Monday, April 15, 2013

Remembering Dietrich Bonhöffer: "The Table Fellowship of Christians Implies Obligation"

As the anniversary of German theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer's execution by the Nazi regime passes (it was on 9 April), I think of an observation he makes in his book Life Together that has long formed the framework of my understanding of the eucharist:

The table fellowship of Christians implies obligation. It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another and not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our fellowship links us together in a firm covenant. Now none dares go hungry as long as another has bread, and anyone who breaks the fellowship of the physical life also breaks the fellowship of the Spirit.

We cannot celebrate the Lord's Supper adequately unless we realize that, in doing so, we commit ourselves to sharing our goods with others. It is a meal that is all about sharing--one bread and one cup, one life in Christ, but also the gifts we have been given as individuals, which become part of the community's life and gifts as we break bread with and live in the Christian community.

We do not remember Jesus in the eucharist adequately when we forget that the historical roots of the eucharist lie in his table fellowship with outcasts--in his preferential love for those on the margins, whom he deliberately sought out and to whose despised tables he deliberately invited himself, making himself one with them in their despised, outcast state. We can hardly remember Jesus in the eucharist adequately or meaningfully unless we remember that he deliberately transgressed the gender taboos and gender barriers of his culture, fashioning a radical gender egalitarianism for his movement that Paul would remember in his classic statement that in Christ, there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

It was for his radical witness to the radical demands of a gospel that calls on us to relinquish our claim to exclusive ownership of the goods of the world, of the truth, of the gospel itself that Bonhöffer ended up a martyr. His Life Together was published in Germany in 1939 as Gemeinsames Leben and since then in a number of English translations, including one published by Fortress Press by Daniel W. Bloesch, which is (I think), the edition from which the preceding quote comes.

The photo is Bonhöffer standing in the courtyard of Tegel prison in the summer of 1944 several months before his execution; credit Christian Kaiser Verlag.

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