The Gospel: The Ground and Glue of Christian Fellowship (1)
I have to confess that when I read Philippians 1:3-8 (and I encourage you to stop right now and read it), I get envious. I don’t think it is sinful envy, but envy it is. Hearing Paul talk about his relationship to the Philippians, how he felt about them and loved them and yearned to be with them, how he prayed for them and how he partnered with them in the gospel, I couldn’t help but stand back from it all and say: “This is what the church is supposed to be. This is the body of Christ stripped of artificial veneer and superficiality and obsession with image and all the meaningless clichés that so often characterize our interactions, such as: ‘How are you today? Oh, just fine. God is so good. How are you? Oh, just fine. Yes, he is good. I’ll be praying for you. Oh, that’s fine. I’ll pray for you too. Wonderful. Have a nice day. You too.’”
That’s not the feeling I get when I read Philippians. On the assumption that Paul is being sincere and not just flattering the Christians in Philippi, this strikes me as Christianity in as pure a form as we’re likely to see this side of heaven. And doggone it . . . I want it! I envy their relationship. I want it at my church. And I’m fairly confident you want it at yours.
So before we go any farther let’s make sure we know what they had. What was it that characterized their relationship and made it so special? A lot of Christian terms have been overused and end up almost meaningless to us today. The term “fellowship” is one of them. So let’s try to redeem it and define it and turn it for good once again.
What is Christian “fellowship”? The word behind the English terms “fellowship” and “partnership” is typically some form of the Greek koinonia, which means to share something in common. In other words, for genuine fellowship or communion to occur there must be some reality, some truth, some experience that two or more people share. There must be a link that binds them.
In our world today, that might conceivably be any number of things. You and I might share in a passion or devotion to a particular university or football team or professional basketball team. We might have a common bond in that we were born on the same day or in the same city. It might be something even deeper, such as an equal partnership in a business venture where we each hold the same percentage of stock. Identical twins are linked by a common biological heritage. Perhaps we feel a special affection for one another because we are affiliated with the same political party or were members of the same fraternity or sorority back in college. I imagine you get the point by now.
You can’t read these verses in Philippians 1 without sensing the deep, intimate, affectionate bond that exists between Paul and these believers in the church at Philippi. He refers to it as a “partnership” in v. 5 and uses the word “partakers” in v. 7. This was no superficial connection. This goes way beyond a surface link or merely passing similarity. Something very personal and profound unites them. This is the only way we can account for Paul’s extravagant language and the obvious love he has for these people.
I’m going to be honest with you. As I said earlier, I envy Paul and the Philippians. I desperately long for this kind of relationship with other people. And I’m happy to say that I’ve experienced it on several occasions throughout my life and ministry, especially here at Bridgeway Church. Only the mentally deranged individual could possibly not rejoice in this kind of communion, this kind of fellowship and partnership. God never intended anyone to live like a monk. It is simply no part of God’s design that a Christian should live devoid of this deep and abiding unity with other believers.
All you have to do is talk for a few minutes to someone who is having a hard time connecting in the church or someone who struggles to “fit in” or to find their place or someone who has experienced rejection by other Christians. The pain is almost unbearable. It runs counter to everything God fashioned us to experience. It is a fundamental violation of who we are as image bearers. God himself has lived eternally in fellowship. God is a community of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose bond of love and joy is infinitely glorious. And when he made us in his image he did so with the goal in mind that we too might experience this fellowship or communion not only with himself but with one another.
So, the question I want you to ask and then let Paul answer is this: What is the ground of his fellowship with the Philippians, or any other body of believers in the first century? What is it that unites Paul and the Philippians? What is that “thing” or “experience” or “truth” that serves to glue them spiritually and emotionally together?
Now, before you answer that question, you need to remember all the many factors that might conspire to keep Christians separate and divided and at odds with one another in the first century: Jew vs. Gentile; Greek vs. Roman; Man vs. Woman; Slave vs. Freeman; Patrician or Aristocrat vs. the common man; Educated vs. Uneducated; Wealthy vs. Rich.
Just think back for a moment to the establishment of the church in Philippi in Acts 16. It’s nothing short of miraculous that the people there could have united in a common life together. After all, there was Lydia, a Gentile woman who ran a business, joining up with a male Roman jailer, together with a formerly demonized slave girl, all of whom were being instructed and led by two Jews, Paul and Silas!
The barriers today are just as imposing. There is the lingering geographical divide between North and South. There is the horrid racial divide between black and white, between Hispanic and native American. There is the angry political divide between republican and democrat. There are divisions based on personality such as between introverts and extroverts. In addition there are the same social, educational, and economic barriers that prevailed in the first century
O.K., so what could possibly be strong enough and important enough and true enough and permanent enough to hold together in such glorious love and unity people like them, or in the case of the 21st century, people like us?
The answer is right there in our passage: their partnership or fellowship or communion was “in the gospel” (v. 5). Again, in v. 7, the Philippians together with Paul are “all partakers” of God’s saving “grace” and are partners “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Times are increasingly difficult in our country. We differ greatly in social, economic, and educational achievements. There is the ever-lingering threat of nuclear conflict from North Korea and Iran. And we have a serious problem with insane acts of random violence in this land as seen recently in Connecticut. My suspicion is that things will get far worse before it’s all done. We are in for a rough ride. So, what will hold us together? Is it that we all believe the same thing about the Rapture or the identity of the Antichrist? Is it that we all voted for the same presidential candidate? Is it that we each have in our wallet or purse an Oklahoma driver’s license (or from whatever state you call home)? Is it that we are all Americans? Or merely humans? No.
What unites us at the most fundamental level and will sustain us through the worst and most damaging and disrupting social and economic upheaval is that we believe and trust in and are committed to the eternal truth of the same good news or gospel about who Jesus Christ is and what he has done to save sinners. D. A. Carson put it this way: “The heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision . . . of what is of transcendent importance” (16).
So our next step is to pause and ponder precisely what is meant by the word “gospel.”
To be continued . . .