Israel is home to a people that has known hardship, oppression, war, famine, drought, and much fear. From slavery in Egypt to Babylonian exile to the current conflict in the Middle East, Israel is no stranger to struggle. But Israel’s endless capacity to celebrate the goodness of YHWH and the richness of His blessings, even in the midst of tribulation, is remarkable. Even in the midst of certain defeat, deportation and much despair, Israel still finds its voice to praise YHWH for His goodness, righteousness and might. We can learn much from this example.
We are in a struggle of our own. But Easter is not a time for the Church to be divided. Easter is not a weapon to be raised brother against sister. Easter is the completion and celebration of the gospel, the “good telling” of the story of Israel’s salvation come through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. And through grace, by faith, we are grafted into that same salvation, alongside all of creation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor in the confessing church in Germany around the time of World War II. Author of many deeply insightful books and letters, he is best known for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot was discovered, and Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Gestapo just weeks before Allied forces liberated his camp in 1945. Bonhoeffer was not content to let his convictions lead him to stand idly by while great injustice and evil prevailed. His was a great mind that thrived in the theological realm, but Bonhoeffer never failed to make his approach to the Christian life fiercely practical. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer brings the idea of Christian community forward, placing the gospel of Jesus at its center. If we allow ourselves, we can be brought into community with each other and the entire Church universal through that same gospel.
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes that, “Not considering oneself wise, but associating with the lowly, means considering oneself the worst of sinners.” Here he is echoing the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, who claims to be “foremost among all sinners.” We recoil at the thought of this claim! Surely there are far worse sinners than I! However, to think of oneself in this way is to allow your brother the great blessing of seeing you in light of YHWH’s mercy. Holding on to one small bit of self-righteousness will leave us outside the full understanding of this story, and will leave us looking down on our brothers, using them as tools for our own devices. To be able to think nothing of our own self is the beginning of receiving the gospel. The only way to receive the full gospel is to pass through humility’s narrow gate to a place that permits no pride.
Through forsaking pride, we enter into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus gives us a perfect example.
…Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearances as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
.—Philippians 2:6-9 TNIV
Bonhoeffer, in Ethics, writes, “God becomes human out of love for humanity. God does not seek the most perfect human being with whom to be united, but takes on human nature as it is.” Therefore, we understand that the gospel does not belong to one group, denomination, sect, or even one faith tradition. The gospel is universal. It does not seek to drive away or divide, but to unite all of creation in the redemptive love of YHWH. YHWH even has compassion on the beasts of the field! (See the ending of Jonah.) How can pride stand in the face of such selfless grace?
The idea of Christian community was not a fantasy for Bonhoeffer. Community was not just a dream of perfect people living together perfectly, but it was a picture of broken people restored to life together through and for Jesus. Later in Life Together, he writes,
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
Throughout the remainder of Lent and into Easter, let each consider him or herself foremost of sinners. Let us then look at our brother with whom we have been quarreling and see him through Jesus’ eyes. Let us see him as the one for whom the gospel was authored and the one whom Jesus loves. Then let us praise YHWH for such wondrous love as this.