t shrink back from warning the church not to follow blindly one who would lead them toward idolatry and unbelief. At the point when the state church demanded conformity to Hitler rather than Christ and greater loyalty to the ideology of the party than to the Bible’s ethic of love, Bonhoeffer and others withdrew, choosing fidelity over complicity and integrity over compromise in the vain hope of influence.
They formed the Confessing Church—a church that would be faithful to the confession that Jesus Christ alone is Lord and Savior of all—and Bonhoeffer was invited to lead their new underground, illegal seminary in Finkenwalde near the coast of the Baltic Sea. There, Bonhoeffer led 25 young ministers to consider what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, the people of God by the grace of God led by the Word of God to the glory of God. And Bonhoeffer didn’t just give lectures on this; he lived it out, shaping the life of this community to model how these pastors could shape future church-communities according to God’s Word. Life Together captures that teaching and the lived experience of Christian community these brothers shared together until the Gestapo forcibly disbanded the seminary.
Of course, Bonhoeffer himself was influenced by other Christians and the legacy of those who have gone before; in particular, influence of the African-American community in Harlem during a year that he spent in NYC in 1930. As the Nazi Party rose to power and consolidated their suffocating influence and corruption of every part of German society, Bonhoeffer carried with him the sorrowful lament and living hope voiced in the spirituals of the Black church tradition.
Just as these songs were gifts of the Spirit to sustain those oppressed by violence and prejudice in our country, they became rallying cries for a small band of young German pastors who refused to be complicit in the injustice and idolatry of Aryan nationalism. They were written on Bonhoeffer’s heart and they helped him to write a book that speaks so profoundly and hopefully about how Christ intends for us to live a life of faithful discipleship together in community with our brothers and sisters, even and especially in the midst of dark and difficult days.
So over these next several weeks, I’m going to offer some brief reflections on church-community, on what it really is, on why we desperately need it, on what a gracious gift of God it is, and why we should pursue it and protect it with all that we are. We’ll look at Scripture and at some of Bonhoeffer’s insights in the first chapter of Life Together. And we’ll look to Jesus Christ, who has made us one in him and who in making us his body is making us to be more like him.
Ps 133:1 - The Blessing and Privilege of In-Person Fellowship
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!” (Ps 133:1)
That’s the first verse of Psalm 133, a psalm sung by the children of Israel as they would gather together to worship on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. And it’s the opening line of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
Over and over, the Bible makes clear that living in intentional relationships with other Christians in church-community is a gift and a joy. It is good. It is pleasant. It is one of the richest blessings of God’s love and grace to us.
We’ll talk a bit more next time about why it is that fellowship with others in the Body of Christ is such a joy for us, but I want us to focus in today on why it is a privilege. We miss what a gift and blessing it is to us when we just assume that we are entitled to it…
Bonhoeffer knew it was a privilege. He had to leave his prestigious job as a prominent theology professor at a leading university to flee to the countryside to teach a couple dozen young pastors at an underground seminary. He was an exile from the church that claimed to be the heir of Luther and the Reformation, but had abandoned the gospel, the Word of God, and chose the kingdoms of this world over the kingdom of God.
So Bonhoeffer writes, “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers...” (LT p. 17)
If being a Christian means to be one who follows in the way of Christ, then there might be days when our Father’s providence requires that we walk alone, without the benefit of support and encouragement and fellowship. That solitary faithfulness is what Christ offered on the cross and we have no right to expect that our lives at their best would be any better than our Master’s at his worst.
Yet despite that, we do often experience the joy of being in fellowship and friendship with other followers of Christ. As those who follow Christ in taking up our crosses daily, we ought not to expect that it would be so. But Bonhoeffer helps to remind us that any and every experience of church-community is a foretaste of heaven to come, a privilege and blessing we would be foolish to ignore or abandon any time God graciously offers it to us.
“…between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing….” (LT p. 18)
Perhaps these past several months have been the first time in our lives that we have been cut off from the joyful privilege of gathering with God’s people for worship and the preaching of the gospel. Perhaps we’ve always assumed that we will have this privilege uninterrupted. But Bonhoeffer lovingly reminds us: It is not always this way for all Christians, and it likely will not always be this way for you, either.
The sick and the shut-in can’t go to gather with God’s people. The missionary bearing witness among an unreached people group likely doesn’t yet have in their city other believers they can fellowship with. And those believers who live in a sea of unbelievers, isolated or even imprisoned by persecution, don’t have the joy of free and frequent fellowship with other believers.
It is easy to assume that that will never be us. But what these months of quarantine and stay-at-home orders have reminded us is that it can be us—and at times it will be us.
And so when the opportunity to gather together in fellowship with our brothers and sisters comes, don’t forsake the privilege. Don’t assume it will always be available to us whenever it seems to us necessary or convenient. Be grateful that in God’s providence that he is giving it to you whenever he does, refreshing you and renewing you through it now, perhaps to prepare you for a difficult season again in which you won’t have this privilege at all.
And for the sake of our brothers and sisters who because of frailty, or vocation, or persecution, or some other circumstance beyond their control cannot gather in community with the church, don’t take this privilege lightly. Don’t treat as a trifle this taste of heaven that our brothers and sisters hunger and thirst in hope for. Don’t be ungrateful and indifferent to God’s good gift, but receive it and enjoy it on every occasion that our Father graciously gives it to us.