"Sharing Real Life"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 3, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-42
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
I love having people from church share what God is doing in their lives. Call it a lay witness. Call it a testimony. Call it sharing. But whatever the label, this is a great thing for a church. It's something I'd like to see a lot more of in this church, let me tell you.
But there's a certain danger factor in lay witnesses. I will never forget the time a man I'll call "Richard" shared his testimony at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. It happened on my watch, at an all-church Wednesday evening gathering. Richard had volunteered to testify. I didn't know him well at all, but leaders in the church whom I trusted said that he had a powerful testimony. So I was more than happy to have Richard share.
Richard began with a sad story of being lonely for most of his life. He didn't have many friends growing up. He always felt left out. And this feeling continued into adulthood. I could already see where Richard was going with this. He was active in one of our strongest adult fellowship classes, and I was sure the punch line of his testimony was how great it felt to be accepted in this group. "Excellent," I whispered under my breath.
Richard continued on narrating the miseries of loneliness. Glancing at my watch, I noticed that he'd already spent three minutes on this sad tale. It was about time for Richard to get to the good stuff, and tell us what a loving church we were. But Richard droned on and on about his difficulties in finding friends. Secretly, I thought to myself, "Yes, and now I'm beginning to see why."
Finally he talked about coming to Hollywood Presbyterian Church. "At last," I sighed, "now we'll get the real testimony." But of course Richard began this chapter in his story by telling us how hard it had been to get to know people at the church, and how we weren't as friendly as we seemed to be, etc. etc. By now we were about five minutes into the testimony - way over time, I might add - and still no punch line. I was getting nervous and a little bit ticked off, to tell you the truth.
Eventually Richard got around to talking about his fellowship class. "Finally!" I thought. But still he sounded rather like Eyeore: "Oh me, oh my. It's hard to make friends in this class. I feel kinda lonely. This church really isn't very friendly." And at that, he stopped, and sat down.
There it was, seven minutes of Richard's sad story, ending in one big complaint about the church. I turned briefly to look at those who had recommended Richard to me, long enough to notice and to enjoy the horrified looks on their faces. Of course then it was my job to segue from Richard's sad story to an upbeat dismissal. By God's grace, I suggested that we pray for Richard and others like him, and that God would help us to be a friendlier church. And, no, I did not pray that Richard would get a personality. But I did think it!
In retrospect, I'm glad Richard felt free enough to tell the truth about his loneliness. It actually helped people reach out to him. And our church needed a good swift kick in the hindquarters when it came to being friendly. It's all too easy for us Christians to be nice to those we already know, but fail to reach out to others. A periodic reminder to look beyond ourselves is helpful.
I'm also glad that the church is a place where people like Richard can actually find a home. Just about every other social group would have had nothing to do with a sorry many like him. But the church seems to understand, even if we don't like it, that we have an obligation to include someone like Richard. This isn't necessarily the fun part about being the church, but it is an essential part. As we see in Acts 2, every believer in Jesus Christ needs and deserves to be part of his fellowship. Every one of us should be devoted, not only to the apostles' teaching, but also to fellowship.
The Meaning of Fellowship
The word translated for us as "fellowship" in Acts 2:42 is the Greek word koinonia. "Fellowship" is an adequate translation, but potentially misleading, because koinonia meant far more than occasional friendliness, the sort of interaction that happens in a "fellowship hall." Koinonia was used to describe a business partnership, a situation in which two or more people were committed to sharing in some common venture. To experience koinonia meant participating in something intentionally and energetically. The word also suggested emotional or even sexual intimacy. In fact it was used at times as a euphemism for sexual relations in marriage. You can see what I mean about koinonia not being the sort of behavior we associate with the fellowship hall, at least I hope not!
So when Acts 2 relates that the early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship, this doesn't mean that they all shook hands and enjoyed a bagel after the Pentecost worship service was over. Rather, what happened on Pentecost was just the beginning of a deep, intentional investment in mutual relationship. The earliest believers didn't just share coffee together; they shared life, real life. Hence the title of this sermon: "Sharing Real Life." Now that's what koinonia is all about. And that's one of the crucial elements of genuine healthy Christianity. And it's absolutely essential to the church of Jesus Christ.
As some of you know all too well, I've preached about this before. In fact I did a whole series on this theme, a series that formed the basis for my book After "I Believe." In that book I show how the Christian life isn't just fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. Rather, from a biblical perspective, the Christian life is intimate fellowship with God and with God's people. This is clear in Scripture, literally from the first chapter of the Bible to the very last.
The Top Ten Reasons Christians Aren't Devoted to Fellowship with Other Christians
Now I know that many of you here today are sharing real life with your sisters and brothers in Christ. You're very much like those first Christians in that you too are devoted to Christian fellowship. But I'm also aware that many of you are not experiencing this quality of common life. Though you truly believe in Jesus and have intimate fellowship with God through Christ, you aren't sharing real life with other believers in any consistent or deep way.
Why not? Why do so many Christians experience so little true fellowship? There are a variety of reasons. In fact, I've drawn up my own top ten list. I am going to give you my list of the "Top Ten Reasons Christians Aren't Devoted to Fellowship with Other Christians."
Reason #10: Churches are Filled with People Just Like Us
You've probably heard the common complaint: Churches are filled with hypocrites. Yep, and sinners, and rude people, and blowhards, and, well, you name it. The fact is that churches are filled with people just like you and me. That's the bad news, and the good news. It's bad news because it means being part of the church isn't one huge picnic (though we have a pretty darn good time on our church picnic). Sharing real life together is sometimes hard. That's a plain fact. But the good news is, since the church is filled with people just like you, you can be a part of it. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to pass a test. Put your faith in Jesus Christ, and you're in. (And, frankly, you're more than welcome to hang out here even if you're not sure about Jesus Christ.)
Reason #9: We Americans like to go it alone.
Individualism is our cultural credo. We exalt the self-made man. Our heroes are people like the Lone Ranger, who, at most, had one sidekick. And when it comes to "religion," we're especially individualistic in this country. We believe that religion is a private, personal matter. It's not something to be shared.
This sort of individualism has permeated American Christianity, especially in the evangelical tradition of which our church is a part. We stress personal salvation (rightly), but neglect or even denigrate the corporate dimensions of that salvation (wrongly).
Reason #8: We lack good biblical theology.
So much of our theology is shaped by our culture, both secular and religious, rather than by the Scripture. The American Christian penchant for individualism is proof. If you start reading the Bible, not through the lens of our individualistic bias, but with an openness to seeing the importance of human fellowship, you'll be amazed. It shows up on practically every page. And many of the major themes of Scripture are profoundly corporate: covenant, salvation, the work of the Spirit, ministry, and so forth. The more you read your Bible, the more you'll discover the importance of sharing with others in your relationship with God.
Reason #7: We're overly idealistic about the church.
I remember when I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic book, Life Together. Bonhoeffer said that idealism about Christian fellowship was the worst enemy of Christian fellowship. I was incensed! I disagreed utterly! Why? Because I was an eighteen-year-old who was intensely idealistic about Christian fellowship. I really wanted to get with other Christians and be the perfect church.
I still want to get with other Christians and be the church, but I've given up the "perfect church" myth. There is no perfect church this side of heaven. There's only the church that exists. Now of course we can all strive to be more and more what God wants us to be as his people. That's the point of this preaching series, after all. But idealism leads, not to making the church better, but rather to criticizing, judging, and ultimately leaving the church altogether.
I remember a time some years ago when a leader in one of my groups was complaining about how we were struggling to live harmoniously together. "I thought the church was supposed to be a family!" she exploded. "Why are we having such a tough time getting along?" My answer was simple: "Because we are like a family. How many families do you know that don't sometimes have a hard time getting along? It's part of sharing real life together, not some make-believe, sticky-sweet Christianity.
Reason 6: We've been burned by Christians in the past.
Sometimes Christians aren't just a little mean; they can be downright nasty. And sometimes these nasty ones won't admit their wrongs or repent. And sometimes they hurt their brothers and sisters in Christ profoundly. Over the years I've spoken with dozens of people who have experienced this sort of thing. Often they share this with me as a way of explaining why they're so reticent to get involved in IPC. Before jumping in to our common life, they want to be sure they won't be boiled alive once again. This is understandable, and I encourage people to take the time they need to heal and to trust.
Reason #5: It can be hard to break in to the fellowship of a church.
I'm sorry to say it, but sometimes the church makes it terribly difficult for newcomers to break in. We have our circles of friends, and that's the way we like it. New folks can just find other friends. It's surely not our job to reach out and draw them in.
My friends, let me be clear. Yes, this is our job. And it's your job too. Even as we all need intimate relationships where we can share ourselves openly, we also need to make sure that our church truly welcomes new people. We do this through out attitudes, through our actions, and through making sure that we have programs that are always open to new folks.
Reason #4: We think we're too busy for real fellowship.
You know the refrain. "Would you like to join our small group?" "Oh, I'd love to. But I'm just too busy right now. Maybe another time." I'll agree that there are times when this is true. But, my friends, if you are consistently too busy for real Christian fellowship, then: 1) you're missing out on much of the joy of the Christian life, and; 2) this church is being weakened because we're only what God has called us to be when you're involved. So if you're consistently too busy for sharing real life together, you'd really better think through your priorities again. Something's terribly amiss.
Reason #3: We're simply stuck in a rut.
If you've been a Christian for a while, you know what I mean. You can probably look back on your Christian life and remember times when you were in committed fellowship with other believers. But then things changed, and now you've been in a non-participatory rut for a long time. Isn't it time for you to rethink your priorities for life, and get out of that rut?!
Reason #2: We don't realize how wonderful Christian fellowship can be.
Now you've heard me speak honestly about the challenges of Christian fellowship. Share real life with real people and inevitably there will be bumps and bruises. These aren't easy, but they actually are an occasion for growth. Moreover, perhaps more than anything else, the way we handle disagreements sets us apart from secular organizations and relationships. We're actually bound to honesty, confession, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.
But I mustn't leave you with the impression that Christian fellowship is one big drag. In fact it's one of the most precious of God's gifts to us. If you are sharing real life with others, you know what I mean. If not, I can only tell you that you're missing out on some of the best stuff of life.
As I was trying to think of a compelling illustration for this point, I found myself utterly stymied. If I only consider my own experience, I can come up with dozens, probably in time with hundreds of stories about what Christian fellowship has meant to me. I think of shared joys and shared sorrows, the joy of performing weddings for the children of my dear Christian friends and the sorrow of being in the room when a Christian sister's father died of cancer. I think of countless prayers and words of encouragement over the years when Linda and I struggled with infertility, and then the joy of sharing with this church when Nathan was born, and then when Kara was born. I think of praying like mad for some of you when you've gone through crises, and then rejoicing like mad when God answered our prayers. And on, and on, and on.
Sharing real life with Christian brothers and sisters is, without a doubt, one of the greatest things in life.
Reason #1: We don't realize the full meaning of Communion.
Finally, the top reason why many Christians don't share real life with other Christians . . . We don't realize the full meaning of Communion.
Huh? You may be thinking. Run that by me again. Okay, here it goes. The number one reason many of us don't share true fellowship with other Christians: We don't realize the full meaning of Communion.
What is Communion? "That's simple," you say, "it's the time we use symbols of bread and wine to remember Jesus's death for us." Yes, indeed, but that's not all.
"Okay, then it's also a time for me to be close to Jesus in prayer, to confess and experience forgiveness." Yep, absolutely, but you're just warming up.
"So what else is there?" you wonder. Well, let me tell you.
First of all, did you know that our word "communion" actually comes by way of Latin from the Greek word koinonia? It's true. When we celebrate Communion together, we're celebrating koinonia. We're sharing in, participating in, joining together, not only in the memory of Jesus's death for us, but in the reality of his life among us, his life in the Spirit. Communion, from a biblical perspective, is so much more than remembrance, though it is surely a time to remember. It is also participation together in Christ.
Now I know that many of us think of Communion as an intensely personal, private moment. That's surely the way I believed growing up, and that's what I experienced for all of my young life. But as I've studied the Bible, especially 1 Corinthians 10-11, I've come to realize that full Communion is both intensely personal and intensely corporate. It's a time, not only for me to draw near to Jesus, but also for us all to draw near to Jesus and to each other.
This is one of the main reasons, by the way, that we celebrate Communion in the form we do in this church. As you receive the elements from your brothers and sisters in Christ, you experience, not only the grace of God in Christ, but also the grace of God in his people. We celebrate both the communion we have with Jesus and the communion we have together through him.
My friends, in a few moments we will share Communion together. I want to encourage you to experience its full meaning. Draw near to Christ and to each other. Even as there is one bread, so let us be one body together.
But what we experience at Christ's table isn't supposed to be a one-time, once-a-month thing. It is, rather, the paradigm for our regular fellowship as God's people. Whether at this Table, or in worship, or in prayer, or sharing a meal, or building a house, or playing volleyball, or whatever, we share real life together because we share together in Christ.
So, brothers and sisters, like the earliest believers, let us devote ourselves to fellowship, to sharing real life together - starting right now!