How to Define Christian Community

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There is no true life and meaningful community apart from forgiveness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and an outspoken critic of Hitler and Nazism. He was executed by the Nazis not long before the Allies arrived. Before his arrest, he was a professor at an underground seminary in Finkenwalde. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer not only taught but also shaped the rhythm of the days for the seminary's communal life. His book Life Together talks about his experiences there and the lessons learned.

Bonhoeffer argues that any Christian community needs disillusionment. If Christians approach community with utopian notions or ideological hopes, they will be sorely disappointed, or the Christianity of the community will be lost. It is Christ who makes Christian community because Christ calls sinners, and where there are sinners, there should be no illusions.

Christ is the beating heart of Christian community. It’s in Christ, that we relate to our neighbor. It’s in Christ, that we, who are different in many ways, are made into one body. It’s Christ who brings us together and teaches us how to live together. A process that always begins and ends with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is no easy thing. Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

How did the apostles respond? They begged, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) God bless the apostles, they got it. They knew they couldn’t live up to all that God asks. And lest they forget that, Jesus drove it home with the illustration that followed.

Forgiveness is hard. The apostles knew that. And yet Christ came to forgive, and we forgive as we have been forgiven. Faith breathes in forgiveness and faith breathes out forgiveness. Where Christ is, absolutions abound.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God?” (Life Together, 11). Have you ever thought about it that way? When God gives you a neighbor to forgive, God is comforting you. Your forgiveness for your neighbor preaches not only to him or her but to you.

Faith breathes in forgiveness and faith breathes out forgiveness.

This is the heart of Christian community: Christians are forgiven and forgive. This is the heart of Christian marriage, Christian family, Christian friendships, Christian ministry, and Christian community of any sort. This is the why for the church. It’s how people should know where Christians are found: where the word of forgiveness sounds forth, where there is a word of forgiveness.

There is no true life and meaningful community apart from forgiveness. If left to the law and quid pro quo scorekeeping, we’ll never be enough, we’ll never love our neighbor simply to love, and we’ll find ourselves on a treadmill that never turns off. Apart from faith, we are and will always be unworthy servants. We’ll only ever have done our job and nothing more. There will be no rest.

But God doesn’t deal with us as we by nature deal with others like a master with a servant. God owes us nothing, and we can never give to God all that we owe him. But God isn’t interested in wages because God gives gifts.

If you want wages from God, there are some. Paul says “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). There is an afterlife you can earn, but the Yelp reviews aren’t great. When I do this bit in class, I usually pretend to read one, a Yelp review for hell, and just scream. It’s a good opportunity to wake my students up.

The wages of sin is death, but God doesn’t want to deal with us with wages. That sentence therefore continues. Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus uses a similar illustration of a master and servants and a meal earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel. We read:

“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!” (Luke 12:26-38)

In Christ, we are ready, because we’re forgiven. And Christ will be returning. And when he comes, he’ll dress himself for service and serve a feast like we’ve never seen before. We’ll enjoy it with brothers and sisters, known and unknown, but all forgiven. Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be there, too. It will be the perfect community, like the kind we can’t have here, but the one for which this community prepares us, by forgiveness—forgiveness received and forgiveness given. Oh, what a day that will be!