Rev. Danielle K Bartz April 30, 2023
Acts 2:42-47 “Life Together”
In 1938, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister, published a book entitled “Gemeinsames Leben” or ‘Life Together’. The book is a discussion on Christian fellowship and community. He wrote it after being asked to be the leader of the illegal Confessing Church seminary in Germany. 20-30 clergy were living in community together, under the threat of Nazi violence, and Bonhoeffer knew it was important to outline the importance of Christian community and how it can be effectively held together. Bonhoeffer, who was of course brave and true to the Gospel, was not an idealist. He was a realist and understood that real Christian community is complicated. Case in point: within just a few pages of his book he writes this: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to 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…When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”
While Bonhoeffer doesn’t say in his book, I would not be surprised if he didn’t find a bit of motivation from another leader of a Christian community, St. Benedict. In the year 530, St. Benedict, wishing to establish a monastic Christian community, created his Rules. These Rules are how the community will live together. Another realist, St. Benedict wrote in his preface: “[W]e intend to establish a school for God’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.”
I have a lot of affinity for both St. Benedict and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – two very different leaders of Christian communities in two very different contexts. Ever a practical person myself, I appreciate the seriousness in which they understood their role as leaders. And I hold as an example for myself the love around which they attempted to organize their communities. It is true, that while reading both the Rules and Life Together, one cannot help but to raise an eyebrow at some of the nit-pickiness of how they tried to organize. St. Benedict had clearly outlined rules about who would wash the dishes, when, and how. Bonhoeffer left no wiggle room about the number of hours required of prayer and study. So, even though their treatises are not really applicable in the vast majority of today’s Christian communities, the spirit behind them is. Because Christian community and fellowship is not something to ever be taken lightly. In fact, Christian community is at the heart of what it means to be a part of this faith. Christian community is why we gather on Sunday mornings and throughout the week. Christian community is what we invite people to join. And Christian community is what holds us together during times of turmoil and strife. Community is at the heart of Christian life and therefore it needs to be treated with the same care and clarity as all other aspects of our faith life.
Christians have been trying to figure out how to live with one another since the earliest days after the Easter miracle. The entire Book of Acts is an outline of those earliest efforts. By just chapter five of the book, things were starting to get complicated. There we learn the story of Ananias, who, after selling his property, kept a portion of the profits for himself rather than sharing it all with the community. Brought before the first leaders of the Christian movement, he was accused of deceit, and then fell down and died. Things just kind of escalate from there. We go on to read about various arguments and debates about who was in and who was out. We hear about Councils that spent days trying to fine-tune the guidelines for what Christian community would look like. And beyond Acts, just a cursory read of Paul’s letters makes it quite clear that Christians have always struggled to live in community together. And that is all before the various schisms, wars, and mundane church fights that continue today. Christian community is the point, it is the gift from God that we are given. But it is also really hard.
But, despite its challenges – I mean, let’s be honest, anytime any group of humans come together it is going to be challenging – the need for Christian community is fundamental. And the possibilities are extraordinary.
The Book of Acts opens with those first idealistic weeks and months following resurrection and ascension, and shows just how extraordinary the possibilities of Christian community are. We read today about how this newly formed community was spending their days together in prayer at the Temple and then at table together sharing meals. They were sharing their resources openly and gratefully, listening to the teachings and experiencing the miracles of the apostles. People were flocking to this new and unusual community, eager to be a part of it. In many ways, it was what Jesus prophesied in his first public sermon in the Book of Luke – it was the dawning of the time of God’s favor for all people. The time of Jubilee, the time of abundance, the time of God’s kingdom made manifest on earth as it is in heaven. While it was short-lived, it is a part of our shared heritage, imbedded into the very DNA of our Christian life. Christian community and fellowship is how it all began, and therefore is the plumbline that helps us to understand how we are doing today.
The truth of the matter is that Christian community is never going to be easy. Hard decisions must be made, care must be taken with everyone – especially the most vulnerable. Grace is an absolute must, and honesty and authenticity are non-negotiables. And, yes, guidelines must be created in order to ensure that the community is safe and life-giving. It is not hard to understand why St. Benedict and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote their books about life together in Christian community. And Paul certainly wasn’t writing all of his letters to the churches in Rome and Philippi and Corinth to tell them about the weather. But what is important to remember is that at the heart of it all was the serious need for Christian community. Because without it, nothing else is possible.
In our “go-it-alone, I don’t need any help, I’m completely fine” world we can too often become isolated. We think we should be able to handle it all on our own and therefore try. We think we don’t need one another, so we don’t ask for help. We think we don’t need God, so we forget to pray as a reminder of God’s presence. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and writer, calls this ‘Functional Atheism.’ It’s the idea that we may be good at saying we love community and need God, but don’t actually rely on community and God. We place too much on our own shoulders to handle all things, rather than allowing the people around us to help. Rather than allowing God to shoulder some of the burden for us. I think we all know that when we have tried to ‘go-it-alone’ it rarely, if ever, works out. But when we move through this world in community together, accepting and offering help, sharing in fellowship for the simple sake of fellowship, all while holding onto the promise that we are indeed God’s Beloved – then what we can do knows no bounds.
This small Christian community is a case in point. Through our ministry and fellowship together we have achieved so much – we feed the community every Thursday and provide a warm and welcoming space for people to gather. We collect food and money to ensure that our neighbors have access to what is needed. We are the only church in Winona county that is publicly welcoming to our LGBTQ+ siblings in God. We were the center for an effort that eliminated $2.2 million in medical debt for people across Minnesota and Wisconsin. We gather to worship, to pray, to study, to laugh, to mourn, to dream, and to make real, as best we can, God’s Kingdom for ourselves and everyone we encounter.
My hope and prayer for all of us is that we never take this community for granted. That we honor one another, hold each other in prayer, and celebrate who we are and what we have and can achieve. My hope and prayer is that we take this community seriously, treating it as a fragile gift that must not be tossed about lightly. My hope and prayer is that we all realize the gift of God that we have in one another. And yes, in order to do this well, boundaries and guidelines are absolutely necessary. And I have come to know that this community does that with love and care – and so you are all to be applauded for that. And while my practical and realistic spirit aligns well with the temperament of an early 20th century German pastor, like Bonhoeffer said, the ‘dawn of the bright day of Christian fellowship’, relying on God’s grace, is possible each and every day. Amen.
Live-giving God, you created us in your image, when and only when, we recognize that you are only fully realized if we come together as community. This is your gift given to us and we are eternally grateful for it. It is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we know that at times it is hard to live with one another. You know the struggles we have and you experienced them through yourself-in-flesh in the person of Jesus. We ask that you always remind us of your unending grace and give us the strength to share it with one another.
We pause now for prayers not just for ourselves but for everyone in our community – both here in this church and in the wider community of all your creation. In these moments of silence, we open ourselves and spirits to you, trusting that you hear and respond…
Good and loving God, you hold each of us close with your gentle strength, even when we try to convince ourselves we can do it all on our own. Thank you for your presence and thank you for the teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ, our guide along the way. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…
 “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pages 26-27, 29
 The Rules of St. Benedict, preface