Life Together

German-born Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was safe in New York when, in 1939, war broke out in Europe. His friends there urged him to stay and use his gifts as a scholar and teacher in the service of the ecumenical church. But Bonhoeffer boarded one of the last ships that would sail to Germany, returning to provide direction to theology students in an “underground” seminary. That was as far as he could see. In 1934 Bonhoeffer had signed the Barmen Declaration, written mostly by Karl Barth, which lifted up Jesus Christ alone as our Lord, and rebuked every compromise that the German church was making with the theories of the nationalists. From then on, Bonhoeffer’s life was devoted to tasks assigned by the Confessing Church and the Resistance. Until his arrest he moved about the coun­try, preaching and speaking to clandestine groups, since he was prohibited from teaching, writing, or remaining in Berlin, acting as a courier between various groups. He wrote whole chapters of his Ethics in the Benedictine abbey at Ettal and other temporary refuges.

One day Bonhoeffer asked his seminary students if the church would forgive a man for doing what he could to stop a monstrous evil, even if it meant he would kill someone. The students thought this was an ethical exercise; they did not know the burden Bonhoeffer carried in his soul.

One day in April 1943. the blow fell. On April 5, Bonhoeffer, with his sister Christel and her husband, Hans von Dohnanyi, were arrested and incarcerated in Tegel, a military prison, where he remained until October 8, 1944. During this time the guards were friendly to this strong pastor and secretly took him to the cells of despairing prisoners to minister to them. They preserved his papers, essays, and poems and even established a courier service to the family and friends outside.

Then, after the miscarriage of the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, Bonhoeffer was transferred from one prison to another in Berlin, Buchenwald, Schonberg, and finally Flossenburg. All contacts with the outside world were severed. His last weeks were spent with men and women of many nationalities, Russians, Englishmen, French­men, Italians, and Germans. One of these, an English officer, wrote:

Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound grati­tude for the mere fact that he was alive . . . . He was one of the very few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near . . .  On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bon­hoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of all of us. The text on which he spoke on that last day was “With his stripes are we healed.” He found just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, the thoughts and the resolutions it had brought us. He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” That had only one meaning for all prison the gallows. We said good-by to him, He took me aside and said, “This is the end but for me it is the beginning of life.” The next day he was hanged in Flossenburg. He was 39 years old.

To quote at length my favorite page in Life Together, where Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word.

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.

“I will sow them among the Gentiles: and they shall re­member me in far countries” (Zech. 10:9). According to God’s will Christendom is a scattered people, scattered like seed “into all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28:25).

Therefore, 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 imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They re­member, as the Psalmist did, how they went “with the multitude. . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday” (Ps. 42:4). But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed ac­cording to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus, the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, cele­brates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. I: 10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congrega­tions, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendor of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by His Word. This is the heavenly fellow­ship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrec­tion.

The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. Longingly the imprisoned apostle Paul calls his “dearly beloved son in the faith,” Timothy, to come to him in prison in the last days of his life; he would see him again and have him near. Paul has not forgotten the tears Timothy shed when last they parted (II Tim. 1:4). Remembering the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul prays “night and day. . . exceed­ingly that we might see your face” (I Thess. 3:10). The aged John knows that his joy will not be full until he can come to his own people and speak face to face instead of writing with ink (II John 12).

The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual ­physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!

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. 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.[1]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 1st ed. (New York: Harper, 1954). Chapter 1, the first four pages.