True Christian Community
March, 2009 Pastor's Monthly Newsletter Article I have been re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book, "Life Together" lately. In it, he describes the underground seminary community at Finkenwald - a community led by the confessing church - a movement established in opposition to Adolph Hitler and the German Nazis. I was struck, once again, by a powerfully haunting passage about Christian Community. Permit me to excerpt a longer section of it here.
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.
When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Bonhoeffer's words are (as is often the case with him!) very harsh. But they are instrumental, as we contemplate what it means to live in a community that is centered on the grace and presence and power of Jesus Christ.
We are in the process of re-evaluating our statements of mission and vision at Saint Peter. In doing so, we are asking some probing (and I hope, helpful) questions. Among these questions are ones seeking to define what it is we want from our own congregation, and what it is that might attract newcomers to our community. These are important questions to ask, but they lead to a certain danger. It is easy to imagine that these are the questions which define us as a people. It is easy to imagine that these are the goals for our being together. Yet, as Bonhoeffer points out, when we become obsessed with our hopes and dreams for what our community might become, it can make us proud and pretentious: "My congregation is better than yours." "My dreams for this congregation are better than yours." "My contributions to this congregation are more valuable than yours."
Bonhoeffer (and Christ!) would challenge us to acknowledge that at the heart of true Christian community is not a pleasant experience of idyllic human interaction. Instead, at the heart of true Christian community is the brokenness that is inevitable among humans, and the forgiveness, renewal and new beginnings that are only possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. From this point of view, we give thanks when our community falls short of our vision for what we can and should be. We give thanks when hurt feelings and misunderstandings take place. We give thanks when failures and missed opportunities are revealed. We give thanks not because we are glad that these things take place (and indeed we work hard to prevent them from being repeated). But we give thanks because they offer us the opportunity to be the presence of God in one another's lives. They give occasion for us to follow our true vocation: to announce the radical and transforming grace of God that forgives all sin, renews all relationships, makes new beginnings possible, and empowers us to be a sign of God's presence in this world.
"He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter..." These are harsh words from this German theologian and pastor. But they are helpful words, and ultimately hopeful words, as we consider what sort of congregation we hope that Saint Peter Lutheran Church might become. We will continue to develop the ways in which this congregation blesses its participants. We will continue to explore how we can attract and connect with newcomers to our community. But we will never forget that at the heart of our community is the radical and transforming grace of Christ, which restores us to one another (and to God) even when our noblest hopes for Christian Community fail us.
God’s peace to you all,
David J. Risendal, Pastor