Monday, February 03, 2014

Inbox: What’s this ‘Fellowship’ Thing?

In connection with this post Tertius writes:
“Not surprisingly, Tom, in light of what you have said so far, I started thinking whether or not there is a word in the Scriptures that describes this special kind of communication that Christians may have with each other. I believe there is. Doesn’t “fellowship” wrap it up neatly? That is, as long as we do not allow its Biblical strength to be diluted by the limited way unbelievers must understand the term, for Christian fellowship has to be experienced before it can be defined. In fact, I confess I find it difficult to define now though I think I can say I have “experiences” of it. But maybe I am looking at it too subjectively — what joy I get out of it. But isn’t that what happened on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:32)? I’m scrambling and hoping you or others will help me to unscramble my thoughts.”
I don’t know of too many Christians today who use the word “fellowship” regularly unless they’re well past retirement. If younger Christians use it, they usually do so in that formulaic, contrived way often associated with terms you wouldn’t hear in the real world but have picked up in church and adopted without much real sense of what they mean.

Fellowship was a term I often heard used in the Christian circles I moved in as a teenager. There were “fellowship” suppers and breakfasts (a bunch of Christians eating pot luck at folding tables in the basement of a church building). There was “having fellowship” with someone, which was slipping him or her a few bills discreetly to cover travel costs or lunch. Then there was the semi-notorious “have a time of fellowship”, which meant that somebody wanted to speak seriously to you about something you might not want to talk about, or get you to pray with them about something that meant little to a teenager.

All of these are opportunities for Christian fellowship, but not necessarily the thing itself. Paying off the speaker or a Christian worker can be a duty or a job; you can do it without feeling any sense of commonality or purpose at all. Eating a meal is … eating a meal. If you’re in the wrong frame of mind or caught up in topics of no consequence, talking over breakfast or dinner is simply socializing. Nothing wrong with socializing, but it’s not fellowship. Two Christians in a room praying or talking about something in which one party is not invested is not fellowship either.

Christian fellowship originates in the Godhead and is about something. John says, “… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

It sounds to me as if John is saying that he and the apostles share a purpose or agenda with God the Father and the Lord Jesus himself. Into this circle of intent John is inviting his readers, by hearing and believing what he has to say about the deity and worth of the Son. The Father loves the Son, who is the “radiance of his glory and exact representation of his nature”, and if we hear and believe what the apostle says about the Son, then we, the Father, the Son and the apostles have something in common.

That’s a fairly rarefied gathering. Other than me, of course. And possibly you, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Maintaining this sort of communion requires a consistent and conscious rejection of sin on our part, but if we are willing to go that far, we find ourselves (potentially) in “fellowship” with every Christian on the planet who believes these things and is committed to seeing Jesus Christ glorified. John wrote these things, he says, “that our joy may be complete”, implying that bringing others into this circle of shared agreement, commonality and understanding is what made his heart sing.

Much, much more could be said on the subject, but let’s just say that nothing that isn’t empowered by the Godhead itself — or doesn’t have the glory of Jesus Christ as its conscious or unconscious objective — is really “fellowship” in the sense John uses it.

I’m making it sound formal and contrived, and it’s really not. It’s a very natural expression of what’s in one’s heart. If what’s in your heart is the person and glory of Christ, and you’re speaking to someone who feels the same way, then you’ll find yourself in fellowship whether you plan it or not.

As I said in the post, it’s a shared language. When you hear someone speaking it, you recognize it instantly. It’s not merely religious; it’s entirely personal.

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