In a recent sermon entitled “Unity in the Church”, I quoted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatment of that theme in his book, Life Together. That volume grew out of Bonhoeffer’s experiment in Christian community with his seminary students in Finkenwalde in the 1930’s, but he says in its preface that the pursuit of Christian community is “a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole.” It is in that spirit that I reflect upon some of Bonhoeffer’s observations that are worthy of consideration and application in our day (and in our congregation).
The Apostle Paul asserts that spiritual unity is a God-given reality:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
It is important to remember that the heart of Christian community can never be found in human endeavor. As Bonhoeffer notes, “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” The call to community is not a call to create something out of whole cloth. It is a call to live in light of God’s revelation of what He has already accomplished for us through Christ. That is not going to be easy. We are a bunch of sinners. We will need large doses of humility, gentleness, longsuffering, and forbearance in love if such unity in community is to become an ever-growing reality.
In affirming God’s ideal for the church, we will have to let our own ideal views die away. The fact is that each of us has our own view of what the ideal church would look like. My ideal is not the same as yours. That is why Bonhoeffer gave very good advice when he wrote:
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become the destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
If you hold back from full commitment to this local body because it isn’t perfect according to your standards, then you damage the body. You bring disunity, rather than unity. God in His good providence has placed you in this place with these people and called you to live in light of your calling to make the unity of the church manifest . That means you’re going to have to try to love the person you don’t always like. It means you’re going to have to deny yourself in the interests of others. It means we’ll all have to look at ourselves less and our Lord more.
Let me close with another challenging statement by Bonhoeffer:
I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.
May such Christ-centered unity in community become a hallmark of Covenant Presbyterian Church in ever-deepening reality. Such community will be a beautiful witness in a fractured world.