In 1993 I was asked to apply for the headship of a particular Church of England school. It was associated with the local parish church which is High Anglican. That means it is Catholic in practice but still within the Anglican communion. I really wasn’t sure about this as an evangelical Baptist. Was Catholic Christianity compatible with a Baptist headteacher? Only one way to find out – go and speak with the parish priest concerned.
When I met Fr. Peter, I found someone who was humble, gentle and patient, whose focus was on the Lord Jesus Christ and following him. We recognised one Lord in Jesus; one baptism in the name of Father, Son and Spirit; one God and Father over all who lives in all who call on him through the Spirit. There were many things over which we would have to agree to disagree, but we shared a common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What unites us in fellowship?
Read Ephesians 4:1-6
In John 17 Jesus prays for the disciples:
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they
may be one, even as we are one.
Later on in the chapter he prays for those will follow:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me
through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in
me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may
believe that you have sent me.
As the church began to grow and spread disputes over practices emerged, as well as about who was included in the gospel. They had the Hebrew Bible and the remembered life of Jesus to draw on and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit moved forward. However, it was difficult to fulfil the prayer of Jesus, as the accounts in Acts and the letters show. That was one of the reasons Paul wrote those words to the Christians at Ephesus. He is encouraging the church to focus on the example of Christ in order to maintain fellowship. What are the key elements of fellowship?
Walking in humility, gentleness, patience and love. This is not being weak and ineffective, but is following the example of Jesus – who certainly was not weak and ineffective.
The key is bearing with one another in love. It is not asserting my rights over yours, my way over yours, being impatient with the things that annoy or irritate me.
We focus on the foundation: we are one body in Christ. I need to learn patience when I become frustrated. Fellowshipping is not all love and bubbles – just like family. The example of Acts and the letters tells us this and fellowshipping builds on the foundation of one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.
Why could I work with Fr Peter and his curate? Because our focus was on the Lord Jesus Christ and serving him through the community of the school. In our current times as we think about what church can be and may be, let’s not worry about structural unity for the denominations or asserting our empire as EBC. We focus on advancing the Kingdom of God. Idealistic? Yes, but we have to dream to inspire us and we are following the ideal – Jesus Christ.
What divides us?
Read Acts 15:36-41
Often what divides us is pride: I am right and you are wrong – and I am not shifting. Paul we know to have been a strong character. Barnabas we know less about. We come across him in Acts 4 and learn that he used to be a Levite, he came from Cyprus and he gave from his wealth to meet the needs of the church community. We also learn that his name means ‘son of encouragement’. Barnabas brought Paul out of seclusion in Tarsus and began a mission partnership.
I imagine Barnabas spotting Paul’s gifts and encouraging and supporting the use of them. He encourages Mark to come along and although he doesn’t stay the course the first time, he wants to give him another chance. At this point these two strong characters disagree. More than that they go their separate ways. No doubt the gospel benefitted, but it would have been better if it hadn’t been what appears to be an acrimonious separation. I also think there was pride on both sides of the argument and stubbornness.
I have been like that in the past and the leadership may well say that I have been like that here at EBC. It is too easy to assume we are right, and to write people off because they don’t agree or we become frustrated if our plans don’t run smoothly. How do we overcome this? We come back to Ephesians 4.
Our readings in Acts in morning prayer are revealing the underlying tensions that existed in the early church as it grew and developed. There was a desire for things to be done in a uniform way; a desire for correct practices and living that was in keeping with being followers of Jesus. Perhaps there was a fear of losing control of this body called the church. In the readings so far we see that change came about through God speaking to Peter in a vision and then through James as he referred to the prophet Amos who talked about the inclusion of the nations of the world. The early church was grappling with important issues, but the desire of Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas as they report back, is that the church remains united as it moves forward following the lead of the Holy Spirit. Their emphasis seems to have been on following the Spirit rather than insisting on their way.
However, we are human and we do fall out and sometimes that leads to a parting of the ways. God in his mercy uses our imperfect efforts and even our falling out to serve his purposes – but that does not excuse them. Discussions about how we fulfil our strapline ‘Christ Centred, Community Focussed’ are important if we believe this is what God would have us be. Personal preferences and wanting things our way are unimportant. We come back to Ephesians 4:
‘walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another
in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’
When do we pull together?
Read Acts 11:27-30 and Romans 15:25-27.
I have been amazed at the generosity of the church for the Chad Hospital appeal. I am thankful for the continued commitment of the church to giving to Christians overseas who are in need of our help. I often quote Deuteronomy 15:11, particularly around harvest time,
‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the
poor, in your land.’
My experience of church is that people are open handed and generous hearted towards those in need at home and abroad. I am meeting with CAP representatives at the beginning of November because they want to re-establish a base in Gravesend. We do have some ring fenced funding available but I am sure that if this happens we as churches in Gravesend will come together to support it. In doing these things we are following the law of the Hebrew Bible, and the example of the New Testament church. From our reading we see there were links with Jerusalem, but for the most part the Christians in Jerusalem would have been personally unknown to those in Antioch, even more so in Achaia and Macedonia. However they learned of the need, recognised the bond of fellowship and responded.
Within the fellowship of the church across the world, people will be able to bear testimony to the generosity of brothers and sisters within the church in meeting financial, practical and spiritual needs. Being in fellowship does mean we look out for each other and act to meet needs where they arise. This does not always mean just giving people what they want or doing things for them, but helping them to move forward in their lives and being there to encourage and support. People within EBC will be able to share stories about how others from the fellowship have supported and encouraged them in a variety of ways.
One of the distinctive ways in which we as Christians support one another – as well as those not part of the church – is to commit to prayer and to take time to pray with people. Rosemary performs an important ministry with prayer updates relating to those who are part of EBC as well as wider contacts. Part of being in fellowship is also being willing to allow others to serve, help and pray for us. Sometimes we like to be known as the strong ones who are always doing things for others. Pride can get in the way when we need help, we avoid letting people know and struggle on. Just as we have the blessing of serving others, we need to allow people the blessing of being able to serve us.
As a fellowship, we can be proactive in serving in our local community and individually. At the church meeting last week, we agreed to a change of role for Wanda with effect from 1st January 2021: she will become the church’s community worker, because of the way that her role has developed over recent years. However, that does not mean she does all the church’s community work and we sit back. She will be heading up projects with which we can become involved. If you want more information about this change let me know and I will send it through to you. Churches have always been at work in their communities in a variety of ways, and we will have the opportunity to work alongside Wanda and make a difference in fellowship with each other.
Church – but not as we know it. There is nothing new in what I have said today, but our current situation highlights what is important. When I was at Horley and welcomed school visits to the old chapel before we moved to the new building, I used to tell the children that we could blow up the chapel and church would still function. Although it is not ideal and harder work, during this time we have demonstrated the truth that church is more than 55 Windmill Street. Fellowship has continued and dare I say it, grown. Yes we want to meet face to face, but if we ever get the chance to go back to normal – let’s not. Let’s learn and take forward the lessons of church – but not as we know it.