Quick, name your top five favorite scary movies. Okay, let’s have some honesty. First, horror is not a favorite genre of mine; so if you are a true fan, my list will seem wimpy. More importantly, though, scary movies depend so much on “the when” that it is hard to compose a list. When I was a kid, I would certainly include the classics: The Wolf Man (1941; Rolling Stone rates it at #85 on their all-time list), The Mummy (1932; #60), The Blob (Steve McQueen, 1958; #96), Frankenstein (1931; #28) and Dracula (1931; #20). All of those scared me to death. But I also remember being terrified by the monster bird in the movie, The Giant Claw, which has to qualify for the silliest special effects ever. Today, if I were to make a list, I could include a dozen different movies, but as long as number one was the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho (#2), it would be a great list. Just thinking about it (SKREE-SKREE-SKREE!) gives me goosebumps.
For many people, talking about Christian community is a real horror show. Churches these days are filled with tales of abuse of power, abuse of finances, abuse of people and, worst of all, sexual abuse. There are tales of churches that are unfriendly, insular, condescending and weird. And there are tales of people in the church who feel hurt, marginalized, overlooked, lonely and lost. Let’s face it, church community today is not for the weak or the spineless.
Let’s face it, the church is a mess. That is why we are looking at Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in this series, to give us some wisdom on how we can improve our community. But Bonhoeffer starts off his book with a shock. He begins by quoting Psalm 133:1:
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
Many people I know would disagree with the Psalmist here and rewrite the verse this way (arguing that their way is far more accurate and truthful):
“How incredibly rare and absolutely shocking it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
And all God’s people said, “Amen!”
I also know people who have claimed a modified Psalm 122:1 as their life verse:
“I will be glad when they say unto me,
you don’t have to go to the house of the Lord anymore.”
I get that. There have been times when I have felt that same way. And to combat this misshaped community, Bonhoeffer blesses us with five great foundational thoughts about community; five thoughts that can act as powerful correctives to today’s mistaken notions about community. Let’s explore these five concepts.
First, living in community with other Christ followers is nice, but it is not our only calling. Bonhoeffer writes:
“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him.
On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers.
For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God.
So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.
There is his commission, his work. ‘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 the devout people.
O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ!
If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).”
Community is critically important; of that, there is no doubt. But community is never to be defined as a problem-free, comfort zone, filled with laughs, ease and luxury. Instead, there is hard, spiritual work to be done. Community will never be easy. Community will never be for the faint of heart. Community will never be for those with thin skin, and community will never be for those who quit at the first sign of trouble. Living in community requires work.
Second, living in community today will always be hard, but it is designed that way. Community is intended to be a foretaste of things to come. It is not the final experience. You probably remember the old adage:
“To live above with saints I love; Oh, that will be glory!
To live below, with saints I know; well, that’s a different story.”
Bonhoeffer’s point is that we should not expect glory now. Instead, we should expect struggles and difficulties because we are sinful, selfish, scattered and rather smug. The new heavens and the new earth have not yet arrived. We are still stuck in this old one, and that means community will always be hard work. The good news is that we can temper our expectations and not expect heaven, when all we have is earth.
Third, living in community communicates many of the same things the Lord’s Supper does. Consider these five truths about the Lord’s Supper. We partake of the Lord’s Supper by grace alone. We come to the Lord’s Supper as sinners acknowledging our sin and our sinfulness. We receive the Lord as we partake of communion. And as we partake as individuals, we affirm that all who take by faith are part of the body of Christ. And even if we are exiled and alone, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that we are part of a great company of God’s faithful; a company that one day will surround us in glorious fellowship. Now, consider these truths about community. We enter into community by grace alone. It is God’s gift to us, given to us by grace and never by our own doing. We enter into community as sinners, acknowledging that we will continually fail in our relationships (we will fail to love one another and fail to serve, listen and to put the interests of our neighbor above our own); and as a result, we will need God’s strength to empower us to love as we ought and God’s forgiveness when we fall short. And as we enter into community, we will not only partake of fellowship with one another, but Jesus will also be there with us, for wherever his people gather, he is present. But even if we are all alone, we know we are bonded with all God’s people, past, present and future and that, one day, we will gather around the throne of God and celebrate God’s gifts of grace to us. The Lord’s Supper declares us one in the bond of love, just as the bond of Christian community testifies that Jesus is always with us. Both are incredible grace gifts.
Fourth, living in Christian community requires that Jesus is at the center of our community. Bonhoeffer says:
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.
No Christian community is more or less than this.”
Here is where we often go astray. We believe that the center of our community is amusement and pleasure and recreation. We want friendship; people with whom we can watch the game or play cards or have a meal. But this is not the core purpose of our community. A long quote from Bonhoeffer explains this:
“The Reformers defined our righteousness as an ‘alien righteousness,’
a righteousness that comes from outside of us.
They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him.
The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ.
Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word.
And it can come only from the outside.
Help must come from the outside, and it comes daily in the Word of Jesus Christ.
But God has put this Word into the mouth of people in order that it may be communicated to other people.
When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others.
God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word
in the witness of a brother or a sister, in the mouth of a person.
Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to them.
And that clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another
as bringers of the message of salvation.”
At the center of our fellowship is not coffee or donuts or conversations about life and sports and the weather, but the Word of God. We are to speak God’s Word to each other. We are to encourage each other with God’s Word. We are to challenge each other and spur one another with the Word of God. If we are going to be serious about a Christian community, we must learn to speak God’s Word to each other and to hear God’s Word from each other. (More on this point later).
Last, living in community requires us to give to others what we have received. Bonhoeffer writes:
“God Himself has undertaken to teach us brotherly love.
When God was merciful, when he revealed Jesus Christ to us,
when he won our hearts by His love, this was the beginning of our instruction in divine love.
When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with others.
When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive.
What God did to us, we then owe to others.
The more we receive, the more we are able to give; and the more meager our love,
the less we are living by God’s mercy and love.”
Jesus said it this way as he sent out the twelve (Matt. 10:8):
“Freely you have received; freely give.”
Paul said it this way in Colossians 3 (vs. 13):
“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
And because three is better than two, here is how John said it (1 Jn. 3:16):
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
This is key: Our community is shaped not by our feelings or desires, but by God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus. We love the people God has placed in our community because we have been chosen by God and placed in that community to be his agents of love and grace. What we have received, we now freely give.
Church community can be a horror show or it can be something beautiful. Which one it is depends a lot on our response to Bonhoeffer’s words here. So, what is it going to be?
Two quick questions to drive these points home. First, with which of these five concepts do you struggle with the most (that our calling is to live among our enemies, that community is intended to be hard, that community is a grace gift to show us Christ, that Christian community is marked by God’s people speaking God’s Word to each other, or fifth, that community is God’s school for learning how to love and serve each other)? Second, which one of these do you plan to put into practice this coming Sunday? And remember, if you don’t act on these and plan on ignoring Bonhoeffer’s advice here, don’t be surprised if you hear “SKREE-SKREE-SKREE” the next time you are in the shower!