Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had a brilliant career in theology ahead of him. At seventeen, he began his studies at Tubingen, Germany. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21. Then, at 24, he qualified to teach there. When Adolf Hitler took power, many pastors and theologians yielded to Nazi interference in church affairs, however, for Bonhoeffer there could be no German-Christian compromise with Hitler. He signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared independence from Hitler’s state and from the co-opted church. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.
In 1935, he created and directed a clandestine seminary in Finkenwald (Pomerania) for training young pastors in Christian discipleship. There, he shared life together with about 25 young men devoted to God. It was closed down by the Nazis in 1937 but not before he wrote two classics: “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” He was officially forbidden to publish or speak publicly but he continued to work for the resistance to the Third Reich.
In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s record of resistance and his involvement in smuggling Jews out of Germany safely into Switzerland (the “U7” operation) got him arrested. Just before he went to prison, he became engaged to Maria. He wrote love letters from his cell but his plans were never to be. After two years in prison, it was learned that he played a part in a failed Hitler assassination attempt. He was declared a traitor and executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945 at the age of 39, just a few weeks prior to Hitler’s death and the end of World War II. In August 1996 the German authorities announced that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no longer regarded by law as a traitor.
It was at his secret seminary in Finkenwald that Bonhoeffer both learned about and wrote “Life Together.” I would encourage you to read it (perhaps in a small group setting, maybe as roommates or suite mates in college, maybe as families). Over the next few weeks let me share a few things that Bonhoeffer said that I have found most helpful in doing Life Together as a church.
“Let (us) thank God on (our) knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Bonhoeffer saw that the visible fellowship of the church is the result of God’s grace- it is a blessing (Ps.133:1). He says that not all Christians receive this blessing: the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in foreign lands. The physical presence of other believers is a sourced of immeasurable joy and strength to a believer. Have you experienced this? “The companionship of a fellow Christian is a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.” When we visit the lonely or the sick and touch them and speak encouragement to them, it is as if they were touched and encouraged by God himself. When we bless and affirm each other, we do so with the blessing and affirmation of Jesus Christ. It is to our shame that this incredible gift is so “easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” Christian fellowship is based upon grace.
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ… We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”
I am a brother to you because of what Jesus Christ did for me; and you are a brother or sister to me because of what Christ did for you. We’ve heard that before, but Bonhoeffer unpacks it is a different way. He says that a Christian needs other Christians because of Jesus Christ. Let me personalize this thought. I know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me guilty. Before God, I am a guilty sinner even though I do not feel like one. I also know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me not guilty and righteous because of my faith in what Christ has done for me. God’s word has pronounced me not guilty even though I feel guilty and unrighteous. Therefore the Christian lives by God’s Word pronounced upon him. Thus, where is my salvation? In Christ; how do I know? It has been pronounced upon me by God’s Word.
That is why I love God’s Word, for it forms the very basis of my relationship with Jesus Christ and is the very foundation of the assurance of where I stand with God. And this Word of God has been given to us not only for ourselves but for one another. The Christian needs another Christian to speak God’s Word to him, especially when discouraged and uncertain and when he cannot help himself. He needs his brother to be the proclaimer of God’s Word to him. “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
This could help enhance our understanding of 1 John 3:19, 20: “By this shall we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him; for whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts…” The context indicates that the very way we know we belong to God is by how we love one another. I believe that speaking the Word of God into someone’s life is an incredible act of love; it brings encouragement to the heart of a brother/ sister and assurance to our own hearts that we belong to God.