July 28, 2014

Praying the psalms together

For other posts in this series on the book "Life Together," click on a number: 12, 3.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the importance to the church of the corporate use of spiritual disciplines. He begins by emphasizing the importance of praying the psalms together, noting New Testament exhortations for churches to "speak to yourselves in psalms" (Ephesians 5:19) and to "teach and admonish one another in psalms" (Colossians 3:16)" (see p44).

Christ's prayers on our behalf
Bonhoeffer's view is that through the psalms, God speaks (the psalms, like all of Scripture are "God's Word"). And so, Bonhoeffer appropriately asks this: "How can God's Word [in the psalms] be at the same time prayer to God?" (p44). His answer is that we should interpret the psalms as the prayers offered by the man Jesus (the living, incarnate Word of God) to his Heavenly Father on behalf of the Body of Christ (the Church). This idea has several profound implications:
Those who pray the psalms are joining in with the prayer of Jesus Christ....their intercessor.... The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church. Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in a particular way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth (pp46-47).
Whether together or individually, in praying the psalms, we learn to pray on the basis of Christ's vicarious prayer on behalf of his Body on earth. And so to pray the psalms is to pray with and according to the Word of God. In doing so, we appropriate the promises of that Word, which are prayers of faith--not merely faith in the things that might interest us at the time, or in the things that might address our particular needs at the time, but faith in the things that pertain to the whole Church. Jesus' own faith is being expressed in these prayers on behalf of the whole Church, his Body (see p47).

Imprecatory psalms
But if the psalms are understood in this way as Christ's own words of faith on behalf of the Church, what are we to make of the imprecatory psalms? Bonhoeffer answers by noting that through these particular psalms, Jesus was taking upon himself God's wrath against his enemies. In doing to on behalf of his people, Jesus was acting to forgive our enemies. These are powerful and profound words on the lips of Jesus, for he, in his own mind and body, suffered the wrath of God against evil in order that his enemies and ours might go free. As we pray these psalms together with Jesus, as members of his Body, we share in Jesus' own heart of forgiveness and grace for our enemies and the enemies of all of the people of God through all time (see p47).

Praying together
As noted above, the psalms are particularly powerful as we pray them together as the Body of Christ. Doing so reminds us that our individual prayers are only a tiny fragment of the whole prayer of the Church. When we recite psalms together, we are lifted above our narrow personal concerns and allowed to pray selflessly (p49). "But," some might ask, "would not such recitation together, on an ongoing basis, constitute 'vain repetition?'" Bonhoeffer answer is "no"--particularly as we remember that "in all our praying there remains only the prayer of Jesus...The more deeply we [together] grow into the psalms and the more often we pry them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become" (p50).

We should note here that the psalms are written primarily as songs--songs to be sung by the people of God. Many of them are written with lines to be sung (or spoken, or chanted) by the "song leader" with lines that follow that are designed to be repeated by the congregation. Bonhoeffer, being Lutheran, was accustomed to such responsive, group readings of the psalms as part of the German Lutheran church liturgy. But when the Confessing Church was forced underground by the Nazis leading up to World War 2, Bonhoeffer found even deeper meaning and efficacy in reciting the psalms together in the small underground house churches in that breakaway movement.

Bonhoeffer (second from left) and others in the Confessing Church movement.
Let us conclude this post by praying with Christ the words of Psalm 26 (NRSV), a psalm that, no doubt, was particularly meaningful to Bonhoeffer and those he led during that terrible time:
1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. 2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you. 4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; 5 I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. 6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds. 8 O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. 9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty, 10 those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. 11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 12 My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.

July 21, 2014

The link between theology and mission

Randy Bloom
This post is quoted, with permission, from the Church-Next Training course manual published by Church Multiplication Ministries (CMM), GCI's U.S. church planting arm. The manual was written by CMM national coordinator Randy Bloom. In this section of chapter one, he helpfully outlines the essential (though often overlooked) link between theology and mission.

The Trinity: Loving Communion

According to Scripture, there is one God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three distinct yet unified Persons sharing the same essence, nature, and will. Father, Son, and Spirit live in a perfect, mutually dependent relationship of love. An ancient theological term used to describe this loving communion is perichoresis. Perichoresis attempts to express the interpenetration and co-inherence of the three persons of the Trinity. Perichoresis refers to the eternal “movement of love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” which is expressed in the outworking of God’s purpose to reconcile and renew the world.

The perichoretic life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is dynamic, highly personal, vibrant, and relational. God in his perichoretic being is also creative. Out of his dynamic love, God created people, in his image, to live in communion with him. Jesus expressed God’s desire to live in perichoresis with mankind (John 17:3, 21-23). This passage states that the Father desires to share with all humanity the very same relationship he has with the Son. This desire is ongoing and includes all of humankind, despite the fact that humans have lost knowledge of our intended relationship with God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-4).

To remedy the loss, the Eternal Son entered into our humanity and assumed it into the eternal perichoresis of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:4-7; Philippians 2:6-8). He redeemed mankind from sin and opened the pathway for all people to know God and to relate to him as his adopted children. Jesus affirms the fundamental purpose for mankind’s existence – to live in personal communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to glorify God for eternity.

However, knowledge of humankind’s intended relationship with God has diminished over time resulting in the concept of a remote God. In addition, many Christians hold an exclusivist view regarding mankind. Rather than viewing all people as connected to the Father through Christ and invited to join in the life of the Trinity, many Christians have developed a dualistic, forensic theology toward non-Christians in which only a select few are beneficiaries of God’s love and grace. In this view, God remains aloof and uninvolved with most people. Many non-Christians are viewed as not being objects of God’s love and grace as revealed in Jesus. Many Christians believe that the majority of non-Christians are predetermined to eternal alienation from God. Trinitarian theology rectifies these misperceptions.

In apprehending the Trinity we not only learn about the perfect, loving perichoretic relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit; we also learn about the love God has for all humanity. Through Jesus, and by the Spirit, all mankind has access to the Father. By sharing in the perichoretic life of the Trinity it is possible for imperfect people to experience the “give and take” elements of relationship with God. In Christ, broken human relationships are healed and people are able to live within God’s
redeemed community.

Implications of Trinitarian Theology for Church Planting

The Father’s Mission
The doctrine of the Trinity is an inescapable foundation for mission. Mission flows from God’s nature and purposes. The roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the salvific work on behalf of mankind are clearly expressed in scripture.

In John 3:16, Jesus declared that he, the eternal Son, was sent by the Father to save the world and reestablish the avenue that was laid out before creation for people to share eternal Trinitarian life. Jesus is the incarnation of the Father’s mission and the Holy Spirit is the agent through which the Father accomplishes the mission in Christ. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; Acts 2:33), who calls and “fills” people for missional work. It is the Spirit who transforms minds and hearts, gives gifts, commissions, guides and empowers people to accomplish the Father’s mission in Christ. (Romans 1:6, 7; Acts 4:31; Acts 13:4; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

The Triune God, therefore, is in his very essence a missionary God. That which is typically understood as the church’s mission is the Father’s mission (Missio Dei). Church planting, therefore, is not centered on the church. It is theocentric. It is defined, directed, energized and accomplished by the Triune God.

Incarnational Living
Jesus’ incarnation set the pattern for the church as it fulfills the Father’s mission on earth. As Jesus was sent by the Father, Jesus sends his church (John 20:21). As the Father revealed himself in his Son who was made flesh, he continues to reveal himself to the world through flesh – his people. The church is called to be with people where they are and as they are, within their cultural contexts. This requires a form of sacrificial social engagement on the order of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:5-8).

Incarnational mission requires setting aside cultural preferences and abandoning nonessential traditions, without compromising core values and doctrines. It requires living within culture regardless of the cost – a willingness to die to self in order to bring forth new life (1 Corinthians 15:35–38).

The Church’s Role
Jesus commissioned his church to continue the mission he began (Matthew 28:18-20). He delineated the primary principles for living: love for God and love for people (Matthew 22:37:38). God’s perichoretic love, as revealed through the doctrine of the Trinity and incarnation of Jesus, is the motivation for the church’s work – not fear, not church growth, and certainly not the perpetuation of tradition or organizational structures.

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, the apostle Paul describes Jesus as the foundation for all ministries. The church is Jesus’ “building”; it does not belong to the domain of men. Church planters are co-workers with Christ and they are exhorted to build with care and grace. As the incarnated Son of God did not become human to serve self-interests, Jesus Christ has called the church not to live for itself alone. It is to be in the world and for the world as Jesus was and is in the world and for it. God sends his church into the world as he sent and sends his Son and his Spirit into the world.

The root of the church’s mission is, therefore, the very being of God. It is a matter of God’s being in action through his people in the world. As Christians are included in the Triune life and participate in the divine nature of God, they are included in, and actively participate in, his divine mission. This participation leads to church planting that is focused on revealing and sharing God’s love – sharing the opportunity to enter into Trinitarian communion – within every possible cultural context. This aim glorifies God and expands his kingdom on earth.

Ministry built on this theological framework helps ensure quality results. This foundation leads to healthy, Christ-centered congregations that effectively engage their cultures, make disciples, and reproduce new churches.

July 14, 2014

The church is a spiritual reality

For other posts in this series on the book, "Life Together,click on a number: 1, 24.

While writing this series on Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, I've been reading Strange Glory, a life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh, who provides important historical context. He shows how Bonhoeffer wrestled to grasp the essential nature of the church in the face of what the Nazis were doing to co-opt the German-Lutheran Church into its evil schemes. Sadly, many bishops and pastors cooperated. Theirs was a badly misguided view of the essential nature of the church.

Through his experiences in Nazi Germany and elsewhere (including exposure to the Black-African church in America), Bonhoeffer came to understand that the church is a spiritual, rather than a psychic (human/experiential) reality. He learned that the church is "created...by the Holy Spirit," with its basis being "the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ." In contrast, the basis of humanly-devised forms of church is "the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind" (p31, Life Together).

Of course, that darkness was evident in the actions of the Nazis. But sometimes it takes great darkness for Christ's light to be seen in its full glory (1 John 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:6). According to Bonhoeffer, community of the Spirit is characterized by "the bright love of brotherly service, agape," whereas human community is characterized by eros love, where there is a "disordered desire for pleasure" and the "haughty subjection of a brother to one's own desire." Leaders of such community rely on human powers, such as charisma. But leaders of spiritual community are servants who rely on the Word of God alone (see p32).

It is a sad reality that, in the church, well-intentioned, even devout leaders, sometimes work in ways that dethrone the Spirit and thus the Word of God--bringing into the church "psychological techniques and methods" by which leaders gain for themselves admiration, love and even the fear of those they lead. As a result, "the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community." This then results in conversion to the leader rather than conversion to Christ (p33). In such churches, despite momentary appearances to the contrary, there is no true stability, no long-lasting spiritual community, no real life together.

The unfortunate, misguided substitution of psychic/human reality for spiritual reality brings about a church where leaders rely on "human love...directed to the other person for [the leader's] own sake." In contrast, the leader within a truly spiritual community "loves [others] for Christ's sake." In the end, "human love" is mere eros--mere fleshly desire, that has "little regard for truth"--it's a 'love' that can quickly change into hatred and even terrible brutality (p34). In contrast, "spiritual desire" is true agape love that comes from Christ by the Spirit. Such love "does not desire, but serves" (p35), going so far as to love one's enemy as a brother. That sort of love...
Originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy, but in Christ and his Word. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new, and incomprehensible to all earthly love.
Because Christ stands between me and others [as the one Mediator], I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ's eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into his own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. 
Therefore, spiritual love proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ. It will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to release him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ, and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ (pp35-37).

July 7, 2014

Empathy of the Jesus kind

In earlier posts (click here and here) examining Aaron Root's book The Relational Pastor, we noted that a key attribute of effective pastors is empathy--the ability to join Jesus in his place-sharing "feeling with" others. Empathy is also essential for true Christian fellowship--the topic of our current series exploring Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

Here is a video that helpfully defines empathy. Enjoy (and embrace!).

June 27, 2014

The gift of Christian fellowship

For other posts in this series on the book, "Life Together," click on a number: 1, 34.

Last time in this series exploring Life Together, we noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote during a time when the German Lutheran Confessing Church had to go underground in order to survive. Such times remind us of just how precious the Christian fellowship is that we, in easier times, tend to take for granted. Bonhoeffer comments:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us... It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren (p20).

The value of the church, is that it is "community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ... A Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ... A Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ" (p21). In Christian community, we come together to hear God's Word, which God has put "into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men" (p22). Indeed, the goal of all Christian community is to "meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation" (p23).

That meeting, that fellowship of the Word, is possible only in and through Christ, the Living Word. Without him, "there is discord between God and man and between man and man" (p23). But in him, the one Mediator who made peace between God and man and between man and man, there is peace. Indeed, Christ is that peace. Through his incarnation, Cross and resurrection, "we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ... We belong to him in eternity with one another" (p24). Thus it is Christ alone who defines our life together.

The implications of that profound reality are many including the importance of forgiving our brethren. Because we have received from Christ forgiveness, and not judgment, we are...
Made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less were we living by God's mercy and love. Thus God Himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ. "Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7 KJV) (p25).
For Bonhoeffer, the "bottom line" of our life together is this: Christ himself is the basis for Christian community. Sadly, many within our self-centered, materialistic world are not satisfied with that. They demand that the church be something more or at least something other than what Christ has built it to be. Note Bonhoeffer's comment:
Through Christ we...have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That [reality] dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood (p26).
In Bonhoeffer's day, as in ours, many sought to refashion the church in accordance with their own "wishful thinking" rather than in accordance with Christ's will. Doing so does not serve Christ or his church well, for "every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community" (p27). All such hindrances, "must be banished in genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial" (p27).

These are powerful words that need to be heard by all who would succumb to what Bonhoeffer refers to as "visionary dreaming." Such a dreamer, "sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself" (p27). Instead of "wishful dreaming," we should receive with gratitude the gift of Christian fellowship as God gives it to us, not complaining about what God does not give us (p28). It is here that Bonhoeffer emphasizes the importance of thankfulness in all aspects of the Christian life. Congregants as well as pastors should give thanks for their church understanding that...
Christian community...like the Christian's sanctification...is a gift of God which we cannot claim... 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. 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 (p30).
The point Bonhoeffer is working up to is that Christian community is fundamentally a spiritual reality, not a human reality. Sadly, people often approach the church as though it were human (physical) rather than spiritual. This misunderstanding has disastrous consequences that we'll explore next time. For now let us conclude reminding ourselves that Christian fellowship is a gift of grace from God that we should receive with profound gratitude. Thank you Lord for the church!