If living the Christian life as “aliens” really describes Christian community/church then we can understand why we are a “colony of heaven” in a “strange” land. The biblical portrait of the Christian church is one in which the church “exists for mission as fire exists for burning” (Emil Bruner). This gives us our clear identity. The DNA of such “aliens” is mission precisely because God is missio Dei. God, the Father, is a sending God who goes out into the broken land with good news by sending his Son (John 20:21). We are not drawn together simply for ourselves but rather to be the people of God engaging in Christ’s mission together. We do not do this simply as individual projects or programs that we contribute our money to but remain personally detached from. Even local congregations are not meant to do this all alone but as part of the Church in their city or area, the whole body of Christ living out their alien status in partnership and deep love.This is one reason why our divided state is such a serious scandal to the gospel.
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite Christian books of all-time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian living during the rise of Nazism, helped to form a genuinely alien community that would train pastors in exile (underground in order to be uninfluenced by the state) in order to create a community of faithful shepherds who would understand the radical demands of Christ over against the power of the state. This was an intensely spiritual vision but it was also dangerously political. The two cannot be separated ultimately.
Bonhoeffer believed that God bestows brotherhood upon Christians because we are truly called to be our brother’s keeper. He opens his magnificent little treatise with the words of Psalms 133:1: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” He then provides several examples of times when we should come together through praise. He writes that Christian community is not something to be taken for granted. He then details reasons why the church should function as a living organism, what he memorably called a “community of love.” (This is as good a description of a church as any I know.) Bonhoeffer articulated what he saw in the German church in his day and argued that a deep canyon existed between what the church should look like according to the Book of Acts and what the church actually looked like before the eyes of the German people. He believed that most pastors had failed their people precisely because they had passively accepted the way the Nazis treated the Jews. Simply put, they were complicit in not protesting an evil that they should have resisted. He struggled with the moral dilemma of obeying the authorities or following the higher laws of Christ. One can rightly say that the entire book is Bonhoeffer’s call to the church to adopt an “alien” position within the German state and culture of the 1930s. For him this was the way for the community of love to genuinely embrace the love of Christ in missional action.
I am prepared to say that the church in America desperately needs to adopt this same stance. Sadly, most Christians are not ready to hear this message but a growing number of younger Christians hunger for it. Faithful shepherds and leaders need to call their people to a life of love that flows between believers (John 13:34–35). To merely call Christian people to attend church and support programs is not a faithful call. (As good as some of these programs are they are very often focused on the consumer and felt needs, not on the weakest and most needy among us.) We need to love one another and move as people together into the neighborhoods and cities of our area. We are commissioned to this missional vision by Jesus himself where we read in John’s Gospel: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’” (John 20:21).
This “alien” life of missional Christian faith is not one that can be lived out easily in a devalued world order that makes no pretense of submitting to the Lordship of Christ. For this reason we must be extremely careful here. We cannot call people to a community that seeks to disciple them through any form of coercion that misuses human authority in order to make faithful disciples. (There is a ditch, in other words, on both sides of this road that leads us to community and mission. Christians have historically fallen on both sides of the road into one ditch or the other.) Deep, Christ-centered love can only be developed through mutual respect, through the kind of Spirit-given love that casts out fear. The danger here is that some leaders, and churches, will seek to correct the very problem that I am addressing by creating a new, and sometimes, worse one. The life that we live together is one of shared love, not one enforced by human authority over dutiful and manipulated disciples. The line between true community and manipulation can be very thin and is often unseen by many who call for more faithful mission in the midst of a collapsing Christendom culture.
Further, though the modern American state does not look like Nazi Germany, or the former Soviet Union for that matter, it has become a state and culture in which the church can no longer adopt a laissez faire attitude toward the illusions, pretensions and values of this profoundly corrupt culture. If we would be faithful to our “life together” we must teach one another the specific ways in which our culture keeps us captive to ideas that stand in stark contrast with the way of Jesus. This is precisely why so much of the political activism of the American church, from both the left and the right, has taken us away from community and into forms of activism that are far more consistent with Christendom culture than with faithful discipleship in public space.
Tomorrow: The grand assumption of the old world which is now passing away.