It is a new year, and one of my new year’s resolutions is not to look down on new year’s resolutions. Why? Because a new resolution can make a profound impact. Need proof? Here are ten spectacular things that all took place on New Year’s Day; and all, I would argue, came as a result of someone resolving to make them happen. Consider these impressive January 1 events:
- New Year’s Day, 1502 – The Portuguese establish a new settlement by naming it Rio de Janeiro (which, when translated, means, “January River”).
- New Year’s Day, 1773 – John Newton introduced a new hymn based on 1 Chronicles 17 to his church in Olney, England. As it was passed on to other churches, its name was changed to the one we know: namely, “Amazing Grace.”
- New Year’s Day, 1818 – Mary Shelley first published her terrifying novel, Frankenstein. Who would have guessed that it would not only become a bestseller, but would also be a very popular subject for movies, having been adapted to film over 80 times!
- New Year’s Day, 1853 – The first horse-drawn fire engine was introduced in the U.S. New Year’s Day, 1863 – The Emancipation Proclamation became law in the U.S.
- New Year’s Day, 1892 – Ellis Island opens. Before it closed in 1954, millions of immigrants passed through this island on their way to life in America.
- New Year’s Day, 1902 – The first college football bowl game ever took place in Pasadena. Unfortunately, the first Rose Bowl was a bit of a sleeper as Michigan crushed Stanford, 49-0.
- New Year’s Day, 1908 – Times Square first welcomed in the new year with its famous ball drop.
- New Year’s Day, 1925 – Astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of galaxies outside of the Milky way (but did he see “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?”).
- New Year’s Day, 2000 – We survived! Y2K didn’t end life as we know it!
My 2024 resolution has been on my mind for a while: When I retire and hand River’s Edge Church over to “the next guy,” I want to be able to say that our church is in the best spiritual shape of its life. Not that we are any of these things, but I would hate to hand over a church rife with division, consumed by self-righteousness, deaf to God’s Word, and blind to its global mission. That would not be a transition. That would be an every-man-for-himself-escape-from-a-sinking-ship! And that is not what I want to do. But I also do not want to hand over a church that is good, but not great. And so, my new year’s resolution is this: I want to work on making our church the best it can be before I leave—not perfect, but striving toward all the things that make up a healthy church.
There, resolution made! Now what?
I would like to argue that before we can talk about the other marks of a healthy church, we need to talk about community. Not only is it an essential characteristic of a healthy church, but there are also practical benefits to starting here. Once we are one in spirit, we can move forward to tackle all the other areas with humility, love and togetherness. Why? Because a church that is committed to encouraging one another, loving one another, and serving one another and that has a heart for the world can discuss all sorts of topics, even hard and potentially divisive ones, and find a consensus that is in alignment with God’s Word.
So, if community is where we begin, how do we move forward? I would like to suggest we read Bonhoeffer. But first, some history.
In 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer received a call from the Confessing Church in Germany to take charge of an underground seminary in Pomerania (a section of northeast Germany on the Baltic Sea). At this time, Bonhoeffer was living in England. He was safe, and his ministry was expanding. To return to Nazi Germany to run an illegal seminary (and one that opposed Hitler) would most certainly mean, at the least, arrest and harassment by the Gestapo, but Bonhoeffer accepted the call without hesitation. In Pomerania, Bonhoeffer shared a common life with 25 other pastors. It was the anvil of biblical community that shaped Bonhoeffer’s views on church life profoundly. In 1938, Bonhoeffer wrote about this experience in light of what the Bible had to say about community so that the resulting work was a small book infused with biblical truth, profound wisdom and real-life practices. He entitled it, Life Together. Shortly after Life Together was published, Bonhoeffer wrote two other books. First, he wrote his masterpiece, The Cost of Discipleship, where Bonhoeffer calls us to follow Jesus in everything saying:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
And then, in 1940, he wrote a short book entitled, The Prayer Book of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms. You may recall this quote from this book because I quote it often:
“If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.”
These three books define for Bonhoeffer what it means to live as a Christ-follower in a fallen world. In short, if you are looking for a practical guide for Christian discipleship, look no further. Sadly, soon after Psalms was published, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from preaching, teaching, writing and finally, speaking at all in public. But things got worse. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and incarcerated in a military prison. And then, two years later, on April 9, 1945 he was martyred for his faith. Tertullian once wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Since his death, Bonhoeffer’s books (the seed) have grown into a great harvest of spiritual wisdom. And it is my plan for this blog series to reap some of that harvest and apply it to life at River’s Edge by investing ourselves in a study of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
Next week (one of my other resolutions, is to make these posts shorter), we will look at the first chapter of Life Together, but to whet your appetite consider these three quotes from the book:
“God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouth of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them.”
“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”
“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.”
In a day and age when many are giving up on the church and seeking to live out their faith on their own, Bonhoeffer’s words are almost shocking. He speaks truth to both sides of the issue. We need community. Jesus calls us to life together. We cannot live out our faith on our own. But life together is hard, hard work. But it is by living in community that we are transformed into the image of Jesus, our savior. That’s a hard truth to swallow, but we can’t grow in Christ all on our own. We need each other.
My New Year’s resolution is to work hard at getting River’s Edge to be in the best spiritual shape of its life before I retire in three years. It is a resolution worth striving for, but a resolution I can’t do alone. I need your help. I can’t do life together without you, but together we can transform our community into something incredible, a crucible for making true disciples of Jesus who love each other and who will take God’s love out into the world.
We begin this quest next week, but let me leave you with something to think about. It is a question for you to ponder until next week:
In your opinion, what are the three essentials for true Christian community?
More Life Together next week. And for those of you who already feel overwhelmed by the prospect of doing life together—trust me, if Y2K didn’t kill us, this won’t either.