The Habit of Fellowship

Many years ago when living in Ukraine I decided to get ‘back in shape’. Motivated by memories of my high-school age American football body, I was prompted to go to the gym. Throwing caution and good sense to the wind, assuming that ‘I’ve still got it!’, forgetting the degree of muscle atrophy that would have transpired over the ten years or more since I had regularly lifted weights, I packed as many kilos onto the bar as I remembered being able to lift previously. The results were predictable: pulled by gravity, a force that had not diminished in the intervening decade, the barbell plummeted earthward, and no effort of mine was budging. I was pinned by the bar to the bench.

There are basically only two ways out of this situation of being pinned under weight that can’t be moved. The ‘solo’ option is to roll the barbell down the body to a manageable place from which one extracts themselves from the predicament. There are various levels of discomfort associated with this manoeuvre, and so it is only done when option two isn’t available.

Option two is to call for help. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in the gym; there was one other person there, the fitness instructor ‘on call’. The only problem was the gym attendant was a thin, super-fit young woman about half my size. It was embarrassing to lift my voice and ask for help from someone I should have been much stronger than. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and pride hurt less than the body roll.

As we reflect on the habit of fellowship, we see that God loves us enough to place us in a spiritual family where we look out for one another.

1. A Glimpse inside the early church

In Acts 2.42-47 we see a picture of the embryonic church in the New Testament. This is a picture of the church immediately after the day of Pentecost; the resurrection of Jesus was fresh on everyone’s hearts and minds, the Holy Spirit had been poured out, people were responding to the gospel daily, persecution had not yet started and there was a deep sense of camaraderie shared by all were part of this new and exciting church.

There is much to learn from this picture of the early church; I want to focus on one dimension captured in the words and phrases devotion, fellowship, and together. The word devotion means ‘to attend constantly, persist, persevere in, continue steadfast in; wait upon’. That is, this wasn’t a passing, flippant, ‘I’ll do it if I feel like’ attitude; these people are deeply committed to the practice of four key things identified in verse 42, and one of those is ‘fellowship’. The word fellowship (Gr. koinania) means partnership, contributory help, participation, sharing in, communion, spiritual fellowship, a fellowship in the Spirit.

A couple of key observations emerge from this. First, fellowship is both a verbe and a noun. Often we think of fellowship as ‘hanging out’, and it can be, but it’s much more. Second, note that the definite article ‘the’ is used; not just ‘a fellowship’, or fellowship in general, but ‘the fellowship’. I think ‘the fellowship’ references the shared life of partnership and participation in God’s covenant people.  But it is lived out in the context of real commitments to real people in a real local church.

2. Family Connection

Before looking at practical ways to be devoted to ‘the fellowship’, let’s take a moment to root this in theological perspective. The life we share together is a reflection of the life we share in God. That is, part of what God does in salvation is to root us in himself. This could be an entire blog in itself, but consider this:

  • GOD IS FATHER, and that means we are brothers and sisters through adoption
    • 1 John 3.1: See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
  • GOD IS SON, and we are all part of the body. 
    • 1 Corinthians 12.12, 27: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
  • GOD IS SPIRIT, and we are all share the same Spirit
    • 1 Corinthians 12.13: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

The point is that we have a deep connection, not only with God, but with each other. Through our personal connection with God, in Christ, by the Spirit, we share real connection to, between, and for each other.

Some Christian traditions take seriously the family metaphor for church by calling each other ‘brother so and so’ and ‘sister so and so’. If that’s not your background, it can sound artificial and a bit weird. But the sentiment behind it is beautiful. More important than calling each other brother and sister is the practice of treating each other like family, and this brings us to reflecting on the practice of fellowship.  

3. THE PRACTICE OF FELLOWSHIP

Remember that ‘fellowship’ is both a noun and a verb. That is, we live ‘in the fellowship’ by ‘fellowshipping’. But the practice of fellowship is more than hanging out and doing fun stuff together. There is a place for that, but the commitment to which God calls us transcends affinity-based relationships. This is such an important thread that runs through the New Testament, it is worth pausing and noting.

To help provoke us to examing the kind of relationships God wants us to have, consider this list of ‘one anothers’ that runs through the New Testament.

  • Love one another with brotherly affection. (Rom. 12.10)
  • Outdo one another in showing honour. (Rom. 12.10)
  • Live in harmony with one another. (Rom. 12.16)
  • Welcome one another (Rom. 15.7)
  • Care for one another. (1 Cor. 12.25)
  • Comfort one another, agree with one another, (2 Cor. 13.11)
  • Through love serve one another. (Gal. 5.13)
  • Bear one another's burdens, (Gal. 6.2)
  • Be kind to one another, forgiving one another (Eph. 4.32)
  • Teaching and admonishing one another (Col. 3.16)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thess. 4.18)
  • Exhort one another (Heb. 3.13)
  • Stir up one another (Heb. 10.23)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4.9)
  • Serve one another (1 Peter 4.10)

That’s some list!!! But that’s what the relational dimension of New Testament Christianity looks like. Here’s the point: God calls us to be sufficiently committed to the fellowship to faithfully fulfil the ‘one anothers’. If you’re not relationally close enough to the fellowship to do the ‘one anothers’, you’re not close enough.

4. Making the Practice Practical

So what does this look like in real life? What is the Lord actually asking us for? How can we turn a beautiful ideal of living the one another’s into action? Here are three steps to take:
  • Show up. This is the practice of availability. We need to make time to connect.
  • Give up. This is the practice of generosity. Come ready to give of yourself to those you are connected with.
  • Grow up. This is the practice of vulnerability. Open up when you have needs.

5. HELP!

Remember the story of me being pinned by the weights in the gym in Ukraine? Here’s the deal: some days, we’re the ones who are pinned underneath the weight of life, the burdens, the challenges the pain – whatever it is that is weighing us down, and we need to ask for help. Other days, it’s one of our brothers or sisters who are in need of help. But the calling of God is to build a life sufficiently devoted to the fellowship that we can give – or receive – assistance when it is needed. Some days, we need help. Other days, we give help. But together, the body builds itself up in love (Eph. 4.16). Together, we shift all the weight we need to and walk in the freedom made available through Christ as God’s sons and daughters. And in those moments of help, we reach down into our identity as God’s children and say about each other, ‘He’s not heavy; he’s my brother!’

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