"Life Together" - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For other posts in this series on the book Life Togetherclick a number: 2, 3, 45, 6789.

As members of the body of Christ (the church) we have a particular communion with Christ and one another that Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpfully explored in two books:
  • His doctoral thesis Sanctorum Communioin which he engaged with social philosophy and sociology in interpreting the church as “Christ existing as church-community.” Karl Barth referred to this work, which Bonhoeffer completed at age 21, as "More instructive and stimulating and illuminating and genuinely edifying reading today than many of the more famous works which have since been written on the problem of the church." 
  • His book Life Together, in which he wrote about Christian community in light of the common life he and his students experienced in the underground seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany. 
This post begins a series looking at Life Together. It will give us opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer's incarnational Trinitarian perspective on the important topic of ecclesiology.

Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together (originally published in 1938 as Gemeinsames Leben), despite having been forbidden to write by Hitler's Nazi regime, which by that time was ruling Germany (including the life of the German Lutheran Church). Bonhoeffer took the dissenting ("confessing") church and his writing underground and in doing so experienced in a profound way what it means to live together with Christ. He lived and wrote about that shared life until April 9, 1945 when he was hanged by the Nazis.

Though a conspirator and traitor in the eyes of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was a true martyr for Christ and his church. We are blessed that what he experienced about "life together" has been shared with us in this short book. There is much for us to learn.

Bonhoeffer begins with Scripture: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Ps. 133:1) and that leads him to this thesis statement: "In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word" (p17). He then notes that this life together as members of the body of Christ is not to be a "cloistered life." Indeed, it is to be lived in the way that Jesus lived on the earth, namely, "in the thick of foes." That was (and is) Jesus' mission and it is our commission to join with him. Of course, Bonhoeffer, living and ministering as he did in Nazi Germany, knew full well what it meant to live among "foes." Doing so, of course, will sometimes (often for Bonhoeffer) mean suffering. In that regard, he quotes Martin Luther:
 "The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?" (pp17-18).
As was Jesus, his faithful followers have been sown among the people (including the evil ones) of the earth (see Zech 10:9). By God's design, they are to be among them; not run from them. Indeed, disciples of Jesus are called to be, like their Master was and is, "friends of sinners." Doing so will be for them both a blessing and a curse--it will advance the kingdom of God, but it may bring upon those disciples persecution.

But if God's people are "scattered" throughout the earth among unbelievers (as God intends), what holds them together as one? Bonhoeffer's answer is that they remember Jesus in the "far countries" into which they are scattered (see John 11:52). They don't run from this scattered condition, but embrace and pursue it. This is their commission (participation in Jesus' mission). As believers, we look for another time (the Last Day--the eschaton) when we as Christ-followers will live together in visible fellowship. In the meantime, our fellowship is often limited, though we thank God for the degree of fellowship we are able to enjoy now, sharing God's Word and sacrament (the Lord's table).

The physical presence of other Christians is for us "A source of incomparable joy and strength" (p19). We need not feel ashamed in our joy in this physical blessing, for God has created humanity as the union of spirit with a physical body and...
...the Son of God [himself], appeared on earth in a body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God's spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility and joy (pp19-20).
As we proceed through Life Together, we'll see more about the importance of our fellowship as the body of Christ. It is my prayer that this and the forthcoming posts in this series will help us find in the fellowship of the church the beauty and strength with which God has imbued it.