By Dr. Mickey Anders
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was martyred in 1945 at the hands of the Gestapo when he was only 39 years old. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, but he was also an incredible Christian man. The famous author Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote about him, “When I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, some words Gorky used of Tolstoy come into my mind– ‘Look what a wonderful man is living on the earth.'”
Bonhoeffer’s ideas have continued to live through several popular theological books that he wrote. My favorite is a little book of only 100 pages entitled, Life Together. I was so influenced by it during my seminary days that I have used his book title as the heading for my articles in church newsletters in every church I have served.
Life Together is a passionate call to Christian community. The book arises out of Bonhoeffer’s experience of leading an clandestine seminary during the Nazi years. It gives practical advice on how life together in Christ can be sustained in families and groups. The book talks about very simple things like singing together, living together, reading together. The role of personal prayer, worship in our common, everyday work, and Christian service is treated in simple, yet profound words.
I have always been intrigued by the idea that life together in the church is the very essence of what Christianity is all about. What we do here week by week is at the heart of God’s plan for the world.
Sometimes theologians will refer to a pastor who has a high regard for the importance of Christ as one who has a high Christology. I suppose I would be one with a high ecclesiology, which is the study of the church. I happen to believe that the church is what life is all about.
But I have learned that not everyone shares my views. Many people think of church as an optional aspect of the Christian life. I have known many people who felt their Christian life was just fine without the church.
Tom was that way. It took six strong men to get Tom into church. Every time I saw him he had dust on his feet. Although Tom was 68 years old, he was still running the family farm with 1,000 acres of Arkansas rice and soybeans. All of his family came to the first church I served as pastor. His son was a deacon; his wife sang in the choir, but Tom never came. He told me that he had accepted Christ as his personal Savior back when he was a kid. And if he knew one thing about the Bible, it was that you don’t have to go to church to be saved. Other people could go so they could earn a better reward in heaven, but he was satisfied. He wasn’t looking for stars in his crown. He didn’t want a big mansion in heaven. He just wanted to get there, and since he had that taken care of that he didn’t think he would bother with the church. He finally came to church… for his funeral. Six strong men carried him through the front doors.
Lorene couldn’t come to church because she loved her TV preacher. She fed on a steady diet of his Bible teaching. Over the years she had contributed thousands of dollars to his TV ministry. And she told me she would probably come to our church if we didn’t have services the same time that his show was broadcast on Sunday morning. She knew all about her TV preacher, knew about his family, knew about his trips to the Holy Land and his Bible study cruise. But her TV preacher didn’t know her. He never visited her when she was admitted to the hospital. But I did.
John loved hunting even more than he loved his Dodge RAM “pick-em-up” truck. He told me that he worked hard at the paper mill five days a week. When the weekends came, he felt he had a right to hunt. Besides, he reminded me, God is everywhere, and he could worship on the deer stand in his camouflage just as well as others could on a pew in their three piece suits.
These were not people totally devoid of faith, but they were guilty of a very low ecclesiology. Their stories can be repeated thousands of times by people who find all manner of excuses to avoid coming to church.
I have never really understood what is so hard about coming to church. It doesn’t really take much of a Christian commitment to get up on Sunday morning and come sit in a pew for an hour. Some people seem to think it is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.
Personally I can’t imagine life without church. For me, church really is “life together.” And it is not just a matter of sharing time in the same building, but it is sharing all of life with other people who are vividly aware that life is lived under the watch care of God.
In the church, we are reminded of a God’s-eye-view of all of life. And that is the message that I get from this passage in James.
Much of what James has written in these verses has been misunderstood and misapplied. These verses have been used to support the doctrines of last rites and confession. They have been used by the others to endorse the practice of holding special healing verses. Some refuse medical treatment, believing it to be a violation of this passage.
But I believe this passage is about life together in a typical local church. It’s about praying, sickness, sin, and confession.
“Is any among you sick?” James asks. Then he responds, “Let them call for the elders.” That does not mean that there is a hierarchy of righteousness, as if the prayers of a pastor or an elder are more powerful or effective than everybody else’s. No, James is advocating the most normal thing in the world for those in the church. We must simply reach out, asking others to care for us. And we put their names on the prayer list. It is what normally happens when we live in community. It is that sense of community that makes life different for a Christian.
James says, “Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16). And he ends by saying, “Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20).
Fred Craddock said about this passage, “Everyday needs are addressed in this text. It pictures a community in which people suffer and pray, rejoice and sing, become sick and get well, sin and are forgiven. This picture reflects congregational life as we know it. People looking to the community of faith for help. And the church offers help in ways that are genuinely appropriate and effective.” (1)
In her bestselling book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott explains why she makes her son go with her to church. She says, “The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want –purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith… people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful… Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.”
Then she says, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.” (2)
I like Anne Lamont’s description of church. This really is the place where you can find people who are practicing a deep sense of spirituality. Here are people who are sharing their lives together with purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, and joy. Church is the place where people practice their faith, however imperfectly. We often get to the end of our rope, but the church helps us to tie a knot and hold on.
James pictures the church as the place where prayer and singing go hand in hand. Verse 13 says, “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises.” It’s a place where people confess their sins to one another and are restored, where people visit the sick and pray for them, where people are cheerful and sing for joy.
On any given Sunday this room contains people who are near to giving birth and those who are near to dying. On one side is a young mother who feels her life will never be right after her divorce. And on the other side is a woman, newly engaged, who anticipates that marriage will be the closest thing to heaven. There is a young man who is not sure he believes in God anymore, and here is one preparing for ministry. Here is a woman who fears for her life after her recent diagnosis of cancer, and here is one celebrating her fourth year as a survivor of breast cancer.
Here is a man who just lost his job, and there is one who just landed the contract that will secure his future. Here is a two-year-old so surrounded by love and attention that she thinks all the world is her stage. On another pew is a young girl recovering from an abusive childhood, and is now desperate for healthy affection. There is a man who feels he doesn’t deserve Communion because everybody in town knows about his adulterous affair, and here is a man who has been slowly nurtured back to health and restored to a good marriage.
Life together in the church is a mixture of people at every stage of life. Take any one of these people apart from the community of faith and their life would be so much less. One of the secrets of church is that it is life lived in community.
I couldn’t help but notice that Anne Lamont called hers as a “funky little church.” Every church is a bit funky with it’s own quirks and oddities. There is no such thing as a perfect church because every church is made up of imperfect people. But these are imperfect people who are at least trying to be more Christ-like. Real Christianity is learning that true faith is to be found in just such a funky little church.
Our denomination was born in the desire to restore the New Testament church. But I would ask which one do you want to go back to. We could be like the church at Ephesus which had abandoned their first love. Or the church at Thyatira which tolerated a false teacher. Or the church at Laodicea which was neither hot nor cold.
How about going back to that church in Corinth? Paul makes it clear that that New Testament church had a man living with his father’s wife. There were divisions in the church with some following Apollos, some Paul, some Peter and some Jesus. Some were abusing the Lord’s Supper, and others were disturbing the worship with speaking in tongues.
Every New Testament church was a little bit funky, just like churches today. But it was those funky New Testament churches that birthed the Gospel and passed it on for all the generations to come. Somehow God chooses to use imperfect people and imperfect churches just like this one.
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown has said, “I believe that we are placed here to be companions – a wonderful word that comes from cum panis (with bread). We are here to share bread with one another so that everyone has enough.”
As we become companions among ourselves, awareness grows that such companionship deserves to be extended. Our bread – our faith – is shared. Another writer, a woman named Abbie Graham, explained it lie this: “God lives not, I think, in bread and wine, but in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine. Bread unbroken does not fortify the heart, but bread divided among all who hunger will sustain the spirit.” (3)
There is just something about sharing our bread, sharing our faith, sharing our lives together in the Church of Jesus Christ that makes life right. This rightness is a home for the heart.
Anne Lamott relates another story told by her pastor. When the pastor was seven years old, she had a best friend who got lost one day. “The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.'”
Then Anne Lamott concludes with these words, “And that is why I have stayed so close to (my church) – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.” (4)
1) Fred Craddock, etc. Preaching Through the Christian Year B, p. 424.
2) Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 100.
3) John H. Townsend, quoted in The Ministers Manual for 2000, p. 308.
4) Traveling Mercies, p. 55.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.