Fellowship: Can a spiritual reality draw us together even when we feel miles apart?

If I say the word “epiphany,” what immediately comes to mind?

I think of a bright, startling moment of understanding or inspiration. I imagine an unexpected insight in which the contours of a truth once hazy snap into place. Once seen, they can’t be unseen. In this sense, epiphany is revelation—something made manifest to us in a way it hadn’t previously been.

Last year I celebrated Epiphany in Richmond’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. I had just flown into Virginia from Turkey, and although I was bleary with jet lag, what I remember about that morning was the light. Twinkling lights and glowing lanterns were strung from the ceiling over our heads and a collection of mirrors on the stage reflected the diffused light back onto us. Reflection amplified the light.

Epiphany is a celebration that carries lots of associations. It marks the arrival of the Magi to worship Jesus and it remembers Jesus’s baptism by John. The day recognizes two important transitions, marking both the end of the traditional twelve days of Christmas and Jesus’s manifestation to the world. But the main focus of the Sunday morning was on illumination, on reflecting the shining light of Christ into the world.

That morning everyone in the congregation received a word to mediate on during the year, a word that would take on new dimensions and significance as it was lived. More than 200 words handwritten on silver stars filled baskets held by men and women at the front of the sanctuary. I filed out of the pew with my friends and walked forward. Reaching into one of the baskets, I grasped a word—my word.

I looked down at the loopy cursive letters written with blue marker on a field of silver foil: fellowship.

My word for 2016—a year of extreme polarization—was fellowship.

A Constellation of Relationships

Over the past year, I’ve been turning the concept of fellowship over in my mind. I realized the word for me has long blurred with two other terms—friendship and family. This constellation of relationships touches on the essence of what it means to be integrated into human society. I need these relationships—all of them—to feel knit into community in a meaningful way.

Some relationships take on dimensions of each of these words. Some friends become like family. Sometimes members of your family become friends. We have fellowship with both friends and family if we are bound together by shared faith. The friends who had taken me to visit their church that Sunday morning—Laura and Matt—have been all these things to me.

While family, friendship, and fellowship sometimes overlap, they’re not the same in essence. Teasing out the distinction between them can help us appreciate the special nature of fellowship and why we need to cultivate it even when it doesn’t feel natural. Because that’s the thing about fellowship: it’s not natural. It’s supernatural.

Family

Family is the most natural of bounds. It begins as a biological tie and may be added to with legal ties, but in both cases there are duties and responsibilities built into family ties that, if they’re honored, create stability, safety and home.

Family should be our most enduring of relational ties. They’re the people who’ve known us since we were born and nurtured us into maturity. They’re the people who show up for the celebrations and moments that mark turning points in our journey—birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings, births. They’re the ones who care for us when we’re unable to care for ourselves.

This fall we saw the best of what family should be when my in-law’s home was saturated by three feet of water in the catastrophic flood that devastated 60,000 homes in Baton Rouge. It was family who showed up and got to work the moment the water receded, pulling apart sodden furniture, ripping out sheet rock, and salvaging what was left of decades of living. Toni, my husband’s cousin dried out hundreds of damaged family photos, scanned them all, preserved them, and gave them back in digital form for Christmas. That’s family. They show up when no one else does.

Friendship

Friendship is also a natural bond. It grows out of shared interests, experiences, and affinities. Love of art, sport, travel, history, coffee, theology, foreign films, Nascar, scuba diving, whatever: common interests pull us together and become the ground out of which our relationship grows. With a friend, you don’t have to work to find something to talk about. Pauses aren’t awkward. C.S. Lewis observed that friendships are born in the moment that someone says, “What! You too? I thought no one but myself…”

There’s a relaxed, understated joy just being in the presence of a good friend. Unlike family ties, Lewis says, friendship, “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

“Friendship has no survival value;
rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Both of these words—family and friendship—are used to describe a believer’s relationship with Jesus. Early in his ministry, Jesus described those who hear and obey his word as his mother, sisters, brother. You are my family (Luke 8:20-21), he said, if you walk in my ways.

During Jesus’ last supper with his disciples he called them friends (John 15:12-15), saying he would be the best of all friends by laying down his life for them. Jesus used the strongest relational ties in human experience to explain the sort of relationship we can have with him. Pause. Breathe that truth in. Christ is both family and friend.

Fellowship

Becoming family and friends with Christ is the basis for fellowship with one another: “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3-7). Koinonia is the Greek word for fellowship. It’s a concept that can also be translated communion or partnership, and speaks to a spiritual unity born of shared belief in and commitment to Christ.

Thabiti Anyabwile defines spiritual fellowship as “the sharing of divine life inside an entire congregation.” He highlights the idea that our union with Christ isn’t just personal but also public and corporate. While his emphasis is on the fellowship experienced within a local church, fellowship in Christ transcends the boundaries of each particular congregation and is extended to any who have found abundant, eternal life in Christ. Fellowship ties us to Christians across denominational lines, across international borders, across man-made divisions.

Among Christians our fellowship isn’t based on shared interests, agreement in politics, the same ethnic or racial identity, similar levels of education, or common culture. But our confession of faith—Jesus Christ, Son of God, the crucified, risen and ruling Lord—unites us. Fellowship with the Father and the Son empowered by the Spirit brings us together in worship and mission even when, especially when, we remain deeply divided in other ways.

These days division threatens to eclipse fellowship. There are Christians on both sides of the political divide, and some who find themselves in no man’s land, alienated from both parties. Some deeply committed Christians celebrated Trump’s inauguration, while others protested it. Is it possible that God can use followers of Jesus to sow seeds of peace, justice and hope within both camps and then come together for worship? I pray it may be so.

Fellowship: A Recognition of God’s Grace Despite Difference

The early church was planted in a cultural context as deeply divided as our own. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female: in Galatians 3:28, Paul highlighted these particular polarized identities because they touched on all aspects of division within human society. He was saying that even ethnic, religious, class, status and gender divisions can be healed when we identify with Jesus. He affirms the truth of the gospel to bring together people separated by society: “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Earlier in Galatians there’s a particularly interesting use of fellowship. Paul says: For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.” (Gal. 2:8-9)

In this situation, an expression of genuine fellowship involved a parting of ways. I tend to think of fellowship as the togetherness of a local church during worship, study, acts of service, shared ministry, etc. Usually, the fellowship of Christians is expressed that way.

But that’s not the case here. Paul was associated with the church at Antioch while James, Peter and John were part of the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were called to work among Greeks, while James and Paul ministered to Jews. Despite these differences, they acknowledged the grace of God given to each other that created a bond of fellowship, koinonia, transcending church membership and differing ministry commitments.

We need the kind of fellowship that involves affirming the grace of God in one another despite difference.

Fellowship is the one relationship that transcends more than social and political divisions.
It transcends time.
It even transcends death.

Family and friends will pass away. Natural relationships are bound to our natural world. But fellowship is a spiritual reality that has an eternal dimension. Fellowship is a tie that binds us together even when there are strong forces pulling us apart.

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