Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that war was inevitable. Every day brought new developments in Adolf Hitler’s imperial aspirations and his genocidal intentions. The German church was in crisis as pastors were being encouraged to take loyalty oaths to the Nazi dictator. The persecution of the Jews had even impacted Bonhoeffer’s own family, leading him to help his sister’s family (her husband being Jewish) to escape to Switzerland.
Against this backdrop, in the autumn of 1938, Bonhoeffer wrote a little devotional book called Life Together. The book is a reflection on biblical community that believers share with one another in Christ.
Bonhoeffer had experienced such a community and one can surmise that he wrote down his ideas because he knew that true Christian fellowship was endangered by his current situation. Perhaps within Bonhoeffer’s little book we can find some encouragement in these days of online worship, virtual small groups and social distancing.
One thing all Christians are experiencing now is some degree of isolation. Bonhoeffer noted that, “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” In this time of social isolation, when physical presence with brothers and sisters in Christ is limited, Bonhoeffer would encourage us with the words of the psalmist, who in Psalm 42:4 remembered going with the multitude to worship in the house of God with shouts of joy and thanksgiving.
How many of us — who only a few days ago were able to meet in person with our small groups or Sunday school classes — would have imagined that we would now be confined to a virtual life together?
Yet, these times of isolation can be helpful for the believer. Such times can help us reflect on what true Christian fellowship is really about. Bonhoeffer would call us to remember that true Christian fellowship is not found in the earthly things that I may have in common with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, real fellowship is grounded “solely in what Christ has done for both of us.” He would encourage us to use this time of isolation to combat “the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.”
Essentially, Bonhoeffer asserts that Christian community is taken for granted by the one who can freely experience it. Ironically, it is in those moments when that community is suspended that we fully appreciate it.
In Bonoeffer’s case it was appreciation born out of suppression by a Nazi regime forcing the confessing church to scatter. In our case it is an unseen pandemic forcing us to shutter our church doors until further notice.
Of course we are glad for the ability to connect digitally, but soon (if not already) the novelty of Zoom will wear off. And while we temporarily rejoice in this form of connection, it should merely increase our appreciation for meeting in the same room. This seems to be the sentiment of Jesus’ beloved apostle in 2 John 12, where he says, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face.” Zoom, Google Hangouts, and GroupMe are the “paper and ink” of this pandemic. They are adequate but not quite sufficient.
May this season of isolation lead to thanksgiving for what we had and will have again in face-to-face Christian community. May we resonate with Bonhoeffer when he says, “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.”
Such an absence of true fellowship leads us to declare with the martyr, “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.”
Acknowledgement of our isolation from community will lead to appreciation for community, which in turn should lead to anticipation of the return to community. This anticipation should take place on two planes.
First, we should wait in anticipation for the time when we can set aside Zoom and texting and once again meet face to face. That day will come. We know that this isolation, though it may be prolonged, is not ultimate. There will be a day when we can return to our places of worship and our small group gatherings, when we can declare, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
We will dwell together again. We will meet face to face again. Perhaps in this isolation, the Lord will call us back to such an appreciation for true Christian fellowship that the things we allowed to distract from such — our personal preferences and our own comforts — will fade into the background in deference to the needs of our brothers and sisters.
Second, there is a greater anticipation that this isolation should stir in us. It is anticipation for that time when we will be carried away to an eternal fellowship upon Christ’s return. Really, all of our flesh and blood gatherings are merely a choreographed anticipation of that coming reality — a foreshadowing of a greater experience.
Citing Matthew 24:31, Bonhoeffer calls us to long for that greater experience of eternal fellowship, “at the end of time when the angels of God ‘shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.’ Until then,” he continues, “God’s people remain scattered, held together solely in Jesus Christ, having become one in the fact that, dispersed…they remember him in the far countries.”
May we make the most of our isolation, causing us to appreciate the gracious gift of Christian fellowship, and anticipate with joy the day of our eternal fellowship with one another in Christ.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Background information was adapted from the biography Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Direct quotations are taken from Life Together, translated by John W. Doberstein and published by Harper and Row (1954).