I have a terrible habit of interrupting people. We’re part of a small group through our church that meets once a week, and I often get carried away and inevitably fail to remind myself not to speak over someone. It’s a selfish and prideful habit, stemming from thinking too highly of myself, as though what I have to say is of more importance than the person currently speaking—which is rather embarrassing to admit. Then again, honesty about oneself generally ends in embarrassment. As Dostoevsky’s man underground inquires,
is it possible to be perfectly candid with oneself and not be afraid of the whole truth?
-Notes from the Underground, By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Despite my rudeness, the folks in our group have done nothing but respond graciously to me. They wait patiently, responding with kindness even as inadvertantly elevate myself above them. It’s painfully humbling to be loved to a degree that we don’t deserve. But therein is the beauty of being in a community of followers of Christ: in the midst of our messy, forgiving relationships we see magnificent glimpses of Jesus that give us the humility, hope, and conviction we need to finish our lives well, looking forward to that moment when we get to see him face-to-face. We exist in this state of being redeemed but imperfect together, wrestling with this world where we are in Christ but not yet with him. We walk together; a rag-tag mix of people united by nothing more than our recognition of our need for our God.
And that’s why it’s such a danger to not be part of a community of Christians. If we aren’t opening our lives up to those who know the truth and have committed their lives to it, we forget very quickly how much we need Jesus, and the outrageous grace he offers.
Yet, we keep trying to walk alone. We keep forgetting that when Jesus returned to heaven, he left behind The Church: this universal, living Body that is united and led by his Spirit to make disciples in every nation. A hand that is severed from its body is lifeless and useless; in the same way, a Christian removed from the Body of Christ is lifeless, unable to do the very work we were created to do. We still avoid engaging in true Christian community despite Jesus’ explicit command for us to be one Body. Perhaps we avoid community because the Church is full of people who are difficult, awkward and hard (present company included). But I’m quite certain Jesus, who knows the hearts of all humankind, anticipated that within the Church humans would act like humans. In community—as with the rest of life—we mess up.
But there is good news: the mark of the Church is not our perfection, it is our forgiveness.
And we certainly aren’t experiencing forgiveness (by either giving or receiving it) if we aren’t in real relationships with one another.
We cannot wade through and understand the full complexity of truth without actually living life with other Christians. In the muck of community we experience forgiveness and see the reality of our depraved selves, which allows us to see the sweetness of Jesus. But when we rely on what we read and think alone, then we forget the person of Jesus and turn him into something theoretical–a mere idea. And if Jesus becomes an idea instead of a person, then we are no longer acting in relationship with him. This is why God commands, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25)”.
If we think of Jesus as just an idea, then the reality of his work on the cross loses its sharpness. We forget real iron nails held his real body suspended over the dirt of Golgotha. Instead of worshiping and obeying him from a place of gratitude and awe, we turn his commands into a check list. We turn our interactions with other Christians into a checklist too, exchanging authentic relationships for shallow acquaintances. We may meet on Sunday and maybe another day during the week with people in our church, but we fail to truly share our burdens and encourage one another in the Gospel. But in true community—where we are committed to relationships to one another in the name of Jesus—as we spend our lives together eating, laughing, weeping, and bearing one another’s burdens; and when we embarrass ourselves by the exposure of our sins, our selfishness, and our depravity; we can forgive one another. It is there, in that messy, difficult place we will see the person of Jesus who forgave us as we pinned him to a cross in hatred.
In community with other Christians we get to continually remind one another of the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus who offers costly, perfect, all-consuming grace. Outside of community we cheapen grace, intellectualizing Jesus as merely an idea rather than a transformative person in our life. As Bonhoeffer illustrates,
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remissions of sins […] Cheap grace means the justification of sins without the justification of the sinner […] Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Bonhoeffer contrasts this cheap grace with real, costly grace,
[Costly grace] is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it cost a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
-The Cost of Discipleship, By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Don’t miss that: “Costly grace is the Incarnation of God”, that is Jesus; the real living, breathing God-man, whose feet were dirty from walking, whose belly rumbled with hunger, whose heart stopped beating for the sake of all humanity. Jesus offers us costly grace in himself; yet we are so prone to forget this—to forget him—and we forget we need others who have accepted this costly grace to keep pointing us back to him, every single day.
As we turn one another back to him: the scars in his hands, the empty tomb he left behind, and the hope of his promises, we can then go out into the world and share him with everyone we meet. We can let his Spirit breathe through us into a world that groans under the weight of human depravity. We can let our hands be his hands, and we can boldly walk wherever he leads us until we exhale our very last breath.
So, may we keep pursuing one another in love, may we keep failing in one another’s presence so we can see our need to repent and feel the grace of forgiveness. And may we repeat the truth to one another again, and again (and again), as long as today is called today.