Jesus calls us into community. That’s our task, our calling, our joy, whilst on the earth.
Do you think that’s easy? Here’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the classic study, Life Together:
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
This idea of community is the background of Luke 17. Here’s how it begins:
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves. ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them.’ 5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ (Luke 16:1-5)
That last statement says it all! How on earth can this be accomplished? The key word is skandala.”Woe” to the person through whom these scandals come! Now the meaning of skandala is not just public scandals that make the newspapers and that sort of thing—although it might include that. But the skandala here could be anything that causes someone else–particularly a weaker or less mature Christian–to stumble and fall in their Christian faith. “Offences,” “stumbling blocks” are other ways this word is translated. Jesus is concerned that we not do anything that would cause another Christian to stumble and fall and perhaps even lose their faith. Our words, our actions, our example–these can and do have powerful consequences.
And we are called to be attentive:”Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus says, particularly in the area of forgiveness. “If your brother sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” This isn’t a numerical point, right? (You don’t wait until Offence no.8 and then clout him…)
The thing is, the closer you live in relationship with other people, the more occasions will arise when we hurt one another and even sin against one another. And consequently there’s a much greater need for “living forgivingly” (as someone put it).
Community means grace. Grace received and grace lived.
Here’s Bonhoeffer again:“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. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”
The alternative is to withdraw and keep to ourselves, keep our distance, not let other people get too close. But that is no answer. No, Christ has placed us in his community called the church, and we are to share our life together in koinonia, in community.
“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects. Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”
“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. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
How is it going for you with your life of community, with your life of forgiveness? Have other people hurt you? Have you hurt other people? Do you find it hard to forgive and seek reconciliation? Do you take the initiative to restore a good relationship, or do you just sit back and stew in your juices? When you see a brother or sister in Christ going off track, do you just ignore it and block it out of your mind?
Or do you do the risky thing and care enough to help? You see, our failure to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation and repentance and restoration–this leads to bitterness, broken relationships, and conflicts in our family and in the church. And if you just stay within yourself and your own resources that you can muster up on your own, that will always be the case.
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”
And as such, in Christ we are the bringers and the receivers of grace. That’s the joy of life in Christ.Together.