The gift of Christian fellowship

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1, 345, 6789.

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 the Christian's 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!