Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jesus: friend of sinners

Church: a place for broken people

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus? Thus, the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 15-17.

Jesus was not ashamed to share company with tax collectors and prostitutes; he was called "the friend of sinners" and invited national traitors to join his renewal movement (Mark 2.13-17). If we would eat with Jesus, we too become friends with the friend of sinners and are revealed as those who are sick, in need of a physician. The company Jesus keeps is not with those who believe themselves perfect, or superior, or pure, but with those who know they need such a friend. The church is a place for broken people.

With whom do you eat?
Ten points for guessing the Sydney church building.

29 comments:

Mark Stevens said...

As a minister I find that I don't have to try very hard to eat with broken people. I dine with at least one every night!

I love those two pages from Bonhoeffer. Along with some stuff that Peterson has written they 'saved' ministry for me from the clutches of neo-con ministry practices that resemble business models more than Christ himself.

The middle paragraph of your post (about visionary dreaming) challenges me vocationally more than any other piece of writing!

Thanks for the reminder Byron.

Craig Bennett said...

Great post Byron.

One of the things I find frustrating about church is that most people change hats when they walk into the church door. When asked how are you going? We reply good!

Usually a couple of things are happening, in that the person doing the asking doesn't truly want to know and if the person was to tell the truth they would back peddle and try and change the subject.

The other thing is if a person was to admit to a great / minor sin, would they find themselves the target of gossip, slander, legalism, judgementalism? or would they find themselves in the midst of compassion, forgiveness, healing and restoration?

One of the things I think the church is guilty of is treading on the blood of Jesus when it comes the issue of divorce and adultery, especially when ministers of the Gospel fall in this manner and their credentials are completely and irrevocably stripped away from them...does this have a downward effect into the congregation as to how we minister to people in this regards?

Let our churches be places where indeed we sit and eat beside sinners.

byron smith said...

Craig - yes, I think this is a very important point. Honesty is crucial, which doesn't necessarily mean spilling your guts each time you run into someone who asks how you are, but it does mean being willing to be drawn into and invest in real relationships of trust.

I posted a quote from Rowan Williams about discipline of ministers back here.

Craig Bennett said...

That was a great post of Williams Byron.

I don't know if the lack of comments on the subject indicates our discomfort to face the issue. To be charitable though, I acknowledge it was posted close to Christmas and the holiday break could have had a bit to do with it.

I was interested in reading a blurb from the Crowded House about an incident when a local copper approached the minister and some street kids and the minister told the copper he didn't mind hanging out with them, and that gained him a heap of respect from them.

I think the hardest thing for us to do is to actually enjoy hanging out with sinners, enjoy their company and to really communicate with them on their level and not where we want them to be at

byron smith said...

I think the hardest thing for us to do is to actually enjoy hanging out with sinners, enjoy their company and to really communicate with them on their level and not where we want them to be at
Yes, and how we conceive of ourselves in relation to Jesus is crucial in this. That Jesus eats with us is also pure grace. He doesn't wait for us to get where he wants us to be at before sitting down to enjoy our company.

Craig Bennett said...

He doesn't wait for us to get where he wants us to be at before sitting down to enjoy our company.

Could that be because he already knows our final state and therefore we should treat people the same?

geoffc said...

Is that pic my church in Redfern? St Saviour's?

::aaron g:: said...

I loved the paragraph on visionaries - perhaps overstated, but brilliant.

Macrina said...

Bonhoeffer obviously knows what he's talking about. I must really get down to reading this book. I posted a link to this earlier ... have not quite worked out all the technical stuff of pings etc yet, so thought I'd let you know here.

byron smith said...

Could that be because he already knows our final state and therefore we should treat people the same?
Maybe, though I don't know my neighbour's final state and it could be dangerous to try guessing.

Geoff - nope. Though I'll now offer points for the guessing the building.

Aaron - that paragraph has haunted me for years.

Macrina - thanks. I'm also ignorant of pings and really should learn one day.

Craig Bennett said...

You are right we shouldn't try and guess our neighbors final state.

I should have said, "Jesus knew / knows the totality of our lostness and where that leads to...so we should follow his lead in bringing hope to the lost"

Benjamin Ady said...

god I hate bonhoeffer. what if the visionary leader has a vision as breathtaking as Christ's own vision?

byron smith said...

Benjamin - Is your concern that Bonhoeffer is ruling out the contributions we might make to community?

I think Bonhoeffer's point is that because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship [in Christ's own vision and life] we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. The visionary dreamers he has in mind are those who come along to the community and demand that their ideas be accepted. In fact, I'm a little surprised you're not a fan, since in effect Bonhoeffer is suggesting that Christian leaders shouldn't begin with "should's"! Community begins for us with thankfully receiving something. Before any of us offer (and there is a place for this), even before we offer our exciting ideas for improving our common life, we must first receive this life as something we do not and cannot own. We are not the source of our own community and so cannot do with it as we please.

I find this liberating. The only obligation that can be laid on me is Christ's "law" of love: "love one another as I have loved you." I can be invited by others who have received this gift into particular forms of loving common life, but those who arrive with their own demands and wanting to set up their own movement in their own image have not yet learned to receive from (and with) Christ.

Hecta said...

I think it is/was Barneys

byron smith said...

Hecta - no, this picture was taken just a month or two ago.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Great post Byron.

Is it All Souls Leichhardt?

byron smith said...

No, but close...

byron smith said...

...and thanks! (though as I said above, all the greatness is in Bonhoeffer's quote).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

So maybe Leichhardt Uniting Church (opposite All Souls on Marion Street)?

byron smith said...

Not quite that close.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Annandale Anglican?

byron smith said...

No, but you're getting closer.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Closer to what? Annandale Presy?

byron smith said...

Closer to what?
The correct answer. :-)

Your last guess is even closer, but still no cigar.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Annandale Catholic Church?

byron smith said...

Yes - your persistence is paying off. Ten more points.

Dave Lankshear said...

Those Bonhoeffer pages are amazing... and I can see what he's driving at... but I'm having trouble defining something. I'm concerned that maybe Benjamin was concerned about a false dichotomy between what Christ has achieved for us theologically in that we receive forgiveness and the church community already crafted for us, will a well defined mission spelt out... yet there is plenty of room for the particulars of how that mission is accomplished?

What about the context? Was Bonhoeffer influenced in his views of the church by what he observed happening in German society around him, and the delusional aspirations of the Reich?

I guess I felt profoundly challenged by Bonhoeffers "visionary" quotes because I have been trying to imagine a new society (not just for the church, but for the whole of Sydney); a post-oil society and how it might function.... or at least get the societal discussion going in that direction.

So is this conversation of Bonhoeffers completely different to the whole "Church / State" thing?

byron smith said...

Dave - Bonhoeffer was not averse to imagining renewed forms of society or thinking carefully about communal life: in fact, that's what the whole little book Life Together is all about. I don't think his warning about visionary dreaming is meant to remove the place of imagination. It is a warning (and yes, perhaps you're right about context of German dictatorship) against a single visionary leader pretending to be the source of unity for a Christian community. Only Christ can be the unifying factor.

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