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Worship and Service

Fellowship

In smaller churches to this day it is customary to have a time of fellowship. Births are announced; deaths commiserated. Often this precedes a time of prayer. In our larger congregation this is somewhat impractical, but there is usually a time where we are asked to turn and greet our neighbors. Most of us think this unconnected with worship, but this is not so. We are the body of Christ, and in stating our fellowship we proclaim that body life.

The example is clearer from the Old Testament.

The Nazirite vow

It may seem a strange place to start, but we can learn much from the ritual of the Nazirite vow. We know that it was practiced into New Testament times using the same regulations laid down by Moses. It is a vow of separation - separation from ordinary fellowship, and we may consider it an opposite of fellowship. For in this vow the Jew withdrew from fellowship so that he might worship and contemplate God alone.

No sharing of grief

The Nazirite was forbidden to render himself ceremonially unclean by going near a dead body - even the dead body of his father or mother. As the law would otherwise require him to provide decent burial - or at least attend the funeral - you can see that the Nazirite was cut off from sharing even the most intimate of grief.

No sharing of joy

The Nazirite was to partake of no wine - not even grape juice, nor even raisins. Nothing from the vine was to be his. Considering that wine was an essential ingredient to parties - recall that our Lord's first miracle was changing water to wine at a wedding - it would mean that the Nazirite could not celebrate with anyone else - no sharing of joy.

Visible evidence

It was not sufficient simply for the Nazirite to do these things; he was to carry about a visible sign of doing these things, namely, his hair was not to be cut. (Recall Samson and Delilah? He was a lifetime Nazirite). At the end of the vow, the hair was shaved off, removing this visible sign, and sacrificed with fellowship offerings (of which more later).

From these, we may conclude that the fellowship of the church requires these things:

·         Sharing of grief. We must mourn with those who mourn, sharing their grief. Often we ask, "Why me?" Those about us cannot answer that question - but they can offer a shoulder to lean on or a hug to comfort.

·         Sharing of joy. We must rejoice with those who rejoice. This is usually a little easier, for joy is contagious. But it does mean we must get rid of all envy, and rejoice in our brother's success as well.

·         A visible sign. How will they know we are our Lord's disciples? By the way we love one another. Fellowship must be seen.

Fellowship Offerings

In the Old Testament we also find regulations for fellowship offerings. As with all things of the ancient ceremonial worship, we can find lessons for today's Christian - if we will but look.

·         The fat of the sacrifice was to be totally burnt. Recall that this was in a time when being fat was considered good insurance against a hard winter. To give up this fat would be considered an extremely generous act. Does it correspond to our actions today? Indeed it does. The ancient Jew would have understood this too: he was commanded[1] to be "open handed." He was to lend without worrying about repayment; a slave leaving your service was to be liberally supplied. So it is today. We are to be generous and open handed with all our Christian brothers and sisters.

·         The sacrifice was made with wine, and with cakes containing yeast. This tells us that these offerings were not being made in atonement for sin, for sin offerings could have no yeast. Wine is a symbol of celebration. So this is an offering of celebration, not atonement. So fellowship is essentially a joyous, celebrating thing. We are to rejoice with one another.[2]

·         Anyone who ate the fellowship offering must be ceremonially clean. This means that they could not be living in sin. It is still true today. We cannot be in fellowship with our Christian brothers on Sunday and be plotting evil towards them on Monday. It simply won't work. So today we are told to leave our gift before the altar and reconcile first.[3]

·         The priests were to have a share in the offering. The spiritual leaders of the congregation were supported by a portion of these offerings. There is a larger meaning for us. There is no sense of "them and us" in this offering - the priest celebrated with you too. So it should be today. We are taught to share with those who instruct us in righteousness.[4]

·         The offering was to be eaten no later than the next day. The temptation is to hoard the good times. You can almost hear the argument: why should I be so extravagant as to eat it all? The answer is quite simple: even in the good times you should trust the Lord your God to provide for all your needs. Each day has trouble enough for its own; why should you create more?[5]

·         The offering was to be without defect. The offering had to be pure to be acceptable to God. So it is with our fellowship. If it is to be acceptable to God it must be pure; it must be true fellowship. The world will know we are His disciples by the way we love each other.[6]

New Testament Aspects

Fellowship is not neglected in the time of the New Testament church. We see it in several additional aspects.

Body Life

The New Testament church is described as the body of Christ. To maintain that body, certain processes have been ordained by our Lord for the health of that body - to maintain its fellowship:

·         Church discipline. It is no accident that church discipline reads like a primer in fellowship.[7] First one Christian, then two or three, and only if rejection is encountered the whole church - with the object of restoration of the brother.

·         The church is to judge disputes between its members.[8] Paul considered it shameful that we would ever go to court with one another.

·         We are to abstain from anything harmful to our brother. We are taught that anything which would defile our brother's conscience is to be forgone, for our liberty should not be his ruin.[9]

Rules for living

Peter gives us a neat summary of the rules of Christian fellowship:

(1 Pet 3:8-9 NIV) Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. {9} Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

In these two verses we have the basic rules of fellowship.

·         Live in harmony. Our objective should not be to rule, or be proven right, but to be in harmony.

·         Be sympathetic. Care, and care deeply, about whatever is troubling your brother. Do not be unconcerned, or say, "It’s someone else's problem."

·         Love as brothers. Be generous about it. Don't ask, "what's the minimum I can do to help?" Instead, be as generous as you would be to one of your own family.

·         Be compassionate. Do not try to judge whether or not the person "deserves" to be in those circumstances. Rather, consider the circumstances and what you may do to relieve them.

·         Be humble. Are you worried about getting ahead of the other guy? Getting your point across? Be humble instead, and watch the fellowship grow.

·         Repay evil with blessing. Do not fight fire with fire, fight it with the living water of blessing those who flame you.

Fellowship Trinity

Interestingly, we are taught that we have fellowship with God the Father and Jesus the Son,[10] but fellowship in the Holy Spirit.[11] Why? Because the Holy Spirit inhabits the temple which is our bodies, and it is in the body we have fellowship - we might even call it body life.

Which brings us to the point of today's church - where fellowship is dying. We see so many who come on Sunday with plastic faces, putting on the mask. During the week, when things go wrong, they bear the burden alone. Unaided by prayer, uncomforted by their Christian brothers and sisters, they are proud (unfortunately) to bear their own burdens. They therefore have no use for bearing the burdens of others. But Christianity is not a solo flight; God has given us the church. We need to examine this attitude in a trinity of questions.

When times are tough…

There are three questions I would ask those who "go it alone." Those who want no fellowship and give none, those whose pride would not let them admit they have a problem - give me an ear for a moment.

Are you sure God can't hit you any harder?

Perhaps the trouble you are having is from God himself. He often sends trouble to his children for one simple purpose: so that they might learn to trust him. If the trouble he has sent you now is not sufficient for that, are you really sure he cannot find something more severe? Are you really sure you want to find out?

Are you denying the body of Christ?

The body of Christ is warned - with the most severe consequences[12] - that it is to be in fellowship. Visit the sick and in prison, clothe the naked, feed the hungry - all these are commands of our Lord. If you will not receive the help and fellowship of the body, you are prohibiting the body from doing what Christ commands. Do you take our Lord and Savior as lightly as that? Would you reject him in the body?

What would increase the fellowship of the Spirit?

Is there some action on your part which would increase the fellowship of the Spirit? We often think of this in terms of giving, but at one time or another all of us are in a position to receive. Ask yourself, is there some care I can give to my brother, or some care I can receive, which would cause the fellowship of the Spirit - my seal of redemption - to grow?

We are taught that the early church emphasized three things: the Apostles' teaching, the Lord's Supper and fellowship. In our congregation sound doctrine is no longer a priority; the Lord's Supper something to be gotten through as quickly as possible to provide time for announcements, and fellowship seems entirely at the surface level. Perhaps this explains why this church seems so lukewarm. Perhaps it's a warning.



[1] Deuteronomy 15:7-15

[2] Romans 12:15

[3] Matthew 5:21-24

[4] Galatians 6:6

[5] Matthew 6:34

[6] John 13:34-35

[7] Matthew 18:15-20

[8] 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

[9] 1 Corinthians 8, see also Romans 14

[10] 1 John 1:3

[11] 2 Corinthians 13:14

[12] Matthew 25:31-46

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