Friday, February 6, 2015

They Devoted Themselves (Acts 2:37-47) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember a conversation some years ago with this guy about the church.  He was being fairly critical.  I asked him if he had gone to church very often.  He said “no.”  I invited him to come and check it out.  He said:  “Sorry pastor, but I'm not a joiner, I don't really need to be around people.”

Do you need community and friendships?  Research studies show just how significant they are.  A 2006 study of 3,000 women with breast cancer found that those with a large network of friends were four times more likely to survive, than women with limited social connections.  A study involving almost 3,000 Americans found that people with close friendships are far less likely to die young.

But despite this irrefutable scientific evidence, our life-style as Americans is becoming more solitary. Since the late 1980s, according to surveys in the United States, more people are saying that they are feeling isolated and lonely.  Why is this?  Perhaps because people are opting for more personal freedom, independence and time for themselves.   Perhaps we don't trust one another the way we used to.  We are wary, cautious, guarded about establishing friendships.  Perhaps people are more disinclined toward making commitments, they are “commitment adverse,” about investing all that's required in establishing new friendships or in maintaining current relationships.  What do you think?  We know this fact of life.  If you don't invest energy and time and involvement, then community, friendships, relationships will gradually fade and die. 

A fundamental theme that runs through all of scripture is community.  The Old Testament speaks about the community of Israel and the New Testament speaks about the church or the Christian community.  There are different dimensions of the church: we are a worshiping community, an evangelical community, a ministering community, a learning community and a fellowship. 

I want to focus our thinking upon the church as a Christian fellowship.  The biblical word in Greek is Koinonia, which translated means - “Christians sharing together in and with Christ.”  It is the experience of sharing together in Christ and his benefits.  For example in I John we read: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 

Koinonia or Christian fellowship is sharing together as partners, as spiritual brothers and sisters or brothers and sisters in faith in Christ's benefits: in Christ's love, in unity and mutual support, in the body and blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper, in the Holy Spirit, in His grace and forgiveness and power, in His promises, in his blessings, in his sufferings, and in his future glory.  By God’s grace, and the power His Word and Holy Spirit, we are and are becoming a fellowship in Christ.

Recall our lesson from the book of Acts.  The first Christians in Jerusalem shared their life together in and with Christ.  They held all things in common.  They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to one another as needs arose. Imagine that.   This practice of the church in Jerusalem, of holding things in common, lasted about a generation.  Believers spent time together – devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, enjoying a common fellowship, worshipping in the temple, sharing meals in their homes, praying together, supporting one another, praising God and enjoying the good will of all the people.   The early Christians experienced encouragement, strength, caring, and faith in their life together.  

How are we doing as a Christian community?  How are we doing as a fellowship sharing in and with Christ?  Do you feel God's love abides in our life together?  Someone might be thinking:  “Well pastor, we aren't perfect.” I agree. Only Jesus was perfect. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.  The church is made up of saved and forgiven sinners called together and growing together in Christ.   By God's grace, we must constantly strive to reach Christ's ideal of a Christian fellowship, knowing full well that we will never reach it to a state of perfection.

I think of Christian community in terms of an analogy from nature, like the flying patterns of Canadian geese.  A group of engineers wondered why Canadian geese always fly in a “V” formation, so they did a study on the subject.  They discovered that the flapping of each goose’s wings provided an upward lift for the goose that followed.  When all the geese were flying in perfect formation, the whole flock had a 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.  Each bird was dependent on the others to reach its destination.  Here is synergy at work.  The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.  Is that an apt metaphor for the church?

Koininia is further about harmony, aiming always for unity in our life, worship and mission.  In Ephesians we read: “Making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Does this mean we are always going to agree with one another? Does it mean we are always going to like each other?  I don't think so.   It means learning to agree to disagree, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus never commanded - “Like each other.”  He did say - “Love one another.”

Koinonia means we learn to respect one another and trust one another, even when we disagree and still cooperate in building up our community.  It means to learn to accept and embrace different personalities.  Do we have different personalities here at PBPC?   I’ve said to myself “Alan, you don't always have to be right, you don't always have to get your way, so get over it.”  “I've had to say it more than once.”  Being open to and truly listening to the views and ideas and opinions of others, while articulating your own views, is true koinonia.

Koinonia is at times a joy and delight isn’t it?  There are memorable times in which we experience joys like hearing inspiring music in worship or sharing in a rewarding time in ministry.   But alas, there are also difficult times, frustrating times, disappointing times.  This was so in the early church as well as we read in the New Testament.

In Christian fellowship people feel like they belong.  There is a spirit of acceptance and inclusiveness.  New people are made to feel genuinely welcomed.  There is an open and warm climate - not a cliquish, aloof and closed and cold environment.  New people feel valued and are invited to participate and get involved.  People reach out to newcomers.  

There is a spirit of hospitality in koinonia.  People feel affirmed, appreciated and recognized.  They feel like they count, that they matter.  Barriers and walls can be broken down so that strangers can become friends in Christ.  In the letter of Ephesians we read: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.”    Not a bad picture of Koininia.

Koinonia is further characterized by a spirit of joy, energy, enthusiasm and hope.  A spirit of light rather than darkness, grace rather than guilt, freedom rather than control pervades the community.  Christian fellowship promotes hope rather than despair, pessimism and hopelessness.  It is hope founded upon God in Christ, hope for our lives, hope for our church, hope for our world, hope for the future.  The good news is that Jesus Christ is committed to transforming us into a Christian fellowship through the power of His Word and Spirit.  Let’s open our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds for signs of Christ’s Spirit at work within us.   

I close with this quote from the book Life Together about Christian fellowship by the distinguished German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a concentration camp in 1945.  He writes:  “It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual, is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.  It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian community is a gift of grace, that any day, could be taken from us.  Let us thank God on our knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are called to be in community with other Christian brothers and sisters.”  Amen!

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