People of God called St. Paul,
I set three goals for myself as pastor. The first is: Foster deep biblical community. What do I mean?
In his little book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christian community “grace, nothing but grace.”
He wrote: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”
When Bonhoeffer wrote these words, he was leading a small clandestine seminary in Nazi Germany. It was an illegal seminary, training pastors for the “Confessing Church,” a splinter which refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, as the rest of the German (Lutheran and Catholic) Church had. There, Bonhoeffer lived every day in emergency-built houses with the seminary’s 25 students.
So we can maybe hear Bonhoeffer’s own experience of that Christian community, in the midst of its enemies: “what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” As if he lamented his own tendency to take the gift for granted.
So this goal—foster deep biblical community—is first a call to myself to recognize and honor the gift, in and through Christ, that is being together with you. Only after, is it my reminder to myself gently to awaken you and others to this gift of pure grace.
The words of Bonhoeffer resonate with the words of one of my mentors. “We cannot build community. Community is a gift God gives. Instead, we build relationships with the capacity to receive the gift of community.”
Fostering deep biblical community is about the relationships I build as pastor. If I am to invite or teach anything, I must first do it myself. When I use the adjectives “deep” and “biblical,” I’m talking also about the quality and direction of the relationships I want to build.
Jesus talked about a farmer who sowed seed. Some seed fell on rocky ground. It sprouted quickly but wilted just as quickly because its roots were shallow. A greeter at Wal-Mart can be friendly and welcoming. But a greeter at Wal-Mart has no depth of relationship with me. When my marriage is failing, when my child is dying, when I've lost my job and exhausted every avenue for finding a new one that will support my family, I certainly need friendly and welcoming as a start. I also need more.
Jesus told his disciples, “By this, they will know you all are my disciples: if you all have love for one another.” By “love,” I understand Jesus to mean the depth and truth and tenacity of relationship, evident in the way Jesus himself loved people. And speaking in the plural—“you all”—I hear Jesus inviting Christians to let that depth, truth, and tenacity called love shine through the very culture of their congregations. So people may come to know Jesus and be attracted to St. Paul because of how we relate to each other. People will say, “I want that in my life. My life depends on it.”
A song I learned in Sunday school puts to music part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the “School of Hope.”
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness
And all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu alleluia
Recently friends had us over for dinner. Before we ate, we corralled all our kids, and our hosts invited us to sing this song with them as our meal prayer. Singing it, I felt the warmth of childhood nostalgia, and more, I felt a zing of truth and life. What a radical song to sing before eating!
To a crowd of both rich and poor disciples, Jesus said, "Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ Because it’s the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
The relationships Jesus formed went somewhere. Jesus gathered community for a reason. That direction and purpose was, is, and will be the kingdom of God.
“Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years,” Bonhoeffer wrote, this is “the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” My goal is to celebrate and encourage who we are for each other, by the grace of God alone: messengers of salvation, who sometimes also bring casseroles and coats to share.
And this, so each of us may go back where we belong, “in the thick of foes,” “to bring peace to God’s enemies.”
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith