If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 1:6-7
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. Acts 20:7
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:27-29
The concept of fellowship in the church is a well-worn idea. It isn’t without merit Biblically, but it sometimes lacks any bite. What I mean by this is that it is that it doesn’t have any substance. Fellowship is simply eating a meal together. Now this may be the case that fellowship occurs over a meal, but it doesn’t necessarily. A book I’ve been reading recently points this out, ‘Christians have redefined fellowship to mean any warm human interchange—especially when we make connections with someone and discover that we have common interests, experiences, or viewpoints. I enjoy the outdoors. When I meet someone who knows the joys of…[the outdoors]…our conversation is inevitably animated and friendly. But it is not fellowship.’ Later on the author quotes J.I. Packer who defines fellowship as ‘a sharing with our fellow believers the things that God has made known to us about himself, in hope that we may thus help them to know him better and so enrich their fellowship with him…Fellowship is, secondly, a seeking to share what God has made known of himself to others, as a means to finding strength, refreshment, and instruction for one’s own soul.’
I wonder how often, though, we define fellowship simply as having a good time with people we naturally associate with. Many of us naturally associate with our siblings, old-time friends, and people we share hobbies with. But how often does even such friendship cross the boundary into Christian fellowship? How often do we feel open to actually share our struggles with our brother or sister in Christ? All too often when crisis arises in our intimate relationships, we feel as though we do not have anyone to turn to, and we haven’t pursued Christian friendship as warning signs began to build.
We must begin where fellowship begins in the Bible. It seems that almost always, Biblically speaking, fellowship is focused on our relationship with God. It is not an accident that my recent sermon on the ministry of the Christian focused so heavily on our identity in Christ. Fellowship begins with the work of God in our lives as we respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn’t a coincidence that so much of my initial ministry has been meditating on the very gospel of Jesus Christ as told by the gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John. Not only are those narratives a majority of the New Testament as far as quantity, but the message they explain is the very essence of our belief. Our understanding and response to the gospel proclamation found in the gospels is essential to fellowship with our God. Have we seen the glory of God in Christ? Do we see our own sin? Do we understand repentance and faith? Do we exhibit true sorrow for our sin? As we have walked through the gospels, we have considered the message of the saving gospel at length. Although the application may seem simple, it is life-saving: repent and believe! Bear fruits in keeping with repentance! See the crucified Lord risen! If our hearts are not glad at this, we must take care as we work out our salvation. Christ must be our glory and joy. Although we are not perfect, we must walk in the light and let the light of Christ reveal our sinful hearts so that we may walk in repentance. Christ has cleansed us from our sin and unrighteousness. He is now our righteousness, and we are free.
From the work of Christ, then, we may now move to our fellowship with one another. I think we see a good example of fellowship in Paul’s meetings with various churches. So when Paul sails from Philippi to Troy, he encounters sweet fellowship over the breaking of break, and the gathering happened past midnight. This was perhaps the last time this church got to spend with Paul, and they cherished every single moment they had with him. It is a much stronger statement to say they stayed up ‘til midnight. Lighting was more costly than in our day. Most of them had work to do early in the morning. It is possible many were sacrificing their only sleep, and it isn’t like they had a 5 day work week. It might be another 2 or 3 weeks before a monthly festival would finally provide a chance to rest. But their time of fellowship breaking bread and deepening their spiritual friendships was more energizing than a full night’s rest. Now not everyone was at this point of maturity or was physically able to attend such a late meeting, but we could say this would be ideal: that we would cherish deepening spiritual friendships just like Paul did in Acts 20.
Now one thing we must consider is the constitution of such a community. The early church wasn’t simply a collection of like-minded plebs who were fed up with Roman religion. As much as Imperial Rome was a highly stratified society (meaning super-duper-segregated based on class), the church seems to have representation from many different classes. There were the poor, but there were also workmen, and there were also soldiers, and there were also those wealthy whose home could host a church group of 50-60 members. Repentance and faith broke down old walls of allegiances and enmities. This group of 50 people fellowshipping with Paul represents people who were different but now are friends because of the gospel. They now saw fellow members in the church as valuable and sought out spiritual friendships with them.
I think this is often where we come up short in pursuing fellowship. We pursue a fellowship group with people who are friends. They all share similar interests or come from a similar background. What we must ask ourselves is who in our local community do I avoid? Do I think of someone that Christ has made his own as an outsider because I am different from him or her? We must confess this to God and to this person. Second, we must be intentional at developing spiritual friendships. It isn’t enough just to hang out on the weekend especially if there is no pursuing of spiritual growth. Now that doesn’t mean every conversation must be super-duper serious (I know some people are prone to this), but it does mean that we should ask ourselves questions like, ‘Do I make an effort to pray with and for fellow members?’ ‘Do I engage with God’s word outside of my family?’ ‘Do I seek to carry other’s burdens?’ If the answer to these questions is, ‘No, not really’ or ‘only once every few months’ something needs to change.
At All Nations, we have a mid-week study whose whole goal is developing spiritual friendships through these different means of praying together, eating meals together, and engaging God’s word together. The thing is that it takes commitment. Beginning fall 2018 we will shift to something called ‘Small Groups’ or ‘Fellowship Groups.’ The whole point is that we as a church must be intentional to develop spiritual friendships and beneficial fellowship which is able to hold one another accountable. They will be focused geographically so that you can be involved in the lives of those you live nearest to and can more easily bear one another’s burdens. Each group will meet at different times to accommodate the group’s schedule. The groups will focus on four things: Prayer, Fellowship, Study, and Outreach. The hope is that these groups will encourage us as we seek to fulfill our commitment to one another as outlined in our Church Resolution based on God’s word. So if the answers to the questions above are, ‘No, I really haven’t invested any energy into developing healthy fellowship,’ then please make it a priority to join the groups this fall.