Rediscovering Fellowship

We’re in the middle of this forty days of purpose series. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at “Why on earth am I here?” We’re not here for our own pleasure or our own purpose. It’s not about us. Our lives are about following Jesus, about being part of what he’s doing. Last week, we looked at worship – that God has created us to worship him, not just when we get together, but 24/7. We’re here to walk with him, to be friends with him, throughout all of life.

Today, we’re going to look at another dimension of why we’re here. I’m amazed at how relational all of this is. We’ve talked so far about friendship with God, and today we’re talking about our relationships with each other. It’s a good reminder that relationships are at the core of who we are.

Last year, I received an email telling me that I needed to get over to England because my father wasn’t well. Within 24 hours, I was on a plane and on my way. I arrived, and I didn’t know what to expect. A few days later, my brother arrived as well. I thought that he came for the same reason I did: to look after my Dad. I was wrong, though. He knew Dad would be okay, because I was there. He came to look after me.

It’s moments like those that make me realize the value of family. You may have experienced those times that it’s really cost someone to stand by you, but they have. Today, I want to look back at early records of the church, because I think we’ve lost something today. I’m not going to give you all the how-to steps as much as create an image. Perhaps when we see this image, we’ll realize what we’re missing and begin to long for the same dynamic right here.

I should add that this, sadly, is a relatively new discovery for me. I’ve had a highly individualistic view of my walk with God for a long time. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered something much better, much richer.

In one of the most significant talks that Jesus gave to his followers, Jesus said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). I would have looked around and said, “You expect me to love these guys?” Jesus gave us the defining mark of what it looks like to follow him. Those who follow him love one another. Our defining mark isn’t our theology, whether we attend church, or a whole lot of other things. We’re supposed to be known by how much we love one another.

Jesus repeated himself a short while later. “I command you to love each other in the same way that I love you” (John 15:12). Not only does Jesus tell us what to do (“love each other”), he gives us a standard (“in the same way that I have loved you”). This is clearly above what’s possible for us to do by ourselves, but somehow this is supposed to be what following Jesus is all about.

I would be tempted to think that Jesus was engaged in wishful thinking here, and that this type of love could never happen among a group of people without some sort of miracle taking place. But strangely, this is what happened. For the first few hundred years of the church’s life, his followers were known by their relationships with each other.

The strange thing is that it seemed to happen almost by itself, right from the start. In Acts 2, three thousand people began to follow Jesus. They were all in spiritual diapers. They had just started their spiritual journey, following Jesus. Yet here’s how they’re described, right from the start:

They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity-all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

“Devoted themselves to…fellowship” – This is about more than a loose concept. It’s really about sharing life together. Just as Jesus and his followers did everything together, the early followers ate together, lived together. They didn’t just meet for public worship and leave. They shared their lives with one another.

It’s easy to be devoted to others in theory. When generosity characterizes a relationship, that’s when you know real commitment is present. These baby followers of Jesus were so committed to one another that they shared their stuff with one another. They were living out what John the Baptist had said earlier: “”If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry” (Luke 3:11). In today’s terms, if somebody realized that they had two cars, and someone else had no transportation but needed some, then they have away one of their cars. If you had an empty room and somebody needed a place to stay, you’d give them a room because you’re so committed to them.

This is pretty significant, but it’s not the high watermark. That comes a few chapters later. In Acts 2, people sold whatever they have and gave it to those who had need. A couple of chapters later, we see what they were willing to sell. Acts 4:32-35 says:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Talk about caring for one another. I’d give away my coat to help someone. Big deal. What about selling a house because someone else has a need?

History can look so sterile sometimes. Don’t forget that these weren’t mature Christians or extreme examples. This was life. This is what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

One of the greatest challenges early Christ-followers faced was how to mix Jews and Gentiles together. Jews had always thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. Now, God was doing something new, and great numbers of Gentiles were staring to enter the church as well. Aren’t you glad? But then this guy over here brings bacon to the church dinner, and you’ve got a problem. A big problem. This could have destroyed the entire movement, but it didn’t. They were so committed to one another that they worked through this issue, and overcame old prejudices because of their commitment to fellowship.

Then there were the other social barriers. When the church got together, slaves came to worship with their masters. Poor came to worship and eat with the rich. Men came to worship with women, at a time in which a woman’s status was nothing in society. Society treated women as second-class, but that didn’t happen within the church. All these social and cultural barriers were broken. The apostle Paul described it this way: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians-you are one in Christ Jesus.” Talk about revolutionary!

The communion celebration was even called by a name most of us wouldn’t recognize anymore. It was called a Love Feast. It was more than a brief service. It was a meal, set in the context of love.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to paint an ideal picture of the early church, or pretend that they got it all right. Far from it. But we can safely conclude that the texture of their relationships was different and deeper than most of us have experienced in church life today, not just in Bible times, but in early church history. It makes me think that something else may be possible today.

Do you know what one of the early charges against the church was? “See, how they love one another!” That wasn’t said from within the church. It was said by those who weren’t part of the church. Some of the early charges against the church included things like gross immorality, antifamily behavior, and poverty. Why? They were accused of gross immorality because they called each other “brother” and “sister” and talked about loving one another. You can see how that might be misunderstood. They were accused of being antifamily because their spiritual family became more important than their physical family, and their loyalty switched from family to Christ. They were accused of poverty not just because they were poor – and many of them were – but because even when they had wealth, they gave it away to others in need.

I love this description, from the second or third century, about why the church must be eradicated:

This conspiracy must be absolutely eradicated and accursed. They recognize each other by secret marks and signs, and they love one another almost before they become acquainted [Note: don’t you love that?]. Everywhere they mingle together in a kind of religion of lust, indiscriminately calling each other brothers and sisters, with the result that ordinary debauchery, by means of a sacred name, is converted into incest. Thus their vain and demented superstition glories in its crimes.

This dynamic was so strong that some early creeds that confessed the faith of the church included these words: “I believe in the communion of saints.” That’s what we’re talking about. It’s the dynamic that was unmistakable in those days, but is missing in so much of what we’ve come to know as the church today.

I wish I could give five easy steps to living this out, but I can’t. It does give me hope that this seemed to happen naturally in the early days as a result of the change that Jesus brought into his followers’ lives. I’m hoping that just by describing this as a possibility, we might begin to move in this direction.

Let me ask you some questions. How much of your walk with God could be described as “a common life?” Maybe part of the problem is that a lot of us are trying to follow God by ourselves, apart from attending a church service once a week. We’ve bought into the individualistic worldview of our culture, which is completely wrong. How much of your life is lived in the context of a shared life with other believers?

What social/generational/cultural barriers have you broken? My grandfather lived in South Africa, and for a time, he held views that could probably be called racist. When he moved to Canada, he started to attend a very culturally diverse church. One of my fondest memories of my grandfather is that of him hugging and loving people from other nationalities. Jesus turns those who were formerly racists into brothers and sisters in the same family.

What radical acts of generosity have revealed your commitment to others? It’s easy to talk about fellowship and loving one another. What have you sacrificed for the sake of others in your spiritual family?

If your life fell apart tonight, whom would you call? Who would call you? Part of being in the same spiritual family is having others with you who are with you no matter what you go through. You could call them day or night, and they’d be there. If you went off and did something stupid, they would chase you. They wouldn’t let you away with it. But they wouldn’t just enter your life when you’re in trouble. They’re part of your life, when things are going well and when they’re not.

You may not have answers to these questions, because a lot of us have never even thought that this was possible. This may be frustrating for you because it’s what you want, and you don’t have it now. While I think we can do some things structurally to make this possible, I believe a lot of this can happen just as we begin to desire it, as we pray for it, and as we take some risks to build this kind of relationship with others.

I guess the programmatic answer would be small groups. I’m all for small groups, but they’re not a magic bullet. This can happen in small groups, but it can also happen apart from an official program. It can happen in a coffee shop or a living room or on the telephone throughout the week without a program. If you want this, you can not only pray and desire it, you can also take the initiative and begin to live this way yourself.

A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to join a small group, or what I prefer to call a house church. I reacted the same way that a lot of you would. This is really sad, but an ideal night for me is a night at home. I’m out far too much. I don’t really need another night out, and I’m not really looking for more friends. I have enough, and I’m having a hard enough time keeping up with the ones I already have. But how could I turn it down? So I accepted. Listen to what I wrote down when I got home from my first night there:

I really don’t need another night out, but I couldn’t really turn down an invitation to join a small group (how I hate that term – so programmatic), or should I say home church. I don’t believe in small groups as a program, but I do think that a lot of what the church has to do can’t happen on a Sunday morning. It has to happen in a more intimate setting.
My small group experience has been bad – really bad – in the past. I’m a terrible small group leader. It’s a completely different skill set than is required from the Sunday morning pastor type. Still, as Rob Bell asked last week, “Are you smoking what you’re selling?” I talk about the value of sitting in circles rather than rows. I couldn’t really turn down the invitation to join this home church.
I arrived, and soon recognized I was in a one-another experience. I was not the expert or the Bible answer man (thank God). I did not have to participate in any discussions on directional issues or strategic shifts. I sat beside my wife and was just who I am, hungry for community, hungry for something more with one another than we’ve made church out to be.
No offerings. No budgets. No strategy. No hierarchy. Just each other. And it was great.

This is what I want for you as well, that you discover what we could be: a group so committed to one another that we call each other brother and sister before we hardly know each other, and mean it; that we adopt one another’s problems as our own and meet needs with our own resources; that we’re just with one another, to the extent that the world says of us, “See, how they love one another.”

Pipedream? Maybe compared to what we’re experiencing now. But it’s happened before, and we’re sure going to try.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada