Last week, I argued that one of the great visionaries of the past was the guy who invented pizza (who would disagree with that?). But who was this creative genius? The answer depends a lot on how we define “pizza.” If pizza is simply flatbread cooked in an oven, then the answer is an ancient someone in the Middle East. Everyone (the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Israelites and others) all cooked flatbread in mud ovens. Now, if you think you need something ON that flatbread for it to be called a pizza, then we have a different answer. The ancient Greeks and Romans both topped their flatbread with herbs, spices and olive oil. Now, I would argue that is better defined as focaccia bread, not pizza, but it is a topping on baked bread, so props to them. Plus, a pizza, to be a pizza, doesn’t need a tomato-sauce topping (case in point, the white pizzas and the barbeque-sauce pizzas). But even if it never actually defined pizza, it was the addition of the tomato topping that made pizza famous. And who added the tomato-sauce? In the early 1800’s, street vendors in Naples were looking for an inexpensive food that could be cooked and eaten quickly to feed the poor working class. Since tomatoes and cheese were both plentiful, one of these vendors (in a stroke of genius) covered his dough with them and threw the married trio into the oven; and the pizza was born. But the pizza came of age when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. They were treated to a spectacular new pizza, one made with soft white mozzarella cheese, red tomatoes and green basil. To honor the queen, the chef called this creation, the margherita pizza. Don’t miss that. Ordinary street vendors in Naples created a deliciousness that will be served in heaven. And yet, even though we have a recipe for greatness, every single day, pizza assembly-lines besmirch and befoul the good name of pizza by making flatbread that tastes like cardboard, applying sauces that come out of old rusty cans and using toppings that were purchased from a warehouse outside of Chernobyl. I don’t even have to name names because you know who I mean. And all we can say is, “Oh the humanity!” Here’s the point: It is easy to take something wonderful and poison it. We do it with pizza, and we do it with community.

We are looking at Bonhoeffer’s classic work on Christian community, which he entitled, Life Together (I have the 1954, Harper and Row edition). Last week, we looked at three sins that poison community (false expectations, judgmental attitudes, and a failure to be grateful for what God is doing). Today, we want to look at four more.

The fourth sin: We fail to give thanks for the small things that God has done. Granted, this point has some overlap with the previous one, and yet it moves in a different direction and focuses on one aspect of what God is doing, namely, the small thing. Bonhoeffer understands that our response to the small things God is doing will be a strong predictor of our faithfulness in handling something large.  How so? Because thanklessness is arrogance wrapped in faithlessness. By failing to give thanks in the small things, we show we are not ready for the large. In one of the most profound paragraphs in the book, Bonhoeffer writes:

“In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is
anywhere else in the Christian life.
Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things.
We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us,
because we do not give thanks for daily gifts.
We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge,
experience, and love that has been given to us,
and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good.
Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith,
and the rich experience that God has given to others,
and we consider this lament to be pious.
We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary,
small (and yet really not small) gifts.
How can God entrust great things to one
who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship
in which we have been placed,
even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches,
but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty;
if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God
that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected,
then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

How often do we fail to rejoice and give thanks for the little things that God has given us?  In my experience, it is all too common. I am never satisfied, never content, and never fully pleased. Instead, I always want more. I always feel I deserve more. And I always demand more. And when we enter into community with such an ungrateful attitude, we will always fail to see the blessings God is already bestowing upon us. Such ingratitude poisons our fellowship. Worse, it feeds our arrogance so that we develop a strong dislike for the good things God is doing. Instead, we must remember that what appears small and insignificant to us may be great and glorious to God. It is true, ingratitude is the undoing of ourselves. Even if our lack of connection is painful, even if our community is floundering, we still ought to give thanks because, who knows, perhaps God may work through that paltry sum to do something spectacular. If Jesus can multiply five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, just think what he can do with a few broken relationships.

The fifth sin: A failure to depend upon spiritual strength while relying on human power. I want to say that this is our main problem, but all of these are not only major stumbling blocks, but not things we often think about. And yet, this one is so common that it seems to me that we don’t even notice when we do it anymore. After all, who needs the Spirit when we can get along with the Christian life all on our own? But a few moments of reflection lead us to see that we are always trying to live in community in our own strength. Here are a few hard facts to help us see what this would look like. When we depend on human love and friendship to be the bond that holds us together, we are not relying on the Spirit. When our top priority is to get our needs met, instead of seeking Christ’s glory, we are not relying on the Spirit. When we seek to be in charge, rather than to serve, we are not relying on the Spirit. When we measure the health of our community by our feelings and desires, instead of the Word of God, we are not relying on the Spirit. Bonhoeffer says:

Human love is by its very nature desire—desire for human community.
So long as it can satisfy this desire in some way, it will not give it up,
even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others.
But where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, there it stops short—
namely, in the face of an enemy.
Then it turns into hatred, contempt and calumny.”

But there is one simple test to see if we are approaching community through our own strength or not.  What do we do when our attempts at community grow difficult and disappointing? If we give up and move on to another person, then we are attempting community through our own strength, for God’s love never quits and never fails.

A sixth sin: A failure to serve. Human community seeks to receive (or to give only in order to receive), but a community based on Jesus, always seeks to serve the other person. Bonhoeffer says it this way:

“Because spiritual love does not desire, but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother.
This love originates neither in the brother, nor in the enemy, but in Christ and his Word.
Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above.”

True spiritual community is never self-seeking. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:5 and 7). True love always seeks to serve, to give and to bless.

I am reminded of those great words from Miroslav Volf: 

God doesn’t give in order to acquire.
God loves without self-seeking; that’s at the heart of who God is.
God gives for the benefit of others.

And then, a bit later in Volf’s book, he adds:

God’s gifts aim at making us into generous givers, not just fortunate receivers.
God gives so that we, in human measure, can be givers, too.”

A last sin: A failure to remember what binds us together by faith. Here’s the truth, even though we may feel otherwise. It is not our shared experiences that draw us together. It is not that we simply attend the same church. It is not that we are friends who share common interests. It is our faith that unites us. Bonhoeffer writes these important words:

“We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”

It sounds so ordinary and unremarkable, but in that one line, we find all our hopes for true community. Without Christ and his Word at the center of our community—both in word, thought and action—we will never find what God has always intended for us: to be part of a true, rich and deep Christian community. Our constant prayer ought to be that we may learn to love like God and give ourselves freely in service to those around us, knowing that we are bound together by faith. 

Here’s a question to ponder until next week: If the foundation of our community is found in Christ and his Word alone, how should that shape our interaction with one another? What should we hope to see? Let’s be more specific. The worship service is over. The blessing has been said, and we are dismissed. What should we say to each other? Who should we talk to? What should we do?  How can we transform our gathering into a vibrant and rich Christian community?  

And yes, it is okay to hope that we can occasionally supplement our Christian community with a really good margherita pizza.