Italian church viewed through a bubble

He who loves community destroys community

At first sight, this quotation from Dietrich Bonhöffer seems antagonistic to the Fellowship theme in the Holy Habits programme. What is wrong with loving your community?

This was Dietrich Bonhöffer’s warning:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has come from a wish dream…. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community becomes a destroyer of the latter.

Life Together,  Dietrich Bonhöffer,  SCM, p15

Bubbles with thick skins

It seems much of communication today comes as reinforcing feedback. Social media picks up on what you follow and your searches to give you suggestions in the same vein. It might make you happy, and it might also provide more advertising revenue. We are more comfortable in fellowship with those of a like mind.

In her book. “Strangers in their own land”, Arlie Russell Hochschild describes the alienation felt by sections of the US where there has been a collapse of traditional industries. That has left a swathe of urban and rural deprivation. They feel strangers in a land dominated by the pillars of society – big finance and government. And she herself, a sociologist based at the University of California at Berkeley, felt to be in a foreign land when travelling those territories herself. Fellowship is tricky when you encounter another bubble of folk with a widely different world view. We can be like the people in the balloon football game – bashing into each other but insulated from engaging with them.

Footballers in balloons
Bubbles as barriers

Even in our area of Hampshire, there are sections of community with no fellowship and little interaction with others. Can the church comprise a fellowship trapped in its bubble?

Fellowship in a bubble?

In the aggressive environment of the seminary of a church whose pastors would not pay homage to Hitler, Bonhöffer knew also of the danger of the community making its existence the highest goal. Instead it was a gift from God to serve God.

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim.

Life Together,  Dietrich Bonhöffer,  SCM, p18

And the fellowship in that spirit must provide mutual support:

A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. 

Life Together,  Dietrich Bonhöffer,  SCM, p65

Similarly, the early church was also set in an Empire of contrary beliefs and values. As it grew from the earliest moments, it espoused people from two bubbles, and as Paul writes to the church at Ephesus,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 3:6 (NIV)

The skin of the bubbles had been broken so the two could merge together.

Bubbles in a process of merging
Bubbles in a process of merging

Expanding the bubble through the community

Jesus showed such amazing sensitivity. Luke describes how he spotted the real outsider in the community, Zacchaeus, and generously broke down the barrier to him.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Luke 9:5-7 (NIV)

The first step in taking church out of a bubble of its own making is to humbly find out what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes:

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.

Life Together,  Dietrich Bonhöffer,  SCM, p75

Listening is the first step to breaking the skin of the bubble so that the church and the community are without barrier:

St Paul's Cathedral and neighbourhood in a reflection
Church and neighbours without boundary

Living in fellowship with the community provides a new vision of what that fellowship should be. It was vividly described in one of Bonhöffer’s letters.

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.

Letters and Papers from Prison, 27 July 1944, Dietrich Bonhöffer, SCM

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