Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, originally published in 1939, is to date my favorite book besides the Bible to read about the virtues and beauty of Christian love and community. In fact he begins the book with a Scripture I rarely hear quoted anymore even though we recited it regularly in the church of my youth:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Psalm 133:1
This was a timely read for me as my husband has determined (and he is a resolute man), that we will be given more to hospitality. We’ve had a -small, intimate- dinner party of sorts every month for the past 3 months, and I suspect this is going to be a way of life for us for the duration. Reading Bonhoeffer reminded me how often we take for granted the blessing of living in a time and place where fellowship with other Christians is readily available.
To make matters worse, we set up barriers and self-righteous reasons why we don’t fellowship with other believers. Or we make up reasons why it’s more holy to not need other believers (especially those of lesser faith) in our lives. Bonhoeffer’s writings will do wonders to expel the serious believer of such foolish notions. I’ll round this out with quotes from the book before I offer a grade.
On the great blessing of Christian community:
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing.”
“The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy.”
“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.”
On the difference between spiritual love and human love:
“Likewise, there is a human love for one’s neighbor. Such passion is capable of prodigious sacrifices. Often it far surpasses genuine Christian love in fervent devotion and visible results. It speaks the Christian language with overwhelming and stirring eloquence. But it is what Paul is speaking of when he says: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned”- in other words, though I combine the utmost deeds of love with the utmost of devotion- “and have not charity [that is, the love of Christ], it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13: 3).”
“I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of general ideas of love that grow out of my human desires- all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. What love is, only Christ tells in His word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is. Therefore, spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus Christ. Where Christs bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where His truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love’s sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love.”
On Christians caring for one another:
“So long as we eat our bread together we shall have sufficient even with the least. Not until one person desires to keep his own bread for himself does hunger ensue. This is a strange divine law.”
“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.”
“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
“The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.”
The final chapter in this short (115 pages) book, is on the importance of confessing our sins to one another, something I admittedly often struggle with:
“The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”
“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned.”
The entire chapter on the importance of confession to a fellow believer is profound and convicting. It is certain to cause those of us who relish our “privacy” to wrestle and struggle. However, it does this in a good way.
Bonhoeffer, who certainly knew what it was to live in true, physical isolation from the comfort of fellow believers, reminds us not to take for granted the spiritual bounty we have been blessed with for however long we may have it. More than that, he reminded me to be prayerful and mindful of those much less fortunate in this regard.