Sunday, January 13, 2008

'Fellowship Happens'

1 Cor 1:4-9

Today we begin a brief series that I hope will become something of a tradition here. As we begin this new year I want to return to the foundations of a healthy church, of an organic church—one that lives and serves from the inside out. If you were here a year ago when I started as your pastor, you’ll remember that we moved through a series of messages on Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission. Over the next four weeks we’re going to look at those topics again—the point is to deepen our understanding of the church—of what it can do and be in this community—and about our place in it.

In the movie Jurassic Park, some scientists figure out how to grow dinosaurs from DNA. In order to control the creatures they only bred one gender, but that didn’t end up working very well for them. One of the characters, a scientist who was famous for his writings on Chaos Theory, said that trying to control or limit nature this way was impossible. He said that no matter what the scientists did to try to control the reproduction of these creatures, ‘life will find a way.’

One of the themes of Paul's letter to the Corinthians was the significance of fellowship in their shared lives as Christians. But first some background.

The city of Corinth was a major trading center between the eastern and western worlds. It was a cosmopolitan city, with diverse ethnic and religious groups, dominated by the business and financial concerns of the day. Many people in Corinth back then had dual citizenship... Without dwelling too much on the obvious, Corinth was a lot like London.

And the church in Corinth had some of the same challenges that Christian communities face here. How to grow and thrive in a social environment that was indifferent, if not outright hostile to it. How to relate to people of other faiths without losing the distinctives of their own. How to share their message faithfully without driving people away.

London, just like Corinth, is a hard place to hold a church together. Here at this church it’s important to strike a balance between being faithful and open, without being judgemental on the one side, or becoming just another social club on the other. Sometimes that feels impossible.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is helpful for us because right from the start—before he identifies any issues or teaches any theology—right from the start he reaffirms his relationship with the people there—he reminds them that he writes as a friend who loves them and believes in their calling to be a church in their complicated city. He mentions their fellowship, with each other in Jesus Christ.

The word Paul uses there is koinonia, a Greek word that translates to communal, or to participate in, to be connected to, to be a companion or partner—to share something in common.

Some of you know that Julie and I went back to Southern California during the Christmas holidays. It was great to see our family and friends, to soak up some sunshine and to eat in our favorite places. But we were surprised to notice how much we missed London—how much we missed our home here—how much we missed all of you. Now don’t get me wrong. So much of our past and maybe our future is wrapped up in the people we know in our hometown, but we were so pleasantly surprised to realize that our present is here—our fellowship is here—our sense of connection and community and shared mission is here—our koinonia is here.

What Paul emphasizes in his letter is the unity that grows out of sharing the journey of faith with other travelers. Even in struggles—even when the culture ignores or opposes you—even when it’s hard to discern what’s true and essential about this faith—life will find a way—fellowship and community and koinonia will find a way.

The practice of Fellowship is one of the key foundations of a living church. From how we greet people at the door, to how we welcome newcomers, to how we build friendships together, to how we grow in faith together through study and conversation—those levels of fellowship are the glue that holds a church together, the energy that gives us life, and way we witness to the work Christ is doing in each one of our lives. Almost every other piece of church life depends on the quality of our fellowship together—on the quality of the relationships we build together in the context of this community of faith.

We’re called as a church to help meet a basic human need—to provide a place where people can experience fellowship together. When we don’t do this part effectively, people will find other ways to meet that need. Bruce Larson is a Presbyterian minister in the States. In a book on fellowship written more than 40 years ago, he said:

“The neighborhood bar is probably the best counterfeit there is for the fellowship Christ wants to give his church. It’s an imitation dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.’

We don't have any intention of offering a counterfeit fellowship here. But finding ways to have meaningful fellowship together can be difficult in the city. People here are busy: you have demanding jobs—a lot of you have to travel for business—some are starting new careers—some of you are raising kids who go to school, play sports and take music lessons—maybe you are one of those kids—some of you are living the single life, which is time-consuming in its own way—some of you are retired but with busy social lives. Did I leave anyone out?

Facebook has become a way for people to connect and re-connect with people they may not always have time to see in person. Facebook is a social networking tool that started at Harvard University and has spread to schoolkids, young professionals and older adults, too. I keep in touch with my family, my old friends in the States, and I’ve even found some friends from high school using the Facebook search tools. More importantly, I have almost daily contact with more than 30 people here at ACL. While I was in the States I was still able to share in some of the struggles people were having during the holidays, and also in the joy of a couple who got married here last week. Fellowship found a way, even though we were in different parts of the world.

I’ve even been able to keep in contact with former members here—in the States, in Finland, and all over the world. Our young adult group plans events, shares news and posts pictures of their exploits using Facebook. As busy as all of these people are, they still take the time and effort to connect with each other. Just like the scientist in Jurassic Park said: Life will find a way. Fellowship will find a way.

Well how do we create and sustain fellowship here at the American Church? I suppose one of the key lessons is that there really isn’t any master plan for how this happens. True fellowship happens organically—it grows naturally among people who are on the journey of faith together. You can’t force true fellowship—it just doesn’t work that way. Author Joseph Myers warns that churches sometimes ask people to make intimate connections that they’re not fully ready to make. You know what that looks like—the minister or someone else tells you to stand up and hold hands with the person next to you, or to share a prayer concern with a stranger. Those are fine things in the proper place, but sometimes we rush it.

But the opposite happens, too. Sometimes we get so careful about offending people that we don’t encourage or provide space for the kinds of intimate connections that we want and need—the kinds of connections that grow a church organically, from the inside out. We have to find a balance between those two sides, and it’s not always easy.

Even if there isn’t a master plan for how to create Fellowship, it’s still a crucial part of the foundation of a thriving, healthy church. In a lot of ways, Fellowship is where we become the people that God made us to be. When we connect with other people within the community of faith, when we can let down our collective guard and enjoy just having fun together, when we learn to listen and to share with each other, then we’re living out the faith we claim as Christians.

It starts at the door and at Coffee Hour, with the way people are greeted and served. It’s our mission here to welcome every person—to let them know that we’re glad they’ve taken the time out of their busy lives to come and worship and learn and pray in this place.

But it goes beyond welcome. It’s also a part of our mission to make sure that people who reach out to us are folded into the community life at this church. That’s a more complicated process—it involves sharing our lives and homes and food—but it’s so important to the life of fellowship in this church.

At a deeper level we’re called to encourage the Christian formation and growth that comes from deep, committed relationships. Small groups, covenant partnerships, spiritual retreats and relationships built on shared accountability—these are the gold standard of church fellowship. Some of you are already there, but there’s more to do to get this going more broadly in our church.

In the passage from the psalm Elizabeth read for us this morning, David talks about those whom God has gathered from east and west, from north and south. He says that God led them directly to a city where they could settle, so ‘Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love, and his wonderful deeds for all people, for he satisfies the thirsty and he fills the hungry with good things.’

In this city where we have settled from east and west and north and south, God has offered to fill our hunger for fellowship through this community of faith. My prayer for us this year is that we will experience the full blessing of koinonia, of life together, of fellowship, whether through Facebook or face-to-face, in Christ’s name.


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