BONHOEFFER, BUYING CARS AND BEING COMMUNITY

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We recently haD to buy a second car and being strapped for cash we had to buy a “banger” or what Americans refer to as a “clunker.” We have only ever had one brand new car, when Ann was a full time district nurse and we were fairly newly married. When you buy a new car you expect it to be perfect, flawless, everything working and no scratches or dents. If something is wrong its your legal right with a new car to get it fixed or get a replacement. You lucky people who buy new cars don’t need to put up with faulty vehicles.

Those of us who have to buy at the lower end of the second hand market, well imperfection comes with the territory. The used car sales place we bought from had numerous cars which had a sign on them which said ‘SOLD AS SEEN.” For those uninitiated in buying at the cheapo end of the vehicle market, this means when you buy this vehicle you don’t get to bring it back because of some fault you discover. In other words, when you buy a ‘SOLD AS SEEN CAR” you have to assume that the car has flaws. You accept the fact that its far from perfect and that you’ll need to work to fix any problems that become serious. Unlike buying new you don’t get to take these cars back because they have faults. With ‘SOLD AS SEEN” cars you either have to learn to live with the fault, accept it or you have to put in the hard work and potential expense of getting it fixed. Some problems are so serious they need to be fixed, others with a bit of patience can be lived with.

Those of you who know me probably realise that my mind works in strange ways. I have been wondering if our “new old car” has a fault with the brakes, and as it was to all intents and purposes ‘SOLD AS SEEN,” we need to find out if there is a fault and whether it needs to be worked on or if the fault can be lived with as the option of taking it back doesn’t exist. Anyway, back to my strange mind, this dilemma with our car has made me think of Mosaic Edinburgh and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred for his opposition to the Nazis. (I know Freud would who have had a field day) Let me try and explain my thinking.

Bonhoeffer wrote a lot about the nature of Christian community and I think perhaps the most profound insight he had about it came in the form of a warning. He warned us as Christians not to allow our desire for some “ideal” community to stop us building and expriencing authentic community with “real people.” Here are a couple of things he said, have a read and ponder at what this spiritual giant with keen spiritual insight as a pastor is saying

But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. (dream of an ideal, perfect community) A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God wants to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. …. The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community the better for both. …. Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

“God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealised community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realise, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognise that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.”

Bonhoeffer had one of the sharpest theological minds of the 20th century, me I am at the more blunt of end of theological reflection in the 21st century, so while he writes in words that should cause us hours of thought, all of that made me think of buying a car. My way of putting Bonhoeffer’s warning would be like this, many of us want being part of Christian community to be like buying a new car but the reality is that the experience is much more akin to buying a “SOLD AS SEEN” banger. So many of us desire to be part of a great christian community, so we want it to be like a new car, flawless, free from faults. This is the “dream” Bonhoeffer is warning us will destroy genuine Christian community. When we have this “dream” or “vision” for Christian community we act in relation to the church like we would with a new car. When we discover it has faults, and we WILL discover it has faults because we like everyone else have faults, remember that we bit in Romans? , “ALL have sinned and fall short …” we react like people do with a new car. We want someone else to fix the fault for us or we decide we want a replacement. Anyone who has been in leadership of church will have had a conversation with someone who thinks being part of Christian community is like having a new car. You know what I mean, “No one loves me, the community isn’t spiritual enough, I am not being spiritually fed here, someone has hurt me, I feel left out etc, etc etc.”

The problem is, as I pointed out, we all as individuals belong in ‘THE SOLD AS SEEN” section of the used car sales lot. There can be no faultless Christian community because there are no flawless Christians to make it. The dream for perfect Christian community is, as Bonhoeffer warned, a dangerous, unrealisable pipe dream we need to wake up from and repent of. Some churches have managed to avoid this problem by simply not making Church about community. Instead of God’s People being about a community of interdependent lives on mission with God, inspired by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit they reduce Church to attendance at a building on 11am on a Sunday and a few other occasions if you are really keen. Let me let you into a secret, community is impossible to build if most of your interaction with other believers in a congregation involves looking at the back of their heads whilst listening to someone else talk!

All of that in my convoluted thinking brings me to Mosaic Edinburgh and maybe for some of you, your churches too. First of all I need to make a confession. I am James and I am an idealist. I have a pronounced tendency to be one of those idealistic but dangerous christian dreamers Bonhoeffer warned of, but I’m in recovery. I was so frustrated with the model of church that was primarily about meeting in a building and where the majority of interaction with other “members” meant seeing if they had dandruff or if their bald patch was growing that I was determined to be part of a “genuine christian community” I was determined to be part of something better. I had this dream of starting a Christian community being part of which would be like driving a new car out of the showroom. I wouldn’t have said it in these words but in reality my dream was for a church that would be faultless, flawless, and problem free.

Now I have to admit that up until now being part of Mosaic Edinburgh has been a bit like that. I love the people who are part of our core group and I think we are all connected with Mosaic Edinburgh for the right reasons, we want to be part of a genuinely missional expression of God’s people. We are in a bit of a “honeymoon” period with one another. Here is the problem, we are inevitably heading right for the disillusionment Bonhoeffer described. That’s inevitably because we have rejected the expression of church where you exchange pleasantries from a safe emotional distance on a Sunday for one in which we increasingly share our lives up close. That means, we will sooner or later, if we are not already, become a bit disillusioned with each other, or me in particular to be honest. That’s because as we get to know one another up close, we will begin to realise that we all should have a “SOLD AS SEEN SIGN” tattooed across our forehead because we are all far from being fault free. The more we rub our lives up against each other the more of those faults we will see. There is another reason disillusionment with people and community is coming to Mosaic Edinburgh. I really believe we will grow and I also believe that we are creating a community that makes the Kingdom of God tangible. Have a read of the Gospels, when Jesus made the Kingdom of God tangible in Judea two thousands years ago did he attract “NEW CAR” people or ‘SOLD AS SEEN CAR” people? …. What makes us think it will be any different in Edinburgh two thousand years later? We are going to encounter people in our community soon whose faults and flaws will be as obvious to us as the scrapes and bumps on my banger of a Vauxhall Astra.

So what are we going to do when we are confronted by these faults in others as we get to know one another and new people join the community? Well we could react like we have bought a new car. We could demand our rights, that other people fix the fault. We could look for a replacement, not of a car, but church community.
OR
We could do the hard thing, the difficult, sacrificial, Kingdom Of God, Jesus thing. We could learn to become a “SOLD AS SEEN COMMUNITY”

Here is what I think a “SOLD AS SEEN COMMUNITY” is about. With my banger I accept it has faults, good grief you just need to look at it! As part of Mosaic Edinburgh we need to be honest and realistic enough to realise that we are a community of flawed people, to accept we have faults and other people have faults, all of which makes community a challenge at times. Our name and logo reinforces this, a Mosaic is made up not of perfect pieces but pieces that are imperfect, that have been broken in some way. We need to heed Bonhoeffer and not have such unrealistic expectations of community that they stop us building authentic community. Maybe some of you need to join me in recovery, we could start a IA Group, Idealists Anonymous.

In same way I have learned to live with the scratches, dents and loud exhaust of my banger we need to learn to live with some of each other’s faults. The noisy exhaust may be annoying at times, even distracting, but I can learn to live with it and according to the New Testament some of our faults as christians belong in the same category. Why else do you think we find statements like these

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and PATIENCE.” Colossians 3:11-13

“Be completely humble and gentle; be PATIENT, BEARING WITH ONE ANOTHER in love.
Ephesians 4:1-3

Back to the realism thing again, there will be people who do things that annoy us and rub us up the wrong way. We literally need to grow up and learn to live with it. You see one of the prime ways God help us grow spiritually and shapes us into the likeness of Jesus is by involving us in community with people we find it difficult to get along with at times, or all the time! We become increasingly patient as we learn to live with people who have a tendency to make us impatient with their behaviour. We becoming more loving as we share our lives with people who are not easy for us to love. People with faults we are learning to live with in community are as much a means of grace for us, as much a source of sanctification, as the bread and wine we share at the Lord’s Table.

Now look at these verses.

Bear with each other and FORGIVE ONE ANOTHERr if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:12-14

“Therefore CONFESS YOUR SINS to each other ….” James 5:16

After decades of experience in leading Christian communities Paul and James point out that some times our faults and the faults of others will go beyond being dealt with through patience and tolerance and require forgiveness and confession. There are some problems with “SOLD AS SEEN CARS” which are so serious they that can’t be lived with and need to be fixed and the same goes for our lives. Things will happen between some of us which can’t be tolerated and will need to be dealt with. Other Christians will deeply disappoint and hurt us with what they do. Sadly the most common reaction to this when it happens in church life is either to harbour a grudge and grievance for decades or to leave the church. Paul, echoing Jesus, calls on us to live our message and offer grace, undeserved and unearned forgiveness, to those who have hurt us. Let’s be upfront, that last sentence was much easier for me to write and for you to read than it will be for us to live. Forgiveness is tough, it requires sacrifice that hurt, if you don’t believe me take Communion more often.

James in other quotation moves the spot light of Scripture from the faults of others to our own personal faults. To me this is the toughest aspect of Christian community, the one I struggle with most. Things will happen in community which will only be dealt with effectively if we are willing not only to forgive the faults of others but confess, be open and honest, about our own faults which have hurt and disappointed others. Confession is essential to authentic Christian community but it requires massive amounts of honesty and trust in equal measures. Again, sadly so few churches have the capacity of honesty and trust to see this becoming a reality.

We are a pivotal point in the development of Mosaic Edinburgh but I really believe that nothing is more important than what I have been talking about. Nothing is more important than being realistic and committed to building not faultless, but genuine, authentic Christian community. Since the Holy Spirit conspired with Bonhoeffer’s words to administer a theological kick up the backside, I have given up my dream for being part of Mosaic Edinburgh to be like driving a gleaming new car. Instead I want being part of Mosaic Edinburgh to be like driving my battered old “SOLD AS SEEN” Astra, some faults are tolerated and serious faults are dealt with. Maybe at our Gatherings we should have a big sign for new people which says MOSAIC EDINBURGH: SOLD AS SEEN!

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