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by Richard Penaskovic

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

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(WW) My first experience as a full-time pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple moved to town and joined the Baptist church. The wife was a dedicated musician and was determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized correctly.

Doyle SagerLet me hasten to add: This lady loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. She only loved an idealized church in her mind.

Yes, our church had many flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.

Personally, I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning, and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have.

This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, exposing them to incredible music, relevant sermons, and effective outreach methods. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”

church window with heart

Image by Dagmar Räder from Pixabay

Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point, our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well in Practice Resurrection: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see.”

The church I serve is blessed with very strong children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No. You won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”

The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet, when I read his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence, and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”

During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith.

But in Life Together, he wrote…

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Why the Christian Life Is a Call to Community

And Earl Roland. He was a hunched old man who loved to pray. In the absence of an acceptable singing voice, he’d mastered the art of whistling, and he whistled loud and strong through the hymns we sang in church. So to honor him we whistled “A Mighty Fortress” at his memorial service.

I remember little old women in polyester who fawned over me, and the wrinkled man in a wheelchair who had a big black Bible and said, “But God!” (Because he knew stuff the rest of us didn’t yet understand.)

But it wasn’t just the old and the weak that made a strong impression on me.Roland and Naomi were seminary students in their late 20s when I was a teen. They never missed an opportunity to encourage me. When I graduated from high school and no one else my age was left at church, they invited me to join their young married small group. Roland and Naomi wanted children, but their arms remained empty. I watched them navigate barrenness with quiet trust, and it changed me.

There were other friendships forged over food. My parents set the stage for rich and relaxed community by hosting myriad meals, even on a shoestring budget. Neighbors, newcomers to church, and out-of-town friends all gathered around our table and lit up our home. Missionaries on furlough ate pot roast and told stories from the field. Giddy newlyweds talked of love over casserole. Sharing meals with people seemed as natural as, well, eating, and left me with an incurable taste for joy.

And what I couldn’t have put into words then, but I understand to the marrow of my bones now, is that community gives life. It grows you up and anchors you down; humbles and heals; brings laughter and tears. It brings sturdy ground to our existence.

Fighting the tug away from community

Now I’m the one with a family, and we’re living in the fastest-paced generation in the history of mankind. Despite some physical limitations that naturally slow us down, our family can still find ourselves dashing here and there, squinting sideways at our calendar to see how we’ll squeeze in another birthday party or baby shower, and communicating instantaneously with dozens of people in the course of one day.

My husband and I have to regularly fight against the tug of too much. We keep asking, “How do we pursue authentic, consistent, unhurried relationships? How do we do this in a way that builds up our family and doesn’t splinter us in a dozen different directions? How can we make sure our son doesn’t miss rubbing shoulders with the Miss Mosses and Earl Rolands of this world?”

We haven’t stumbled upon any easy answers. Community looks so different for each one of us, in every new season of our lives. And as soon as we think we’ve found our groove and figured it all out, life changes. The mom with three small children, the overseas missionary, the 50-year-old caring for aging parents, the one who’s chronically sick—they’ll tell you there’s no cookie-cutter shape for community.

But one thing’s for certain: we need each other. We can’t work through our yuck, see our blindspots, grow in grace, and experience joy on an island (no matter how exotic it might be). And while God alone is more than enough for us—and he should be our first and greatest relationship—he knows we will love and understand him more when we’re living in authentic relationships with others.

So we should prioritize it: Be with others. Set food on the table, and open the front door. Tell each other our stories. Confess sin to a friend. Meet a tangible need. Laugh together. Pray together. Sit quietly with a grieving one. Seek the wisdom of older friends. Forgive each other. Say “yes” to an offer of help.

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

“We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

by  

I was a pastor, and yet I felt cynical about church.

I preached every week. I kept serving and loving the best that I could. But I had become an expert at spotting all that’s wrong with the church. I grew concerned over church politics, the way we spent money, how little we prayed, how little we seemed to rely on God’s power.

I had rightly identified some areas of legitimate concern, and yet my response was completely wrong. I had stopped loving God’s people and had started judging them instead.

The Danger of Cynicism

“Cynicism comes from a good place: high standards,” writes Peter Adam. “But cynicism is a dangerous way to express those standards. It gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change … Cynicism is the worst response to high standards.”

Looking back, I’d been feeding on a diet of books critiquing the church. Cynicism is contagious. Hang around cynical people and read cynical books, and you will soon become a cynic yourself.

I’d also been hurt as a pastor. The right way to respond to hurt is to go to God for help, and to get help from others, confronting when necessary, and working toward forgiveness. Instead, I nursed those hurts. I became a cynic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns what can happen when we respond wrongly to hurt. “The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together.”

“When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

But such disappointment is also an opportunity, according to Bonhoeffer. “The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Disappointment with the church is an opportunity. We can choose to become cynics, or we can remind ourselves of God’s grace and enter into deeper community.

I’ve lived out both options. The latter is much better.

What’s Changed

Slowly I started to repent of my cynicism. I found help in two places.

For the rest of the post…

“The First Service One Owes To Others In The Fellowship Consists In Listening To Them. Just As Love Of God Begins In Listening To His Word, So The Beginning Of Love For The Brethren Is Learning To Listen To Them. It Is God’s Love For Us That He Not Only Gives Us His Word But Lends Us His Ear. So It Is His Work That We Do For Our Brother When We Learn To Listen To Him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

Introduction:

       The second reason why Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact twenty-first preaching is the importance he placed on Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer was convinced that it was impossible to be a follower of Jesus Christ apart from life in the fellowship of local believers: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.”[1] This was more than mere theory for Bonhoeffer because he had the opportunity to develop a community of believers while he was the director of the Preachers’ Seminary.

The Seminary was located at Zingsthof by the Baltic Sea when it opened on April 26, 1935. It relocated in Finkenwalde, near Stettin in Pomerania on June 24 of the same year. The Gestapo eventually closed the Seminary in September of 1937. During the period of its existence, Bonhoeffer desired a“genuine experiment in communal living.”[2] It was Bonhoeffer’s desire that the experiment in the Seminary would provide a foundation for the German church after the war. Bonhoeffer realized that biblical community would provide the fresh life the church would need.

This realization led to a burning desire to put the findings of this“experiment” into writing. This led to his classic book, Life Together, which was written a year after the Seminary was shut down. Bonheoffer wrote the book in only four weeks, while he stayed in the home of his twin sister,Sabine in Gottingen. The book was first published in 1939.

Biblical Foundation:

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer appealed to a variety of Biblical references that point to the fact that community with fellow followers of Jesus is a crucial element of Christianity. For example, chapter one begins with Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133 is a song of ascents. That is, it spoke of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship together.

An important component was that people of different backgrounds were to be united in fellowship. Derek Kinder writes that “all Israelites, including even debtors, slaves and offenders…were brothers in God’s sight. The psalm is surely singing…of living up to this ideal, giving depth and reality to the emphasized word, ‘together’.[3] Unity was a key to how Bonhoeffer understood the Church because Jesus died on the cross to secure such fellowship. The whole purpose of redemption in Jesus Christ was to save the enemies of God throughout the world, and in anticipation of eternal life, believers “are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.”[4] 

It is a privilege because “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[5]  The early Christians understood this truth. Even before the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem there was community for “they all joined together constantly in prayer”(Acts 1:14). This group included the eleven disciples (verse 13) “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” 

It is significant that both genders were represented here because the cultural barrier between male and female was abolished through mutual participation in the church.[6] Verse 15 indicates that the total number of disciples was around one hundred and twenty. Thus, within weeks of the resurrection of Jesus, his people, made up of varied backgrounds, gathered waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then on the day of Pentecost, the brothers and sisters “were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). The Holy Spirit came upon them with power. Peter, empowered with the Holy Spirit, stood before thousands and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. The result was that about three thousand people turned to Jesus for salvation (Acts 2.41).

Among the foundational disciplines of the early church was a devotion to the “fellowship” (Acts 2.42). The Greek word for “fellowship” is“koinonia”. It means “fellowship”, “communion”, “participation”, “sharing in” and “close relationship”.[7] This “communion” is possible only because believers are united through their salvation in Jesus.

Bonhoeffer wrote:

…without Christ we would not know other Christians around us; not could we approach them. The way to them is blocked by our own ‘I’. Christ opened up the way to God and to one another. Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one.[8]

Thus, fellowship is much more than simply being together. Since Christians are joined together in Jesus, they are devoted to love and serve one another. The early believers modeled this kind of fellowship. Acts 2:44-47 gives us a beautiful picture of their fellowship: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

This devotion to one another in the early church in Jerusalem is what the apostle Paul advocated in Ephesians 4:1-3: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  

Verse 3 is the punch line in this statement. Paul equated walking worthy of the calling we have received with making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Application:

To Bonhoeffer, fellowship with our brothers and sisters within the church was a way for Jesus to minister to his people. Fellowship with God’s people provides opportunities to bless and serve and love others. The pastor and preacher in the twenty-first century must not only preach on the necessity of Christian fellowship, but he also must be personally devoted to the fellowship throughout the week.

A preacher who avoids people or is superficial in his relationships with church members will most likely earn the reputation of one does not really care about his people. This can eventually have an adverse affect on his preaching because the people in the pews may read into each message a lack of genuineness. Bonhoeffer was an example. While the students at the Preachers’ Seminary were not always thrilled about Bonhoeffer’s insistence that they spend time daily in scripture meditation, it was indisputable that he genuinely loved and cared for them.

As the preacher builds loving relationships with people in the church, his weekly proclamation of the word will be eagerly received because the man in the pulpit is seen as God’s spokesperson for them. Jesus made it clear that his followers were to be characterized by their love for one another. In John 13:34-35, he said, “a new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.”  

Francis A. Schaeffer describes this characteristic of loving one another as the “mark” of Christians “at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”[9] The pastor and preacher must set the example for the church to follow.

******************************************************************************************************

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954),21.

[2] Kelly and Nelson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 27.

[3] Derek Kinder, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 452.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18.

[5] Ibid., 19. 

[6] William J. Larkin Jr., IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Acts (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 44

[7] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 438-439.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23-24.

[9] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), 8.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-074-16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.jpg
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