(This is the first in a series of messages titled 'A Contagious Church'.)
I’ve been reviewing my Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms lately. I used this a lot when I was a fund raiser—mostly so I could understand what some of my high-powered donors were talking about, but also so I could cut down on the times I would embarrass myself by asking dumb questions or saying the wrong thing.
I’ve had this out a lot more over the last few months. It’s hand to have it nearby when I’m watching the news or reading articles in the paper. It’s important for me to know these things in a church –and a city—with so many business people. I noticed, for example, the definition of a limited partnership: It’s an organization ‘made up of a general partner who manages a project, and limited partners, who invest money but have limited liability, and are not involved in day-to-day management.’ Hold that thought.
Today we start our annual four week look at the church—at what it means to be the church—to gather as a community of faith. Some of this is about what we should be, and other parts are about what we’re called to do.
Over the last two weeks we talked about what it means to say ‘Happy New Year,’ and really mean it. That true happiness comes from building our lives on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and helping others to do the same. We also talked about being contagious—like the flu—and developing a life of faith that makes an impact on people that we might never actually meet.
The key sentence for us over the next four weeks is this: A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission. Each one of those helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life with other people.
Today we begin with Fellowship, the partnership that forms the start of everything for us as a community of people trying to grow in a shared direction.
Our text this morning is from Luke’s Gospel 5:1-10
1One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, 2he saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
5Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
6When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" 9For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.
Our passage today comes very early in Jesus’ ministry. He’s already teaching and healing people, but where we pick up the story he’s beginning to call the disciples who will follow him and support him and aggravate him over the next three years.
These first three disciples—Peter, James and John—are partners in a business together. They catch fish, sell them in the marketplace, and split the earnings. Jesus uses the fact that they already work together to offer them a completely new set of jobs.
The term for partnership in this passage is an important one for us today. The word is koinonia, and it gets translated most often as ‘fellowship.’ Now when we think of fellowship we tend to think of social events, and that’s a good thing. I believe that the social life of the church is crucial to the rest of what it does.
But what I like in this text is that koinonia also represents a business partnership—something we invest in and work at and that we hope produces something important. Jesus takes their koinonia—their partnership—and says that he can help them catch something more important than fish.
It’s important to notice, as Jesus calls these partners into partnership with him, that he didn’t say: ‘Come and follow me, and I’ll let you watch while I do all the work.’ This is not a limited partnership, with a bunch of silent partners who only invest money.
He said: ‘Come with me, and I will teach you to do as I do—together, as a team, as a community.’ In other words, ‘come with me, and I’ll make you partners in my work.’
So what is Fellowship for us? At one level, fellowship is about being good company to each other—showing hospitality and being gracious in the way we interact with each other. We were made for this kind of community—this kind of fellowship. But it can be hard to find sometimes. Bruce Larson described the local bar as a substitute version of the fellowship we crave.
‘The bar flourishes,’ Larson wrote, ‘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.’
At another level, just as important, fellowship describes how we work and worship and serve together. So many parts of our lives take place in isolation—sitting alone in an office or cubicle—commuting or traveling, even when we’re in a crowd. One of the functions of the church is to remind us that we were made to be together, and also to serve together. The images of the church in the Bible are of the body—many parts working together to accomplish a shared task. The other image is the word the bible uses for the church, which describes an army or a group of people drafted or called up into active service. The church is a place where we’re called up to be together, and also where we’re called to do something together.
There are two parts of this for us to take away from this morning.
First, we’re called to be welcoming people—a community that shows hospitality to guests and longtime members and to everyone in-between. From the welcome at the door, to the picnics and talent shows and quiz nights, to the Bible studies and deep friendships that we build together in this place. All of that represents our ministry of fellowship, the koinonia we share with each other, our growing sense of partnership in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The second thing is to work at developing that partnership in ministry. Doing this work together—drawing new people into the community through the relationships that we build, is part of the point, too. That’s what we’re seeing among the volunteers in the Cold Weather Shelter. The ability and willingness and enjoyment of working together are marks of a church that is alive and thriving and contagious. The task in front of us is enormous, but the cliché that we are stronger and better than simply the sum of our parts is true. We’re called to work and serve and worship and pray as a community—to do it together, combining our gifts and talents and energy.
So back to my Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms. It describes a partnership as ‘a contract between two or more people in a joint business who agree to pool their funds and talent and share in the profits and losses of the enterprise.’
In our fellowship we pool our talents and funds—in church-speak we call that ‘time, talent and treasure’—to accomplish a task, but it’s more than that. We’re not just doing a job here—we’re not just making a product—we’re living our lives in a different way because of what God has done for each one of us…often times through each other. Business partnerships share in ‘profits and losses,’ and we do the same here as well. We celebrate when the ministries we plan actually work out—we share in the joys of getting new jobs, bringing new brothers and sisters in Christ into this community—of baptisms and marriages and the joys that come from serving our community faithfully.
But we also share in each others’ losses—in the struggles and illnesses and sad times that eventually come to all of us. The message of true Christian fellowship isn’t that problems or tragedies or hard times won’t happen anymore. The message is that we don’t have to go through those rough times alone anymore.
What makes this church thrive isn’t what happens up in front. The life of this church is what happens when we get to know each other—when we build relationships here that meet needs and offer true community to our neighbors. When someone in this church goes through a hard time, and they find themselves comforted and helped and loved by someone else from this place, watch out. Because that will be the sign that our church is about to experience an amazing burst of growth.
And the great part is that it will be contagious. People are looking for true koinonia. We’re looking for an authentic experience of partnership and fellowship—people in this city, whether they’re aware of it or not, are starving for an experience of true community, of tangible relationships that remind them they’re not alone. We’re made to want to laugh together, and work together, and cry and hope and grieve together. If word gets out that that’s what we’re doing here, it’ll be contagious—people who experience it here will share it with their friends and families and neighbors and strangers on the street. And then there’s no telling what might happen.
What we have here is an opportunity for unlimited partnership. An opportunity to gather as a church family—to know and be known—to love and be loved.
The sentence we should commit to memory is this: A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.
The point today is that it all begins with Fellowship. My prayer for us over this new year is that our life together will grow in depth and meaning and enjoyment. That we’ll make the effort to grow in our relationships with Christ and each other. My invitation to you is to take that risk—to make that first step toward building this community into the place Christ designed it to be. Come and see what we can do together. Amen.