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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.

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[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.

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 Bonhoeffer

judging others

In May of this year Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, published “An Antiracist Reading List” in the New York Times. His list popped my bubble of self-perceived, well-read, wokeness given that, to date, I’ve read one (yes, one) of the books on his list. I plan to correct that in the months ahead. His list, however, inspired me to come up with a list of my own. Not an antiracist reading list (I am not qualified to curate such a resource), but rather a books-that-inspire-me-to-be-better list.

“Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It takes brilliance and spiritual maturity to pack so much profound wisdom into so few pages. My copy dons various colors of highlighter and pen, revealing the many times I’ve returned to this book for a booster shot of biblically-shaped inspiration for not only my call to ministry but my call to human decency.

“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein details policy after government policy that continues to shape our country, oppress people of color and render racial equity impossible. Every white person in America needs to read this book. The sin I must confess is that of my surprise. My African American siblings know all too well the reality and scourge of these long-standing laws.

“Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention” edited by Seth Michelson. Read these poems and weep. Heart-wrenching and yet relentlessly hopeful, the words of these young people whose lives overflow with hardship humble and convict me. Christians should be flooding the halls of power and demanding better for the least of these languishing behind locked gates and prison bars.

“The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco. This beautifully written and illustrated children’s book speaks to young and old alike. Children with various disabilities are relegated to the classroom known as the “junkyard” only to be met there by a teacher who sees their value, giftedness and possibilities. Polacco based this book on her own childhood experience. Everything she writes unveils the glorious that lives within the junkyards of our world.

For the rest of the post…

A student writing on a notepad in Turkish with copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works next to her.

As a young girl growing up in Turkey, Debora Haede had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She’d seen a documentary about the theologian and German pastor’s life, and had become fascinated by how people, like him, remained faithful, even to the point of death.

But her admiration was personalized, when, in 2007, her uncle and two other men were martyred for their Christian faith inside the publishing house where they worked.

“Having an uncle who did that made Bonhoeffer’s life a reality in a way,” said Haede, a junior studying international relations at Calvin College.

Writing justly

A decade later, Haede is honoring her uncle by doing something for her home country of Turkey that has never been done before: translating Bonhoeffer’s works into their language.

The publishing house where Haede’s uncle worked had approached her dad, who is German, asking if he knew of anyone who could translate Bonhoeffer’s work “Life Together.” Knowing his daughter knew both Turkish and German, he suggested she give it a try, and so with no prior translation experience, Haede took on the challenge.

Discerning meaning in every word

“First time I read the book before I knew I was going to translate it—it was hard to understand. I know I skipped parts that were too complicated.”

She knew the next time through, she couldn’t skip a word. She re-read the book, cover-to-cover, sentence-by-sentence.

“Bonhoeffer has such a strong language, the words he uses. The German he uses isn’t everyday German from today, so as I’m translating I want the Turkish words to be as detailed as the German, which is hard to do,” said Haede. “There were times where I compared it with the English translation as well, because I didn’t know what he meant in the German one. But even there it was interesting to see the changes they made while translating into English … I personally got to understand way more because I had to focus on one sentence for so long.”

For the rest of the post…

The ministry of listening…

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them… Listening can be a greater service than speaking…

One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others… Anyone who thinks his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies…

We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 97-99.

“He who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of himself…

Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him… He will know that it is good for his own will to be broken in the encounter with his neighbour…

But not only my neighbour’s will, but also his honor is more important than mine… The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. One who seeks his own honor is no longer seeking God and his neighbour. What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even worse punishment from God, if He had not dealt with me according to His mercy?”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when He called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone, you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called–the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Life Together

“He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Image result for life together

“Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality. It this it differs absolutely from all other communities…Christian brotherhood is not an ideal that we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which wee may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship in is Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together.

Image result for dietrich bonhoeffer

“The Christian, however, must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated. The burden of men was so heavy for God Himself that He had to endure the Cross. God verily bore the burden of men in the body of Jesus Christ.”

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