Thank you very much, good evening everyone. It's good to be with you again. We're turning in our Bibles to Acts chapter 2. I don't need to tell you folk what you're going through these Sunday nights - I hope I not anyway! - your core values. I imagine that's what you believe, what's important to you as a church, and we're looking tonight at 'Fellowship', that's the subject I've been allocated this evening. We're turning to Acts 2, and let's pray - if you get the passage, let's pray that God would speak to you. Let's pray, let's just quieten ourselves before the Lord. Looking at a subject like this, you might think: 'Well, God is hardly going to speak to me in a personal way through this' - well, get ready! So let's be in a position where we are able to hear what the Spirit would say to the church. Let's try and - whilst our brains need to be engaged as we hear the truth, let's do more than that, let's ask the Lord that our spirits may be receptive to His Spirit, and our souls ready to obey. So let's pray and just ask the Lord to speak to each one of us.
Father, we bless You for the songs of praise, and we trust that Your heart is blessed by them. We long to bless You with all that we have and all that we are. Lord, help us to, by Your grace, get to a place where we are willing to listen and submit to what You're saying to us, what You're speaking into the church as a body, and what You're speaking into our individual lives. So, Lord, we pray for all the enablement coming from Your Holy Spirit to do that, all the grace, and all the gifts we need to receive Your truth, as we've been singing, Lord. Please deliver us from just going through songs, and praying words. Lord, we pray for reality here tonight, and we pray that we will all know that we have met with the Lord, and we have had something imparted to us from You. So, Lord, we look to You now, and we ask for Your help in Jesus' name, Amen.
Acts chapter 2, two verses, 41 and 42 - and these two verses, I'm sure, are very familiar to most of you: "Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them", added to the believers, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers".
What is 'Fellowship'? How would you answer that question? Basically the Greek words in the New Testament translated 'fellowship' at times, carry the connotation that 'fellowship' means 'sharing things in common'. That's why the term 'fellowship' is used in society for various fraternities, academic Fellowships for instance, or vocational Fellowships, like the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, or if you're a Tolkien fan you'll know about 'The Fellowship of the Rings'. It describes societies, clubs, where there is a commonality shared. But the biblical use of 'fellowship' is much more than this common usage. It's vital to understand this, because we can very easily slip into the danger of, as 'the church', becoming 'a club'. What we share in common as Christian believers in the church is sharing the life of God.
Turn with me to 1 John chapter 1 please, 1 John 1 and verse 1: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life; the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us; that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship', there's the word, 'with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full'.
Now what the apostle was doing here, the apostle John on behalf of all the apostolic band, was saying: 'I want to share our first-hand experience with you, believers of the Christ, the Anointed One of God who is the Word manifest in flesh. We had a first-hand encounter with this One, we heard Him, we saw Him, we actually handled Him. We want you to know this, because we want to bring you believers into fellowship with the apostles' - that's what it says, 'that you might have fellowship with us'. But ultimately by doing that, by imparting this first-hand truth, they were bringing them into - look at verse 3 - 'truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son'. Ultimately fellowship is fellowship with the Godhead - and, as verse 4 shows us, this fellowship makes our joy complete.
Now some of you will know that the word for 'church', 'ecclesia', some feel has a certain negative connotation, meaning 'called out'. Well, if that is true, and some might dispute it slightly, but if that is true: fellowship is the positive connotation of what we are as church, it's what we are called to. We are called out of the world, and called to fellowship with God the Father, God the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We share that, that commonality, with one another. Paul said 1 Corinthians 1:9, let me read it to you: 'God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord'. This is what we're called to share: the life of God's Son!
So, whenever we bandy about the term 'fellowship' in whatever context, that's not often what it conjures to our mind. It might express a certain commonality of beliefs or fundamentals of the faith, creedal statements on a conceptual level, but that is not what fellowship means! Fellowship means we are sharing God with one another, the very life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit - we are sharing that together! I think it's right to say that the church exists primarily for fellowship. We could say that the church exists for many reasons, but I think primarily it is here for fellowship with God - that those who hear and believe the Word would come into fellowship with the Godhead, and would fellowship not only with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but with those who have believed. One of the New Testament words for 'fellowship' is 'Koinonia'. It's translated sometimes 'communion', or 'communication', and that's very insightful because church exists to experience the life of God, to experience communications from heaven, and therefore to share it with one another.
So often we think of fellowship as a means to an end, whatever that end might be - no! Fellowship is the end, fellowship is the goal, it is the end and the purpose of the Gospel. In John 17 verse 3, in His great prayer the Lord said: 'That they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent' - and that's how He defined eternal life, not heaven when you die or getting out of hell (and thank God for those two truths), but the ultimate purpose of the Gospel good news of Jesus dying and rising again, and repentance and faith to receive what He has accomplished, is that we might know God, that we might share God's life, and that we might share that with each other.
So therefore, if that's what fellowship is - and it is what it is - we understand what it is not. Fellowship is not going to meetings. Amen? You're allowed to say 'Amen' to that! Fellowship is not going to meetings, I'll say a big one to that! 'Amen' from the bottom of my boots! Many of the meetings that I attend, I have to say, I don't experience the life of God in them. Fellowship certainly is not sitting in a pew looking at the back of somebody else's neck - that's the way some of us understand fellowship, attending gatherings, events in the church. Neither is fellowship church membership. That's not the subject tonight, although there might be some overlap in your understanding there, but that is not the same thing - having your name on the roll. Someone once said to me that there can be those in membership who are not in fellowship, and those in fellowship who are not in membership - think about that one later! It's not the same thing. Busyness of programs is not fellowship. Frantic activism is not fellowship - even if your activities are very exciting ones.
It is tragic that fellowship has often been summed up as 'tea and buns', you know: 'Wait behind for a wee cuppa, and we will have some fellowship'. I've even heard people complain, not here - well, I have heard people complain here, but not about this - I've heard people say in some churches: 'There's not enough fellowship here!'. Have you heard that? What do people mean by that? 'There's not enough fellowship here in this place', so they decide to invent a young adult's dining club or something or other to get them out, and get them chatting and enjoying one another's company. Now please don't get me wrong, we need to interact with one another as Christians, we need to develop meaningful friendships, but fellowship is much more than a mere social club - it is sharing the life of God together!
Now, most biblical traditions are obsessed about how to do church correctly, or we might say how to meet to the name of Christ biblically. From very exclusive assemblies to church growth seeker-sensitive type movements, the focus is: 'How do we do church?' - either to be strictly adhering to the word of God, or to appeal more to the community around us. The focus, in both those extremes of the spectrum, the focus is wrong - here's why. Whatever your opinion on those issues is is irrelevant, you don't 'do' church, you 'be' church. Now that is a vital distinction, it's the same as the true order of all Christian experience, which is: all doing must come out of being. If being is first - our being in God, our security in Christ, our understanding of who we are seated in heavenly places etc etc - the doing in our Christian life will naturally outflow from that: being first and then doing. It's like, I think it's Mark chapter 3, it says that Jesus called the disciples to be with Him, and then He sent them out - in that order: with Him first, and then sending them to do His work.
I believe, and I'm sure many would disagree with me, but I do believe that a mistake has been repeated right throughout evangelical history. What happens is: God breathes His life in a certain area on a certain group of people, and a number of folk are saved, and rather than being in that state for a while and enjoying what God is doing in his life, someone decides 'We need to organise'. Even when this is biblical, 'according to the pattern', what it can often do is kill the life of God in that thing, because the emphasis has moved - subtly, but definitely - from being to doing. For many churches and organisations, their highest point was at their birth and inception. Have you ever considered why that is? I have a theory that the more organisation you bring to church life, the less life it will contain.
Now, right away I've lost I don't know how many of you, but please stay with me. I'm not suggesting for one moment that organisation is unnecessary - on the contrary - but organisation must not suffocate, stifle or quench the organism of God's life that birthed it in the beginning. Right away you who are biblically literate, you will have verses coming to your mind such as 'all things done decently and in order', and I say 'Amen' to that. But remember the context of where that verse is found, it's in the context of the Pentecostal explosion of Acts chapter 2, the gifts of the Spirit into chapter 12 through to 14 of 1 Corinthians. Yes, there were great abuses and all sorts of things going, and Paul says in that: 'Do all these things decently and in order'. What was the 'all'? The stuff that God's Spirit was doing and birthing in the place! There had to be order, but that order was not in any way to quench what God's life was doing in their midst.
It is my contention that we are too quick to organise a move of the Spirit and quench it, and we are left only with an awful lot of order. What happens then when there are structures without the demonstration of God's life, is that the structures take on a life of their own and they take the place of the life of God. Now I know there's a lot in those statements for you to consider, but let me just put it like this: if you are looking for the church, don't look for the church institutionally, look for the church relationally. Look for a people, or be a people who are relating to God the Father, through the Son, by the power and instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, and sharing that life with one another. Look for the church relationally, as they relate to God and to one another. Look for and be, look to be a community that is sharing the life of God - for that is fellowship, and that's why church exists.
Wayne Jacobson once said, listen to this: 'No church model will produce God's life in you', whether it's the correct one not. 'No church model will produce God's life in you. It works the other way around. Our life in God, shared together, expresses itself as the church' - that's why you don't do church, you be church. 'It is the overflow of His life in us. You can tinker with church principles forever, and still miss out on what it means to live deeply in the Father's love and know how to share it with others. The church thrives where people are focused on Jesus, not where they are focused on church. The church is God's people learning to share His life together. Instead of trying to build a church, let us learn to love each other and share each other's journey'.
Rather than thinking of meetings, we should be thinking of family. I like how Paul puts it in Ephesians 3, especially how the NIV translates it: 'For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name'. We are the family of God, and whatever our creed is we ought to believe in the communion of the saints - do you? Do you? Are you no different than the publican, that you love those who are like you? That's what Jesus said: you can't pat yourself on the back for loving people that agree with everything that you say! The communion of the saints is recognising a commonality between those who are truly born-again and seeking to walk in the Spirit, and that you're brothers and sisters in Christ and they may not see everything exactly your way, but they are in fellowship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit - so they ought to be in fellowship with you. Do you believe in the communion of the saints? That's what fellowship is.
Let me give you a further principle that comes out of fellowship. Whatever we plan to do as church must emanate from this fellowship, it must come out of fellowship - and, further, it must result in deepening fellowship with God. Did you get that? Everything that we do and are ought to come out of it, and to lead to a deepening of it - fellowship. If you go back to Acts chapter 1, you will see that the church was born out of a place of fellowship. Verse 14 of Acts 1: 'These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers'. If you go over to chapter 2 verse 1: 'When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place' - in fellowship. When God came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and there were tongues of fire, we might say the church was officially born, and the Holy Spirit baptism came upon these early believers.
So out of a place of fellowship together, sharing the life of God together, something was birthed. Out of fellowship something was birthed, but the thing that was birthed actually deepened their fellowship together. If you look down to verse 42, where we read at the beginning: 'And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers'. We know that this took place in the Temple, and then from house-to-house, if you look at verse 46 of chapter 2: 'So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart', and we see that in chapter 5 as well. They were eating together, meeting together, it was a sign of fellowship that they shared meals together - there's that word again, 'sharing'. It's not just speaking of the Lord's Supper, I believe that certainly the Lord's Supper was included in this, but they met together like a family and ate together day by day. There was a great symbolism in this, especially in eastern custom where to eat with someone was to actually commit yourself, to give yourself. Meals were covenant symbols of agreement and devotion. So if you ate with someone you must not be disloyal to them. Part of Judas' guilt was the fact that he ate bread with Jesus and then betrayed Him. You remember the Psalm that Jesus quoted, Psalm 41:9: 'Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me'. It was the height of treachery and treason to eat with someone and then to betray them.
So when we break bread together as Christian believers, we are not only pledging a renewed allegiance to Jesus as our Lord, but we're actually pledging allegiance to one another. There is one loaf, and when we break it up and we assimilate it into our body, we become that one loaf. That's why there are severe judgements pronounced on those who take the Lord's Supper unworthily - precisely because it is a covenant meal. It's got more than symbolism involved, it is deep. So let me ask you a question: now I know you have your own friends, don't misunderstand what I'm going to say, but if there is someone in the meeting, in the Fellowship here, that you would never invite round to your home for a meal because you've got issues with them, not because they're not your friend but because you've got issues with them, could it possibly be right for you to break bread with them? It couldn't be. Yet we have such a legalistic meeting mentality that, you know, 'Oh, you can't miss the Table!'. What? Jesus actually said: 'Leave your offering, and go and make things right with your brother first'. It would have been unthinkable in the early church to eat together as a sign of fellowship, and then to betray one another. If you think about it, on a social level, it's hard to have a meal with someone, or want to have a meal with someone, and not open up to them, not feel that you are giving yourself to them, trusting them. We generally don't eat meals with people that we don't want to be with - on a voluntary basis anyway. They ate together, they experienced life together, not just for the sake of some communalism, but to share their God-experience with one another, to trade their God-encounter with one another.
So let me ask you a couple of questions. Question one: how much of church today is the sharing of God-experience? Is that what we do? Or is it often the case that it's more of an historical consideration of God-experiences that others had in the past, rather than actually sharing the life of God together now. It has often become the first part of 1 John 1 that we read together, that we are in fellowship with the apostles and what they witnessed and recorded for us and passed on, but we have not ourselves, as it were, entered into that personal encounter with the Father and with the Son by the power of the Spirit that makes our joy complete. Question two: how much of what we do is birthed out of God-experience, out of true fellowship, and therefore - as a result - takes us deeper into fellowship with God and one another?
Derek Prince is very insightful on the area of fellowship, and he says: 'Fellowship is the place of spiritual birth' - and he quotes John 3:6, 'That which is of the flesh is flesh, that which is of the Spirit is spirit'. Whenever we make decisions in ministry, in church life, in our own walk with God for that matter, aspects of guidance and direction - do they come from a place of fellowship with God? Because that's where it's meant to start. Look with me at Acts chapter 13 - and this is a blueprint if ever there was of early church life. There was a plurality of giftings, and yet there was a recognition of the prophets that were in Antioch. It wasn't every-man ministry and it wasn't one-man ministry, but was recognised as a plurality of ministry, verse 1: 'Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord', that's a priestly role, we've all got that role, a kingdom of priests, male and female, our job is to minister to the Lord, 'As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them''. Out of these five men waiting in prayer and ministering to the Lord, something akin to foreign missions took place.
There was a fluidity in the early church where the Holy Spirit was directing operations from heaven, or I should say Jesus from heaven, via the Vicar of Christ on the earth which is the Holy Spirit. We know that this was birthed in fellowship with Jesus, in fellowship with one another - and what came out of it? An intensified fellowship where others were swept into the kingdom, and came to be a worshipful community, praising God and devoting themselves to Him. Derek Prince says: 'If we want spiritual birth, we must be in a place where it occurs. O, how I long to see true spiritual birth, rather than a dressing up of the flesh. I would say it is much easier for the flesh to sit in fifteen committee meetings, than it is to have one day of fellowship. Committees will never produce what fellowship can'. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. If something in the church is just born out of your experience, or your business acumen, or your academic ability, or even your cerebral knowledge of mere Scripture, without an actual experiential knowledge of God - that's not coming out of fellowship, and it will not deepen fellowship. The early church, their supernatural experience of fellowship with God, and shared with each other, led them to do some radical things.
Here's another principle for you: Christianity in its original state was radical! You see, if you come into the fellowship of the Father, and the Son, through the Spirit, there will be no room for mediocrity. The status quo is a concept that you will refuse to recognise. The existing state of affairs will continually be challenged by ongoing developing fellowship with God and one another. Just as individual fellowship is radical - and it is radical, you've read the New Testament, you've read the Gospels, discipleship is radical - it's very unpalatable. Several people have written books with titles like 'Hard Sayings of Jesus', 'Did Jesus Really Say That?'. When we actually contemplate them honestly, they are devastating. I preached to you this morning on the storm, and the passage that I was allocated began with a disciple coming to Jesus and saying: 'Would you please let me go, before I follow You, and bury my father?', and Jesus said 'Let the dead bury the dead, you follow Me'. Now, I'll be honest with you, I deliberately avoided that one - that's hard, is it not, is it not? What was Jesus saying? 'Let dead people deal with dead things, but you follow Me!'.
In the same way that individual discipleship is radical, so is corporate Christian community when we allow God to be God. These early believers shared the life of God so intensely that they began sharing their lives together. They laid down their lives for each other, look at chapter 2 verses 44 and 45: 'Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need'. Turn to chapter 4 verse 34, we see similar behaviour: 'Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need'. Their obligation was not only to each other's spiritual needs, receiving this life of God into their lives and sharing it with one another; but they were obligated to material and practical needs, and they sold all and distributed. Now, does this mean that this is a universal command for us today to sell our house and sell our car, and give everything away? Well, no, it's not, it doesn't appear to be a pattern that was followed in other cities in the book of Acts, or even another New Testament literature we don't get the impression that this was some kind of universal command. But there was a material and practical obligation upon believers to make sure that there was none among them who lacked. There was a principle of sharing with those who were in need.
I mean, we don't need to apply that, do we? I know there are many considerations we have to think about, like the welfare state in which we live - and some might object that why people in the world are poor the way they are poor is because they have addictions, it's because they're paying for their Sky TV when they need to feed their child breakfast. Well, actually Scripture doesn't tell us to judge those people, it tells us to love those people with the love of Christ. So love is the basis of fellowship, wouldn't that be right? The Father's love, revealed in the Son, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that vertical communion - fellowship - communion with God will result in a horizontal communion of the saints, a fellowship, a love that we share with one another. As 1 John 3:14 puts it so well: 'We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brothers and sisters'. Jesus said this is the mark of discipleship: 'They will be known by their love'. Of course, the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love your neighbour; and Jesus said that sums up all the law and prophets. If I can paraphrase what our Lord was saying, He is saying: 'That's what the Bible's all about, folks: love'.
Describing the first Christians to the Roman Emperor, Aristides wrote to Hadrian and said: 'They love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who will hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, they take him home and are happy, as though they were a real brother. They don't consider themselves brothers and sisters in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God'. What did Paul say in 1 Corinthians 13? 'You can have all the knowledge you like, you can have all the spiritual power that you like, you can even give your body as a martyr - but if you don't have love, you're nothing'. That strong, isn't it? Whatever is devoid of love is of no account in the sight of God, and that's why fellowship is the primary purpose of the church of Jesus Christ: our love to God, and our love to one another.
Let us pray. Now, how do we apply this? Well, maybe the Lord has already done that for you. Maybe you are in a position of leadership in the assembly here, or maybe you've come from somewhere else, maybe you're involved in some sort of ministry - but on a very personal level, all of us are meant to be in that priestly role of fellowship with the Lord, ministering to Him, waiting upon Him for direction, for leading. We are meant to be experiencing His life, and so there ought not to be such a thing as a lifeless church - correct? A name that we live, but are dead, is no use - it has to be an actual vibrant encounter with God in private. Do you see if you get folk who have experience of God in their everyday life, their private walk, and they come together collectively, you will have an explosion of God-experience that will bring vitality and life. Then, when you share that with each other, and go out again, it brings life to this world. It's a very simple thing, isn't it? But we need to all ask ourselves: do we know this as a reality? Have we got to the stage where the structures have become the end, the purpose? The danger then is that we worship - idolatrously - structure, doing things right, rather than being right.
Father, we realise Your heart's desire to share Your life with humanity, and that's why Your Son gave His life for humanity. We thank You that now, through His dying and glorious resurrection, and now that He is glorified and ascended at Your right hand, the Holy Spirit is being poured out - and we can know this life, we can know Your life. I pray that every Christian here tonight will know the confession of Paul when he said: 'It's no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me', that we would know that Divine nature permeating our whole being; whereby we can say with the New Testament author that we are filled with all the fullness of God. Those of us who know that experience, oh that their capacity would be enlarged to have a greater experience. For those who gather together as Christian communities, and this assembly of Scrabo, Lord, whatever You're saying, Lord, that they might hear - and that none of us would be guilty of organising the life of God away. We know from the book of Corinthians it's a very hard balance to get, Lord, but we do know also that where the stall and the stable isn't messy, there's no cattle. We ask that You will deliver us from order without life. Lord, we ask that You will not permit the evil one to snatch away the seed of the Word, but give us grace to respond as we need to - whatever that means in each of our experience - that we might know more life, more life in the Son, this life, and we might share it with one another as we feed on Christ together and share Him with a dying world. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at Scrabo Hall in Newtownards, N. Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording titled "Fellowship" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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