Got Community? Or, The Need and Necessity of the Other

Carol Jacobson—October 5, 2009

Genesis 2:18–24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12
Mark 10:2–16

“Adam is alone.”(1) With these few words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his theological commentary on the Genesis text just read. Of course, it’s no surprise to us that Adam is alone. That’s how this particular creation account unfolds. Adam, the earth creature, is created by God and put in the garden to tend it. We are used to thinking of Adam as alone, tilling and keeping the garden during a period of time when Eve, and the snake, and all the rest of the complicated world “was not.”

But wait, if you think about it for a moment, you have to ask yourself—is Adam really alone? Isn’t God in the garden with Adam? Right. So Adam is not alone. And yet, God says, “It is not good that the human being should be alone (vs. 18).” For some reason, God recognizes that Adam is alone, even though God is present to Adam in every way. Maybe it’s not as easy as we thought to understand in what sense Adam is alone. As Bonhoeffer asks, “To what end does the human being who lives in God’s keeping need a helper who is a partner?”(2) Exactly! Why does Adam, who lives in God’s presence and rests under God’s protection, need a helper? Hasn’t Adam already got the best partner ever?? Why isn’t God alone enough for Adam? Puzzling.

Equally puzzling perhaps—once God establishes that Adam does in fact need a helper who is a partner, God proceeds to create “every animal of the field and every bird of the air” (vs. 19). I might have thought that God would have had the particular design for this “helper who is a partner” in mind ahead of time. As it is, however, God creates every creature of the land and air. Perhaps the “helper who is a partner” will be found among Adam’s own earth brothers and earth sisters—for that is what the animals are in this account—earth-y in origin, created from the same ground as Adam was created. Either way—thumbs up or thumbs down on the animals as partners—it is finally not up to God to decide who the suitable partner will be. Rather, Adam must be the one to recognize this helper who is a partner. Also puzzling.

And, as we read, although Adam “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field” (vs. 20), none was found to be a helper who was a suitable partner. The kinship between creatures and Adam was not yet enough. Bonhoeffer says, “they remained a strange world to Adam; indeed they remain, for all their nature as siblings, creatures subjected to, named by, and ruled over by, Adam.” (3) In other words, Adam is still alone.

And so, God creates the helper who is a partner, not from the ground as Adam was created, but from Adam’s very own self. God has put the first human person to use, and has formed “the other” thereby—a helper who is truly a partner. With a shout of joy, Adam finally recognizes “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (vs. 23) and gives voice to the uniqueness of this “other” whom God has made. Not a creature to be subjugated or ruled over, but a partner of the same flesh and bones. What had come out of the ground had remained alien to Adam somehow, but not this “other” whom God has made from human flesh and bones.

But I still wonder—why couldn’t God be a helper and true partner for Adam? Perhaps because Adam had no “mirror” in which to look. In other words, Adam was human, but being alone, was so far unaware of what being human truly meant. In meeting the other—a true flesh and blood partner, Adam encounters for the first time both “the embodiment of human limitation and the object of human love.”(4) Adam’s meeting of a flesh and blood “other” is like looking into a mirror, one in which Adam can see the limits of human creatureliness and the desire for human love and connectedness.

Well, thanks for bearing with me during this consideration of Bonhoeffer’s insights about the Genesis text for today. Of course, I think his insights have something significant to say to our PLTS community. What would the PLTS community look like if we regarded one another as truly being bone of our own bones and flesh of our own flesh? How would our community of discipleship change if we admitted that we need each other as mirrors and as limit-bearers as we travel on faith’s way? Do we really believe that life together in this community is essential and not optional for becoming followers of Jesus Christ in our own day? Can we admit that God alone is not enough for us, as today’s Genesis text suggests? Do we really live as if this community is God’s gift of helpers who are partners, and not merely people who are sometimes a real pain?

I know I don’t do all that well at recognizing community as either a gift or a necessity. But that’s OK. Forcing community is not a discipleship requirement, and perfection in community is not the intended vocational goal. Rather, as Adam learned, community is something we need—without “the other” we cannot discern who we are or how God would have us live. And the goal of community is not perfection, but rather something quite different entirely. Bonhoeffer writes,

Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. … The Christ in their own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure. At the same time, this also clarifies that the goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation. (5)

We need this PLTS community because we need God’s Word spoken to us here. We need this community because we can learn to see the heart of Christ here in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. And it turns out that we need this community because we all long to receive the message of salvation it brings to us in worship, study, and service. Left to our own devices, we would surely end up alone. That’s why God has created this community.

As you come forward to receive communion today, I invite you to look around at your sisters and brothers—they are the partners God has created for you in this time and place. It is God who creates the PLTS community, and Jesus Christ who feeds us here with his very self. It is God who calls each of us by name and the Spirit of the risen Christ who makes of us all one living body. And so we share bread and drink wine together. In this way we are bound to each other and to the Triune God with our whole physical being. Amen. Amen. Let it be so.

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 96.

(2) Ibid., 96.

(3) Ibid., 96–97.

(4) Ibid., 98.

(5) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1996., 32.