Fellowship: More Than Just A “Hall” in the Church

This is a sermon that was originally preached on August 2, 1992 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  It was originally titled “Getting To Know Each Other.”  This message has been edited for clarity, and portions that were relevant only for the location and time in which it was preached have been removed.

Acts 2:41-47 (Revised Standard Version)

So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Mark 14:32-35 (Revised Standard Version)

32 And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.

When I first started serving as one of your associate pastors a little over a year ago something very interesting happened to me on several occasions. I was trying to learn people’s names–as I confess I’m still trying to do to some extent–but at that time I knew hardly any. One good way to do this, of course, is to go up to someone you already know and privately ask them the name of some other person in the room. “Who is that over there?” When I tried this approach at our church, I was surprised to find that on more than one occasion the person I was asking had to shake their head rather sheepishly and respond, “I don’t know.” Most of the people I asked in this regard were folk who had been long-time members of this church. Often the response was even, “Well, I should know, because they’ve been going here for years, but I just can’t remember.”

These experiences have surprised me, not that they should happen at all, but that they should occur as frequently as they do. Granted, this is a large church–with over 1100 members–but I’ve still been surprised to find that people here don’t seem to know each other any better than they do.

Let me tell you of another experience I had which also illustrates this point. I’m the coordinator for our Fellowship Suppers, which take place on Wednesday evenings September thru May. As such, my primary responsibility is to plan and organize the programs that take place after dinner each week. Back in December, as I was planning for the next month’s programs,

I decided it might be fun to do something completely different on one of our nights in January: Instead of having a speaker come in, or a devotional, or a musical offering of some sort, I thought it would be good to pick up on the idea of fellowship contained in the name of the dinners – since we do call them “Fellowship Suppers” — and feature an activity that would allow attendees to get to know each other better.

I decided to rearrange the seating at the dinner, since people usually sit in about the same place each week, and then divide them into small groups to have them share some basic information about themselves: their job, their hobbies, their interests, and some of their dreams. So this is what I planned to do.

Now as the day approached for us to do this little activity, I began to get cold feet. “This thing is going to flop!” a little voice in my head kept telling me. “Most of these people have been coming to these suppers for years. They’re not going to be able to learn anything about each other they didn’t already know!” But I decided to try it anyway.

So with a little fear and trembling I went ahead with the program. To my surprise, it seemed to go very well. According to comments I heard afterwards, even though many of the people had been coming to the suppers for years, there were still some attendees they’d never met, or with whom they’d never had more than a brief conversation. Even those who had known each other for years claimed to have learned new things about each other they hadn’t known before.

Like many congregations, it seems as though we really don’t know each other very well, or at least not as well as we could. I include myself in that “we” because I definitely feel like it’s also true for me, even though I’m one of your ministers.

Now I’m not saying there aren’t deep friendships among people in this church. I‘d like to believe that just about everyone here could think of at least one other person in the church whom they could count as a close friend. Many folks may be able to think of several people who would fall into that category for them.

But if you look around the sanctuary this morning, or if you look through the church directory, or if you were to go to the other service, how many people would you be able to say you know? For how many people would you be able to recall some significant information about them or their families? How many people do you feel like you could sit down with and have a heart-to-heart talk? How many would you feel comfortable going to for help with a problem?

The scripture passages read this morning emphasize the importance of getting to know one another in the church. Let’s look first at the passage from Acts. In the first chapter of Acts we’re told about Jesus’ ascension into heaven following his resurrection. The second chapter tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all the disciples who are gathered together in Jerusalem. After being baptized in the Spirit, the apostle Peter is prompted to stand up and give a rousing sermon to all the Jews who’ve come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. Our passage begins immediately following Peter’s sermon. As a result of Peter’s powerful testimony, 3000 people became followers of Christ that day. What follows is a description of what life became like for those earliest disciples.

We’re told first of all that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  It’s interesting that fellowship would be second in the list, before “the breaking of bread”–which some scholars take as a reference to the Lord’s Supper–and before prayer. I have to admit that when I’m trying to prioritize spiritual activities, I’m not sure fellowship would be second on my list. Yet the fact that fellowship appears in this passage second only to the apostles’ teaching shows that the early church saw fellowship as very important.

That sounds like good news, doesn’t it? For if any of us were looking for more reasons to have  dinners and parties and sports teams and social groups of various types, here’s one straight from the bible! And yet as we think about fellowship we need to be sure we understand what it is. It may turn out to be more than just getting together and having a good time.

The Greek word translated “fellowship” in this passage is “koinonia,” which can also be translated “association” or “communion.” It can also mean “unity,” “sharing” or even “generosity.” However, the idea of fellowship or communion appears to be the most common meaning of koinonia in the New Testament. When Luke tells us that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to “koinonia,” he’s saying they shared a special kind of communion that caused them to form unique bonds of love with one another, and that they were committed to maintaining that communion. From the context we can infer that the source of this communion, this unity, was the Holy Spirit. The Spirit acted as a sort of “glue” that held the people together in fellowship.

We see this borne out in the rest of today’s reading from Acts. The ties that bound those disciples together were so strong that they “had all things in common” and sold their possessions in order to redistribute the wealth so no one was left in poverty (Acts 2:44-45). It also says the disciples “were together” (Acts 2:44), from which we may infer that some actually lived communally. Furthermore, we’re told that “day by day” they attended “the temple together” and were “breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46).

So we see that the fellowship of these early believers was characterized by at least two important qualities:

First, they spent a lot of time together. Not only did they worship together, but they also ate together often, and it would appear that at least some of them actually lived together.

Second, these early disciples truly cared for each other. Those who had abundance sold their possessions so they could share with their brothers and sisters who didn’t have enough. As I said earlier, the word “koinonia” may be translated “generosity” or “sharing.” Some scholars seem to think this word was even used at times to refer to offerings collected among the early Christians for the sake of other believers in need. So we see that caring for others is an important part of true fellowship.

Our passage from Acts also shows some very positive results that arose from the fellowship these early Christians shared with each other. For example, they “had favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47).  In plain English this means they were liked, that others thought highly of them, that they made a good impression on everyone around them. This is not surprising; for if these early Christians were caring for each other in such a public way it’s likely the surrounding society couldn’t help but notice. Perhaps without even being conscious of it, they were fulfilling Jesus’ command from John 13, in which he said, “Love one another . . . By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

Evidently this love the early Christians had for one another and which gave them favor in the eyes of the people also attracted many converts to the faith. For in the last verse of the passage we’re told that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). It would appear that strong fellowship in the body of Christ can be of great assistance in the task of evangelism.

This morning’s Scripture passage from Mark illustrates our need for fellowship from a slightly different angle. In it we see Jesus with his disciples at a crucial moment in his life. It’s the night before he’s about to die. In the garden of Gethsemane he pulls aside three of them–Peter, James, and John–and invites them to come with him further into the garden. There he confides in them that he is very troubled about his impending death and asks them to stay there and “watch” while he goes a little deeper into the garden to pray. It appears that Jesus has brought these three men with him for moral support.

There are two other instances of this in the gospels. At one point Jesus is going to bring back to life the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue. Just before he does so he invites three of his disciples to go with him into the room where her body lies. Who were they? You guessed it: Peter, James, and John. As Jesus takes on the task of bringing a dead girl back to life, he invites his closest friends to join him.  Was it to train them?  Was it for moral support?  Possibly a little of both.

The third instance I mentioned took place in another well-known event–the Transfiguration. This is when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, and Moses and Elijah appeared to them. During this special event Jesus was transformed and his clothing glistened white as snow. Jesus wanted these three men to share in this important and joyous moment in his life.

From these three incidents we see that even Jesus wanted fellowship, not only with his disciples in general, but with three of them in particular who were his closest friends. And if we take seriously the relationship the Gospel of John portrays between Jesus and “the beloved disciple,” it would appear that one of these three, traditionally thought to be John, was Jesus’ best friend.

Even Jesus needed friendship and fellowship, a close communion with special people. If he himself sought it, how much more do we need it!

But we’re only going to experience fellowship if we actively put ourselves in situations where we’re likely to find it. It’s only going to happen if we’re spending time together and getting to know each other.

“But,” one might say, “I already have a group of friends with whom I spend most of my time.” Yet when we speak of fellowship in the church, we’re talking about more than just social relationships or friendships. For the nature of fellowship is more spiritual than merely social. We seek fellowship with other members of the body of Christ in order to experience the bonding that takes place in a special way between those who are filled with God’s Spirit. To be in the presence of the Holy Spirit in other believers is of great benefit. This blessing comes to us when we have contact with others who love Christ and seek to live according to His will.

So how can we increase our level and experience of fellowship? We can begin by taking advantage of as many opportunities as there are available for us to spend time with each other. This is where it has to start. For if we’re not even spending time together, it’s not going to be very easy for us to get to know each other.

So let’s try to start spending more time together. Let’s try to get to know each other better. I think it’ll do us a world of good. Amen.

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