I’ve occasionally observed and sometimes participated in scenes such as this:
On a lonely highway through the Arizona desert, two cars, both bearing Ohio license plates, meet and pass; and occupants in both cars wave excitedly to each other. On the coast of Georgia, a dark blue Patriots hat greets a green Celtic sweatshirt, and they fall into passionate conversation on standings, season hopes, and trades. On vacation, a thousand miles from home, someone hears a familiar dialect and two people greet each other like family.
These people are strangers who meet while traveling, yet they have a bond, something that draws them together for a brief time and leaves both with a smile. They’ve encountered someone from home.
Citizens of heaven know such experiences as they travel through lonely deserts and strange lands. They meet someone from home, someone who shares the same Spirit and follows the same Lord, and they are refreshed and encouraged.
But how is it that we appreciate those encounters so much more than what we have at our doorstep every day of the week?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, was born to a family of privilege, education, and status. Many doors of opportunity were opened to him in the first half of his life; yet when he chose to become a pastor and the Nazi regime slowly began to take away freedoms, the privilege of living in community with other Christians became a rare gift.
Bonhoeffer spent the last two years of his life in prison and concentration camps, and was executed by hanging because of his opposition to Hitler.
One of his many books is Life Together, and these quotes about the privilege of living among other Christians give us much to think about:
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. There is his commission, his work. “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?” (Luther)
Bonhoeffer says that it is God’s will that “Christendom is a scattered people, scattered like seed” everywhere in the far countries of unbelievers. We are to be seed and light and salt. Christ had far more to say about going into all the world and making disciples than He said about life together in an organized, geographically static community.
It is a special gift and privilege to live “in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing.” The physical presence of other believers is a “source of incomparable joy and strength”.
It is true, of course, that 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. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.
All of these things were written before Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment. Before his seminary was forced to go underground. Before the most intense times of persecution and hardship.
My point is this: Our time of such gifts of fellowship may be brief indeed. Am I disregarding the gift, trodding it under foot? Let me be thankful for this gift of grace, Father.
Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
All quotes from Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer