If I wanted the house to work, then I needed to sleep in the solarium. No one else wanted that space because it was tiny, cold, and all the windows made it impossible to sleep more than 30 minutes past dawn. Yet, if we were going to keep the rent low, someone was going to have to transform that awkward space into a bedroom. The vision of shared housing bound together by faith appealed to a mix of grad students who each needed their own room and cheap rent. There were not enough bedrooms in the house for everyone to get their own room. Someone was going to get some sun.
I loved the idea of living in an intentional community. The vision of sharing a house with other Christians who sought to grow in their faith felt like the perfect environment for me while I was in seminary. The house was walking distance to four large churches and felt like a nexus of faith. I had visions that we would work together on projects for the neighborhood. I assumed my housemates and I would start a Bible study or prayer group. I looked forward to transplanting conversations about theology from the seminary lecture hall to the dining room table. There’s no denying that I held a very optimistic view of my living situation.
Beyond the standard shared living space rules about rotating chores and timely rent, there was one rule that set our house apart. All housemates had to eat dinner together on Sunday night. I believe the rule was inspired by Acts 2:46b, “The followers of Christ broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
We held an ideal for what these Sunday night dinners would look like. We’d prepare the food together with everyone contributing something. We’d talk story and share about what was going on in our lives. The hope was that everyone would be given space to speak freely and honestly without judgement, commentary, or advice. The idea was that we’d simply listen to one another and to the presence of Christ in our midst. The meal would close with prayer and we’d share in the cleaning responsibilities.
That was the vision. Although, I’m not sure if it ever actually looked like that.
We would gather on Sunday nights but things commonly went awry. There’d be disagreements and fights at the table. There were those who never contributed to preparing or to cleaning up. And there was almost always someone missing from the meal. Often, the person missing was me.
I loved the idea of living in community but I quickly learned that the reality of intentional community was much harder than the theory. It was hard to let go of my preferences for the good of the group. Like many in the house, I was struggling to add the needs of the house to the delicate balance of work and school. Sharing the needs and struggles with those in the house meant letting go of some of my own ambitions. I realized there was a disconnect between the utopian vision I had construed from Acts 2 and the reality of what it looked like in real life. This realization reminds me of a quote by the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
Bonhoeffer wrote this line in his 1939 book, Life Together. For Bonhoeffer, community wasn’t a pleasant idea, it was a life saving reality. Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiastical career began to rise in the early 1930’s in Germany. He publicly and vehemently opposed the Nazi party as it ascended to power. In 1933, he spoke out about the church’s responsibility to resist Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Bonhoeffer declared that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”
In time, Christians who resisted the Nazi party and refused to subjugate their faith to Nazi principles were driven into hiding. The Christians who maintained that Christ, not the fuhrer, was the head of the church became known as the Confessing Church. In 1935, Bonhoeffer became the head of an underground seminary that trained pastors for the Confessing Church. Over the next 4 years, Bonhoeffer travelled secretly across Germany serving Christian communities and training leaders. This was his context when crafting his book, Life Together.
While preparing last Sunday’s sermon, my mind was drawn to Bonhoeffer’s classic work. He clearly understood that Christian community is as vital as it is difficult. Repeatedly, he warned the church against egotism and division. His work is concise in its wisdom and focused in its exhortations. For the last 80 years Bonhoeffer’s work has inspired the church. As I worked on the sermon, several quotes from Life Together came to mind:
“God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator…I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation.” – page 71
I resonated with this line because I am drawn to the hope and joy that there are more ways to see and experience the image of God in others.
“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” – page 38
Cassie gravitates towards this hope as it makes “Christian community” something accessible to everyone. This truth invites us to participate in the community we are in rather than trying to force a fictionalized ideal.
“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” – page 86
Pastor Mary hears a truth in this quote that is appropriate for this stressful season of pandemic. The reminder to step back and create mental space for grace is especially needed now. Holding another person in prayer is a healing path during this tense time.
What quote speaks to you? Is there an insight into life together that comforts or calls out to you?
Bonhoeffer begins Life Together with a quote from Psalms 133:1 “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for kindred to dwell together in unity.”
The scriptures’ call to unity is not naïve nor is it nicety. From the earliest pages of the Bible through the very end there are stories of communities in conflict and fractured families. Yet we are called to take steps of faith, great and small, towards Christ and towards one another. For it is through this journey that we come to see just how wide and deep and high the love of God is for you and for those around you. Christian community is not an end in and of itself. Christian community is a way we come to understand and glorify God.
“May Christ dwell in you…and may you have the power to understand, together with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… Now to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” – Ephesians 3
A Psalm for Today Based Upon the Daily Lectionary Readings
- Monday – Psalm 87
- Tuesday – Psalm 130:1-4
- Wednesday – Psalm 130:5-8
- Thursday – Psalm 124:1-5
- Friday – Psalm 124:6-8
- Saturday – Psalm 138
Who is someone in your life that you feel “God did not make this person as I would have made him?” Invite God to help you see God’s image in that person. How do you see God reflected in that person?
What are the ways that you already participate in “Christian community”? Are there other ways God is inviting you to participate?
Are you praying for people in your community, especially those that you find hard to get along with? How can you be praying for them?