Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a book that has revolutionized the way I understand the church. This post is part of a five-part series that will walk through the book, highlighting key themes throughout. Hopefully, this series will act as an encouragement for you to open the book for yourself.
The second chapter of Life Together makes its way through a day in the life of a Christian community, from Bonhoeffer’s perspective. It serves as a description of what a day in his underground seminary at Finkenwalde would have been like. The day of the community is lived together, in what could be considered an almost monastic style. The day and the chapter is built around Paul’s urge to the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God,” (Col. 3:16, ESV). It is from this verse that the chapter takes shape.
The day begins with the Word of God, because, “the Holy Scriptures tell us that the first thought and the first word of the day belong to God: ‘O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch’ (Ps. 5:4),” (51). Specifically, it is the Psalms that are to be those first words of the day for the Christian community and it is the way in which Scripture calls us to speak to one another (Eph. 5:19). Bonhoeffer’s own view of the Psalms is that they are to be primarily understood in light of Christ. “The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his congregation…In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer,” (55). There are three ways Bonhoeffer explains that the Psalter teaches the Christian community to pray. “First, we learn here what prayer means: it means praying on the basis of the Word of God, on the basis of promises,” (55). Here he shows how prayer is at its foundation in response to the gospel. “Second, we learn from the prayer of the Psalms what we should pray,” (56). Bonhoeffer points to a truth that is longstanding in the church that the Scriptures give us what we should pray. “Third, the prayer of the Psalms teaches us to pray as a community,” (57). The Psalms are meant for the Christian community to pray together, thus showing that prayer in general is meant to happen together.
After the singing of a hymn, the community would then have a reading of Scripture. This is in line with the structure of the passage mentioned above from Colossians. Bonhoeffer says of the Scriptures:
“The Scriptures are God’s revealed Word as a whole. The full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord can be clearly heard only in its immeasurable inner relationships, in the connection of the Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, Law and Gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping. That is why daily worship together must include a longer Old and New Testament lesson besides the prayer of the Psalms,” (60).
Bonhoeffer seems to show the centrality of the Scriptures in providing the truth and substance to the Christian community. He goes further to explain how the foundation of the Scriptures orient the community towards Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. God’s Word spoken in and to the Christian community brings to remembrance the truth of the gospel. He recognizes that it can be quite easy to forget one’s place in Christ and to allow one’s heart to be fooled. Therefore, Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not our heart that determines the course, but God’s Word,” (63). The community is then rooted in the truth of God’s Word.
The next element in the day together of a Christian community is singing, which displays the liturgical structure of how he forms the day. He describes how the Scriptures lead to the singing of the community. “Our earthly song is bound to the God’s Word of revelation in Jesus Christ,” (66). The singing of the Christian community is in response to God’s revelation in Jesus. The singing of the community happens in unison so that it is not individuals singing, but the church singing. This singing leads to the community’s prayer together.
This prayer is differentiated from praying through the Psalms, because it is focused on “the cares and needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the requests and hopes of the others,” (69). The prayer is to be led by an individual praying on behalf of the community, who knows the aforementioned elements of the community. These prayers should be a reflection of the community itself and not of any one individual.
The next element of the day together is the breaking of bread. Bonhoeffer describes three types of breaking of bread that occurs within a Christian community: “the daily breaking of bread together at meals, the breaking of bread together at the Lord’s Supper, and the final breaking of bread together in the reign of God,” (72). These three types of table fellowship means three things for the community. “It means, first, to recognize Christ as the giver of all gifts…Second, the congregation recognizes that all earthly gifts are given to it only for the sake of Christ…Third, the community of Jesus believes that its Lord desires to be present wherever it asks him to be present,” (72-73). Each element of table fellowship is a tangible means of expressing the community centered in Christ.
Once the formal aspects of the Christian community’s worship comes to an end, the community goes to work. The community scatters to whatever each individual’s vocation is. “Work puts human beings in the world of things,” (75). Work becomes the ground where the community’s worship is balanced with reality. “Without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer; and without prayer, work is not work,” (75). Bonhoeffer sees the necessary combination of work and worship for a healthy day in the life of a Christian. Once the work of the day is completed, the community bookends the day with another time for communal worship, finishing the day as it began.