Last week the sermon challenged us to renew our discipleship mission. We were asked to prayerfully reflect on the words of Jesus: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” I hope you are as excited as I am, and maybe a little nervous, about being a part of a church that is seeking to be on a mission that is self-denying and cross-bearing, a part of a church that is not about creating programs that will benefit your life, but is about creating opportunities for you to give your life away.
Today, the sermon is going to give us something else to think about. Today, I want to challenge us to prayerfully consider renewing our fellowship mission.
Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “Oh boy, fellowship! Now, this is a sermon of sermon I can relate to!” Others of you are thinking: “I might actually pay attention today! Because when it comes to church, I am all about fellowship. In fact, it may be the one thing about church that I am actually really pretty darn good at. Denying myself? Carrying a cross? Giving my life away? I don’t know about all that. But fellowship? Coffee and Doughnuts? Fried chicken and sweet tea? Now, that is what I am talking about! Do you know what my favorite place in the church is? It’s the fellowship hall! It’s the room with a kitchen. So, brother, preach on, preach on, you have my full attention today!”
That’s good, because we all really know that when it comes to following Jesus, nothing is really that simple.
Fellowship—while it may sound like an easy and fun-cake-filled venture, is actually one of the most difficult, self-denying, self-expending, cross-bearing parts of being the church.
The Greek word for fellowship, koininia, means something much deeper than coffee and doughnuts or fried chicken and sweet tea. koininia, biblical fellowship, means a radical and profound commitment to share all of life with others. Acts chapter 2 describes what this commitment looks like:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
This type of personal sharing, this type of intimate communion, having “all things in common” is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote that members of the church were members of but one body. We are to share such an intimate bond with one another, we are to be so personally interconnected and interrelated, we are share such a fellowship with each other, Paul writes: “If one member rejoices, all rejoice. And when one member suffers, all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).
Do you remember the story of Job? After Job loses all of his possessions, all of his children, and is stricken with a painful illness that has affected every part of his body from his head to his toes, three friends come to Job to “console” him. Console—it is a powerful word in the Hebrew Bible.
Like the Greek word koininia, the Hebrew word translated console has a much deeper meaning than the way we commonly use the word. It means much more than sending a card or flowers, patting someone on the back or even giving a quick hug. The word literally means “to move back and forth with grief,” to show physical signs of empathy and compassion. The friends of Job came to him in his darkest hour and had fellowship. They did not share coffee. They shared pain. They did not share fried chicken. They shared grief. They did not share cake. Their shared their very lives.
And it is this type of fellowship, this type of profound sharing, that is our mission as a church.
Last week, I said that the reason many have given up on the church is because the church simply does not look like Jesus. It does not look like a group of people who have decided to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus. They see churches that promote programs to benefit the lives members, instead of seeing churches that create opportunities for members to give their lives away.
Another reason I believe people are leaving the church is that they see within the church a group of people who fail to see the importance of true fellowship, of suffering with others.
Today, this can most obviously be seen on social media, especially facebook. Someone will post a tragic circumstance: the loss of a job, the loss of their health, or even the loss of a child. Then come the God-awful comments: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” “God has a purpose.” “God has a plan.” “God knows best.” “God needed another angel.”
For some reason or another, some Christians think it is their mission to help others avoid suffering, as they think suffering somehow means their faith is weak. They believe they must say something to fix the problems of another, to say something theological to make everything better. However, their trite comments are seen as uncaring, unsympathetic, distant, and cold. And people everywhere read those callous comments and think, “If that is the church, then I want no part of it.”
Henri Nouwen has written: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those, who instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
In the story of Job, we are told that Job’s friends consoled him and then sat silently with him for seven days and nights. They sat silently and simply cared. They sat silently and fellowshipped.
And this is the type of fellowship that we recommit ourselves to today. When life is difficult for others, when their world turns dark, they will need their church. However, they will not need religious advice from us. They will not expect from us an easy solution or a cure. And they will need much more from us than a cup of coffee or a bucket of chicken. They will need for us to be there with them, for them, beside them. They will need us to silently hold their hand, shed a tear, and truly fellowship. And through our fellowship, through our consolation, with the help of God, true healing will come.
Because when we do that, when we stay with someone in their pain, when we acknowledge their pain, when we suffer with another, when we truly fellowship with another, Nouwen writes that we are led “right into the center of the mystery of God.” He continues: “When we look at Christ, we see him as one who has suffered all human suffering; all human suffering has flowed through him. On the cross, all history is concentrated there, and all evil is overcome there. People are saved by that knowledge, when they realize that suffering is suffered by God, embraced by God, and overcome.”
I believe this is one of the reasons that communion around this table is so powerful, so holy, so healing. We eat bread and drink from a cup acknowledging that in our suffering God did not remain distant, cold, callous. God did not simply give us a book of advice of how to deal with our suffering. God entered our suffering, God’s body broken, and God’s very life poured out. Around the table, we are reminded that God, the creator of all that is, wants to have fellowship with us.
And the good news of all of us this day is that after we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion, all are invited to eat and drink from this table and share in the personally profound and intimately radical fellowship of God.