Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into an educated, upper-middle class family, and grew up in the suburbs of Berlin. His father was a professor of psychiatry and neurology. In 1924, he matriculated at the University of Berlin to study theology. Nine years after that, in 1933, Hitler was appointed German chancellor. Bonhoeffer spoke out at the time—he was just 27 years old—to criticize the German public for wanting a “leader” who was sure to become a “mis-leader.” As the established Church capitulated to Hitler, Bonhoeffer refused to be part of it. So he accepted a call to pastor two German congregations in London.
In 1938, he was making plans to visit Gandhi in India when he was asked to take charge of a Confessing Church Seminary, an “illegal” seminary, in Finkenwalde. He could have stayed in London, or he could have gone to India. Instead he went home because, as he would later put it: “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility.” Good German churches with good Lutheran theology and good German hymns had failed to produce enough good Christian leaders—ordained or lay—who had the courage to stand up to Hitler. Too many respectable Christian people in Nazi Germany chose to flee from responsibility. Bonhoeffer took a stand.
It was in this context that Life Together emerged, written for that underground seminary in Finkenwalde. He also wrote some lectures there on homiletics, collected in a book called Worldy Preaching that I came across when I was working on my D.Min. My favorite line in those lectures is the practical advice he offers to young seminarians about sermon preparation. He tells them they should choose their text for the following week by Sunday afternoon or Monday at the latest and begin working on it by Tuesday. It should be concluded at the latest, he says, by Friday. “The usual sermon prepared on Saturday evening reveals an attitude that is unworthy of the work. Twelve hours’ work on a sermon is a good general rule.” (WP, pg. 121)
He also says in these lectures on homiletics that “the source of the sermon is nothing other than the existence of the church of Christ. The authority and content of the sermon are determined by this fact.” And then come these crucial words:
Everything hinges on the question of what the gospel is. Is it inspiration, education, conversion? Certainly it includes all these things, but all under the one goal that the congregation of Christ might become the Church. I preach because the Church is there, and I preach that the Church might be there. (WP 112)
This brings me to the question that I want to raise with you today and hold before us as we continue our travels through this day: what does it mean to be Church? What kind of ecclesia—that is what kind of Church—is required to raise up Christians who are able to unmask, name, and then confront, evil? What kind of Church understands what our life together is for, understands the costs of discipleship, understands and lives that in its ethical practices and witness in the world? What kind of Church makes preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ possible?
For my money, the whole book is worth the effort for one notion; Bonhoeffer insists that the Church is “not an ideal but a divine reality.” Far too often, he notes, a whole Christian community can break down because it springs from a wish dream.
The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. (pg 26)
So what does Christian community look like if it is not a wish dream, not an idealized caricature of a bunch of pure Christians holding hands and singing Kumbaya day after day?
Bonhoeffer begins by reminding us that it is a privilege we should never take for granted to live among other Christians. He reminds us of the loneliness of St. John on the island of Patmos and of St. Paul in prison and of prisoners and the sick in our own time. Christian community is a great gift, he says, and the only proper response to such companionship (even when people are driving us crazy) is to be thankful. He encourages us to remember that our sister or brother is a person who has, like us, been redeemed by Christ. Expecting them to be perfect or to fulfill our ideals is not of God, but the Evil One.
Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…I must meet [my brother or sister] only as the person [s]he already is in Christ’s eyes.
Often when Christians start to talk about community we become starry-eyed idealists. But there is not a sentimental word in this chapter--or indeed the entire book. In fact, Bonhoeffer says that the one who is looking for some extraordinary social experience from Christian community which he or she has found nowhere else in one’s life is to bring “muddled and impure desires” into the Christian community.
As the chapter comes to a close, he notes that “there is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life.” But if and when that happens, he says, we should view such experiences only as a “gracious extra”—as a bonus. We must not make any claim on such experiences as normative and we must not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them. “It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together…we are bound together by faith, not by experience.” (30)
Now perhaps this sounds like much ado about nothing to you. Isn’t this the goal: to build communities and congregations that faithful, life-giving, and mission focused? And shouldn’t they feed us, sustain us, and bring us happiness along the way?
If parish ministry has taught me one truth it is that Bonhoeffer is onto something extremely important in this chapter, and time and again I confess that I have returned to it as a pastor, especially when my own “wish dream” for my diocese, or my congregation, or my lectionary group, or my family starts to overtake my gratitude for what is...I think, is that Bonhoeffer is onto something quite profound here for what it means to be part of a Christian community, which is not about fulfilling our own ego needs, but about sharing the work of ministry with other sinners like ourselves.