Often we look at the early church through rose coloured glasses. This often happens as we look back and think things were better when we were younger (forgetting we kicked against those things and couldn’t wait to be independent). The direct link with Jesus; with people who were still alive and either witnessed the works of Jesus or had a direct connection with the apostles, perhaps makes us feel like this. I agree it would be brilliant, but we have been born in a different era and can do nothing about it. Sometimes we think it was easier for them as they were part of the fledgling church taking off; because it was full of buzz and excitement; because people were more religiously in tune. However we need to remember that to be part of that fledgling church could lead to social isolation and also be dangerous, leading to imprisonment and possibly death
Perhaps we think they had got it right and we have made such a pig’s ear of things since. We need to remember they hadn’t got it right; they didn’t immediately know how to respond to the cultural challenges; they were working it out as they went along, relying on the apostles, the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit to guide them into truth. That’s why we have the letters of the New Testament: they deal with issues that arose for them and set out doctrine which develops as it becomes established and understanding grows. We don’t get very far into Acts before there is a problem of deception (Ananias and Sapphira) and people feeling they were being neglected or overlooked (Acts 6 and discrimination in the distribution of food). This is how deacons came into being in the first place.
Learning to be in fellowship was something the early church had to grapple with. Like all things everyone began enthusiastically, but then the reality of every day living hit; sinful nature began to reassert itself and they, as we, learned that the Christian family life can be just as challenging as ordinary family life – perhaps more so. However, being in fellowship is part and parcel of our existence as a church. It is something that is modelled in our understanding of God as Trinity. It is expressed in creation as the Spirit is there at the beginning and there is a discussion concerning the creation of humankind:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 1:1
Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 1:26
God called together a community of people for his glory, in Israel. Jesus talks about the unity between himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit coming from God the Father.
It is expressed in Jesus prayer for his disciples and all those who would be his disciples in years to come:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
Sometimes we lose sight of the prayer of Jesus that we will be united in him. the history of the church demonstrates that we have lost sight of our basis of unity and oneness. It happens as we struggle to understand the meaning of the scriptures and how to apply them; as traditions are challenged and people are upset because we don’t do things how we use to. It happens because we lose sight of the fact that we are family or we begin to assert ourselves over others. It happens because churches do lots of stuff and forget the reason why they are doing it.
Whatever the public perception maybe, the Christian Church is not a social club, the local Rotary or Lions group, a charitable organisation or even a branch of the Social Services. We are a diverse group of people who have realised they fall short and need forgiveness and acceptance. We are a diverse group of people drawn together because we have received forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus Christ. We have come to realise that he is the Son of God, the Saviour and that he died for us, but rose again and reigns in glory. Here is the basis of our existence and the foundation to our fellowship.
John wrote to a Christian fellowship, laying down the basis of that fellowship right at the beginning of his letter. He launches in with passion, because he had first hand knowledge and experience of the Lord Jesus Christ – and he didn’t want to see the faith of those in this fellowship undermined as people with alternative teaching and ideas came along. He wanted to make sure they understood the foundation of their fellowship.
The foundation to the faith of any Christian is their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is of fundamental importance and is the basis of our fellowship with God and with each other. To deny that Jesus the human being was the eternal Son incarnate means that we cannot be in fellowship. We can be friends, we can get along, we can have some interesting and challenging discussions, but we are not in fellowship. And that extends to God. This is the point John was making and made again in chapters 4 and 5. He was asserting this on the basis of personal testimony. This is where the link back to Jesus’ earthly ministry was and is proving vital. John saw, touched and heard and this is what he was passing on. Jesus the real, historical human being is also the Son of God incarnate. The New Testament doesn’t separate the two. Jesus in his earthly ministry clearly identified himself with God, saying that he was one with God. This is the uniqueness of the Christ we proclaim and follow as Christians. This is why we cannot have fellowship with sects or with other faiths: they do not accept that Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a unique person.
Christians declare that Jesus is God incarnate; God come to earth in human form; God taking the initiative of dealing with the sin of the world. We can have confidence in that declaration because of the testimony of the Word of God, written by those with direct links to Jesus; because of our personal encounter with Jesus. It changes our relationship with God, our understanding of God and without the acceptance of who Jesus is in relation to God the creator, we cannot have common fellowship. Now that sounds exclusive, discriminatory and cliquey. Hopefully we will see this is not the case. However, for there to be fellowship in any group, there needs to be a common body of belief to which all give assent.
The creeds in their various forms are an attempt to sum up the essential beliefs of the church. To deny the essentials of the creed would raise the question as to whether or not someone was in fellowship with mainstream Christian faith. There may be things we disagree upon, or interpret differently, but to deny the resurrection, for example, would cause a break in fellowship.
Let me use an illustration I have used before: it is an example from politics which I have deliberately over-stated. We need to go back in history for this to work, so we’ll go back to the 1960s. To be a member of the Labour Party in the 1960s was to believe in the state ownership of the means of production. If you were to speak in favour of privatisation at the party conference you would find yourself quite literally drummed out of membership. On the other hand, to be a member of the Conservative Party in the 1980s was to believe in privatisation. To speak in favour of nationalisation at the party conference would result in you being ‘out of fellowship’. Bring it up to date: you wouldn’t be arguing in favour of fracking at the Green Party Conference – unless you belonged to a fracking company, in which case you would be ejected. Now this isn’t being exclusive or discriminatory, but recognising that people have different political positions, some of which are incompatible and therefore prevent fellowship. You might have friendships across the boundaries, but you do not share that soul relationship.
John quite clearly says that to have fellowship with God and other Christians, we need to accept the gospel message we have heard. We need to do good theology; we can’t be swayed or accept the latest fad or craze or idea. Our theology – our understanding of who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ – needs to be based on the first hand testimony we find in the scriptures.
Our fellowship also needs to extend beyond that which takes place on a Sunday. To be a Christian is to accept the invitation to be in relationship with God the Father through the sacrifice of God the Son in the regenerating power of God the Holy Spirit. This is where we begin. It leads us into relationship with each other that transcends all barriers and has the depth of a family tie. We grow together, as we worship, pray, love and serve together. Our declaration of belief in Jesus Christ impacts our behaviour our lifestyle, our fellowship.
What does a fellowshipping church look like?
- It worships together on a Sunday or on another day of the week if Sundays don’t work. We talked about the importance of gathering, coming together as the body of Christ last week, in order to praise God together, pray together and learn from scripture together.
For some meeting every Sunday is difficult because they work shifts and have to take their turn over the weekends which include Sunday. How can we as a church provide opportunities for worshipping together other than Sundays. We all rely on Sunday workers in various capacities and for many people it is a good day to work. But for the Christian it is the traditional day to gather which was fine before the 24/7 economy. I am willing to provide a Sunday evening prayer…but even if we provided an opportunity for Sunday evening worship, that wouldn’t help the health workers in our congregation because they work 12 and a half hour shifts. So what can we do?
- A fellowshipping church prays together. At this point we all feel guilty. We know prayer is important, but it is also the thing that gets squeezed. Prayers on the run are fine in their place, but they are not sustaining. Prayer with the encouragement and challenge of others is needed, but how do we do that? This is where we need to think practically, but also prioritise the times when the community of the church comes together in prayer on prayer days and of course in regular worship.
There have been many occasions recently when people have expressed gratitude for the praying community; that knowledge that people individually and together are praying for situations being experienced by members of the church. How can we be creative in the way that we pray and develop a prayer discipline?
- A fellowshipping church mixes together. We stay behind and chat and eat with each other. We don’t just talk to people we know, but those we don’t. We don’t just talk with people of the same background, culture and interests, but cross those boundaries, because we are the body of Christ.Next week when you stay for the meal (don’t forget to sign up), sit with someone you don’t know very well or maybe have never spoken with and get to know them.
- A fellowshipping church serves together. This is such a good way to grow together. When I was at my sending church in Sevenoaks, a Tear Fund worker approached me…very mixed group of people…had to get on…sleeping and living together…fellowship deepened. We have numerous ways in which we can serve together through Emmanuel…
- A fellowshipping church reaches beyond its walls. This happens with the serving activities we are involved with. It happens as we look further afield and to Calais, to North Africa, to Asia. It happens as we go out into the town. It happens when we engage as friends with the people on our street. And as a fellowshipping church we share what we are doing with a small group or the whole church for prayer, so we can support each in the week.
- A fellowshipping church remembers and shows active love to those who are not able to get along and be part of what is happening, but are still part of the body. How can we do this?
- A fellowshipping church carries those who are struggling. It doesn’t condemn, but encourages, builds up, it spurs people on.
- Members of a fellowshipping church get on and do the jobs they see need doing, even if they don’t particularly want to or feel they are capable. They don’t leave it to others.
At the moment the Royal Navy uses the slogan, ‘Born in Carlisle: made in the Royal Navy.’ The advert for the Territorial Army talks about a bond that you find with fellow soldiers you won’t find elsewhere. As we grow together in fellowship we should be able to say, ‘Born in Gravesend: made in the Church.’ Our fellowship is in Jesus Christ. As we look to him, we will grow as a fellowshipping, community focussed part of the body of Christ.