Friday, 28 September 2012

Are you quite done?


Is it off your chest and on the floor? Do you see how it looks now?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who lived during Nazi Germany and eventually died at their hands just days before the end of the war. I came across one of this books this week that really seemed to speak into what I've been wrestling with.


A few things stood out with regards to the desire we all share for an inspiring and authentic church community. I thought I'd share them as I've found them to provide a sort of balm for the irritation of commercial Christianity we all sometimes feel from time to time.

Our desire to be part of and help build the sort of sacrifical, other-centered, powerful community that we read about in the New Testament is a good desire. The trouble is that this desire or hope, when deferred, makes us sick, frustrated and disillusioned with church. We conclude that it was a 'pie in the sky' utopian dream that was never going to happen. 

Bonhoeffer's comment was that 'There is a vision of community that can damage the formation of a community.' Whether it is a worldly vision of what community should look like (one where people are united by things other than Christ) or a scriptural one (like the church in acts 2). If we're not careful even a good vision can become a heavy weight to carry and eventually a stick to beat people with. Living with the vision of church as presented in Acts 2 is a good thing but if we start getting frustrated and bitter and grumbling that our church is not like it should be, then it is a bad thing and can destroy a church:

"The life or death or a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible."

Spiritual communities united by Christ exist because of him and are created by his grace. We might say 'look they had all things in common and met together daily in one another's homes, we ought to do the same.' We want the outward appearance of community because of how it matches our vision of community, all the while not being aware that this longing can quickly become a hindrance to the sort of genuine article we're all looking for.

Human love can produce the community described in Acts 2 but it cannot produce the type of people we imagine were part of the community. Paul says 'I can sell all my possessions and give all I have to the poor,' not an impossible thing to do in the natural sense. I think it would be hard to do this in an unloving way and yet he goes on to say 'but if I have not love, I have nothing.' How can one give all their belongings away to the poor and yet be without love? Bonhoeffer says is is because the love we need is the love of Christ, a charitable divine love that forgets the virtue of an act but instead is caught up with the one who is Love himself.

I can enforce a 'house to house' policy on a church or I can open up my home and invite people to come round everyday. I may produce the outward signs of community but if it is not a community created by Christ it will not be the church, it will not proclaim the excellencies of 'him who called us out of darkness and into light.' I often love others out of selfish motives that look pure but in reality are masking my own selfish desires; I need to feel valuable and important or 'saintly'. Alternatively I can love others in Christ for Christ's sake and not my own. If I love them like this I allow them to be free and just as they are as God made them to be. Christ's love is a servant hearted, sacrificial, self-giving love that seeks to bless without any thought of exact returns. Human love is often a tit-for-tat 'I'm keeping tabs' sort of love; a self-justifying love. A love that is dutiful but that ends in feelings of pride or moments of self-congratulation at a duty done or a service enacted.

"Every human wish dream that is injected into Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive."
It is not a desire for 'community' that unites us and empowers the formation of a community but the identification with Christ, the unity of his Spirit that sees as a sort of by product or after thought the forming of a wholly unique community.
"Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification... Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so too, the Christian community taking its temperature."
 A practical way that we can see a Christ-centred community formed is through thankfulness. Give thanks for the little things, the everyday and apparently mundane. Give thanks for the community we are, enjoy the church you're a part of. Thank God for the small and he will give us the large.

Avoid grumbling, offer support, keep gratitude as the prevailing attitude in your heart and see how God can add to it.

1 comment:

Will John said...

This is really inspiring Jez, thanks for sharing. I also find Jean Vanier's thoughts helpful:
'In community people care for each other and not just for the community in the abstract, as a whole, as an institution or as an ideal way of life. It is people that matter; to love and care for the people that are there, just as they are. It is to care for them in such a way that they may grow according to the plan of God and thus give much life. And it is not just caring in a passing way, but in a permanent way. Because people are bonded one to another, they make up one family, one people, one flock. And this people have been called together to be a sign and a witness, to accomplish a particular mission which is their charism, their gift.'