Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 31 The Saints

I am again a little confused about what to present you this morning. Bonnhoeffer seems to cram a lot more academic theology into the end of his book than the beginning. When I set out to discuss Bonhoeffer chapter by chapter this year, I hadn't read Bonhoeffer for a while. I was thinking that all chapters would be like the first few: short and to the point with important ideas wrapped in powerful prose. Unfortunately, the end of the book has long chapters that seem to wrap many ideas together in ways I am not always certain I understand. These last few weeks, even more than usual, I am presenting you with summaries that leave out more than they leave in. If you want to know what Bonhoeffer really thinks, you have to read him yourself. And then you could tell me about it.

Chapter 31 is entitled “The Saints”. Notice the progression here: Bonhoeffer goes from “The Body of Christ” to “The Visible Community” to “The Saints”. In that same time he has shifted his focus gradually from justification to sanctification. He has moved from the first step of obedience as Christians are baptized into the Body of Christ to today's topic: sacntification in the fellowship of the saints. Notice also his comparisons: First we find that Christians are to be part of Christ's Body. Next he identifies that body with the Temple, the place that God dwells especially and that represents contact between God and man. This is evidenced in the lifestyle and marvelous communion that the Christians demonstrate. Finally, today, he compares the Church more specifically with the sanctuary in the temple. God's desire through the sanctuary was to establish his great holiness and purity and utter separation from sin.

Note also the parallels between the Church and Israel. Leviticus, which we may skip over when we choose to read the Bible, reveals God's desire for a people who are set aside especially for God. You will be holy, for I am holy, and again, I, the Lord who sanctify you am holy. God wants his people to demonstrate their separateness and that was the purpose of the ritual commandments in Leviticus. God wants a people who will walk righteously, and that was the purpose of the ethical intructions in Leviticus. God wants a holy people.

Now of course this sanctified people is to be the Church. We have been grafted on where Israel stood before. Even a cursory reading of the NT shows us that sanctification is not just an activity for individuals but also a corporate cleansing and separation and duty. Ephesians, where Rod has been preaching from tells us that Christ desires a church that is sanctified and cleansed, holy and without blemish. And yet. How are we to be holy. Yes God has justified us and cleansed us and broken the chains of sin through the work of the Cross. But we still fail and we still sin - If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. How can we “walk worthy of the call with which we were called?” How can we be the saints: the ones who are being sanctified. It is a paradox set before us.

Bonnhoeffer insists that the paradox is resolved through discipline in the Church. Discipline in the Church is not to be used to try to create a community of the perfect saints, but to create a community of those who are aware they are living in the grace and mercy of our Lord. Baptism is only to be administered in the presence of repentance. Communion should be accompanied by self examination. Sin is to be remedied through confession and forgiveness. This spirit of discipline is not located first and foremost in Matt 18, as we sometimes would have it. Matthew 18 is the result when the Church has not fulfilled her obligation to live as the Church. II Tim 4:2 tells us Preach the word, be instant in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and teaching. Most of the epistles remind us to teach and admonish one another. Only when such steps have failed will Matt. 18 be necessary.

Now I am sure that some of this makes us a little uncomfortable. Our experiences have been such that the idea of “keeping the Church pure” is not one we care to contemplate. Discipline has been substituted for discipleship and conformity for unity, and we are not interested in anything that threatens to do so again.

And yet this is the final purpose of the Church. To demonstrate God's holiness by being a separate and called out people. Luther felt confession and absolution in the Church were so important that he said “When I admonish men to come to confession, I am merely telling them to be Christians”. I am inclined to agree with him in this – we may be scared to be in the Church, to expect discipline and involvement in each others lives, but the real question is can we can we be be the Church without it?