It is in our lack that we realize our needs. The church has not gathered physically since the beginning of March. What was once something to fit in a busy schedule a couple of times a month has become, for most of us, a deep yearning. It is for me. There is a reason for this. It goes far beyond friendships. We need each other or we cannot be who Christ has called us to be.
I have been reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together recently. No other non-biblical book does a better job of explaining the Christian vision for community than Life Together. It has been both a vision and a help to me as I seek to lead and be a part of Christian community. Over the next few weeks I want to share some life lessons that I have learned from Bonhoeffer. Today, I want to consider what a gift it is to be a sinner saint.
“Man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner.”
I need Jesus! He is found in his body—the church—when I dare be a sinner. Perhaps no other lesson has proved to be as important than this one in my journey. I have learned this lesson more than any other. For over 20 years I have cultivated relationships and vulnerability to a few trusted believers who love Christ. This has empowered me to be myself. It has given me the great gift of freedom in Christ. I am called; I am a serious disciple; I am being transformed; and I am also an occasional vacationer to the shadows. None of this either adds or takes away from who I am. I am his Son because of Christ. I am free. In this I obey Paul’s admonition in Galatians 5: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
It seems to me that those that are free in Christ share this one characteristic. They don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are. The more free a person is in Christ, the more the inside of a person and their outside behaviors look the same. This integration of the person that freedom births is both a threat and a gift. It is a gift for other sinners. It is a threat to those who want to hide what is true.
Just like the church in Galatia, it is easy to unwittingly think that it is how we look that will save us. For Galatia, the look was circumcision; for us, it is the strong impulse to hide beneath a veneer of maturity. Full admission: I have participated in the pretending too. In the world of projecting our idealized selves and our idealized community to the world and one another, we hide our shadows, pains and wounds. We dress up and do all we can to look our best. We use big theological words, we study grace, we serve the poor, we attend Bible studies, and we are outstanding church members. Sadly, sometimes we even begin to believe the mirage that we have created.
Pretending demands that everyone else pretends too or it does not work. In communities where grace and religion are at war, two worlds collide. The world of religious facades has rules and expectations. If you can step up and dance the dance of hiding in the shadows, you are more than welcome to be a part of it. But grace does not dance. Those trusting grace will by their very presence dismantle the ability to pretend. This comes at a great cost to the free ones. Sometimes with the language of love and concern, the grace-filled ones are wounded and pushed out; they know the suffering of Christ. The loss of the grace-filled ones allows the others to continue the facade of religion without religion’s substance. The cost is tremendous: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy [real] community”.
Every church has this war going on, some more than others. We are a people of wheats and tares. This has been true since the beginning. The virus gives us an opportunity that will never happen again in our lifetimes.
None of us are okay. Anxiety, sickness and loss reveal our fragility and our shadows. The world now knows that we are all in need of pity (the real meaning of grace and mercy). At Calvary Church I have seen grace flourish in ways that never would have happened apart from the virus. The need for grace has caused us to reach out to one another. As we do, we are just ourselves; we don’t have energy for anything else. As we encounter the loving Christ in our brother or sister, grace and mercy flourish. Finally, transformation comes like a river that cannot be stopped. The world grows good-looking, religious people. Love creates a place where we can all dare to be sinners. Love and pity are the tools of the resurrected Christ. Maybe now we are in a place to receive what only he can give.
Dear friends, this is a season of grace even if you can’t see it yet. Stop pretending. Let the veneer drop. Call someone and share what is going on and give them the grace to do the same with you. You will find Christ in your midst. In this sacred community the veil between heaven and earth is thin.
One of the primary reasons that the church has lost its relevance is because non-believers don’t want to enter another community where acting is required. All of life has become one big play. They are tired and looking for a place to just be themselves. For all those who do not believe, I give you a challenge. Visit a local church, email the pastor, ask him/her for a person who dares to be a sinner in the community of the saints, and meet whoever he sends your way.
You will encounter the living Christ.