Last week, we began exploring Christ’s formulation of His church.  We saw that the Biblical image of church was compared to the intimate relationship of marriage in which Jesus serve as the groom and the church as his bride.  As in the human experience of marriage, the two shall become one.  In the Biblical image, the same holds true, Christ and the church become one.  We saw the foundation of the Christ/Church relationship was established upon the unconditional commitment of Christ and the individual commitments of members of the church.  Jesus Christ’s commitment to the church was expressed throughout by his life on earth, but mostly by his death on the cross.  Christ held nothing back from His church.  The commitment of individual Christians, you and me, remains an open matter.  The image of marriage compels us to take the plunge and be immersed in all that Jesus has for us.  We must be committed to Christ to experience the intimate relationship God intends for us to have with Him.

          In that commitment to Christ, Jesus said that one behavior would evidence that we had committed our lives to Christ.  As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his own arrest, trial, and execution, Jesus said to this disciples and to you and me, “33 My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.  34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 16:33-35).

          This is the only time in the four gospels we have recorded for us a simple command from Jesus to his church, to those who were and are his disciples, to “love one another.”  Moreover, Jesus said the presence of love between and among believers in Christ, was the only criterion necessary to evidence to the unbelieving world that Jesus was the Lord of the believers’ life.  Jesus’ command and criterion make sense.  If we claim Christ, but do not love another believer something is very wrong.

          Jesus’ apostle, John, understood this message and conveyed its meaning to his churches this way, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).  John was speaking to Christians about their behavior toward other Christians.

          There is an often-told story of a church that was searching for a pastor.  A pastoral candidate came to the church one Sunday and gave an inspired sermon on loving one another.  The congregation was thrilled.  They believed they had found their past and so they voted unanimously to call the preacher as their pastor.  The following Sunday, the new pastor came to deliver the sermon.  There was much anticipation about what he would say. But the new pastor preached the same sermon on loving one another he had the week before, word for word.  The congregation was pleased by the sermon but a little concerned that it was the same as previous week’s sermon.  The next Sunday, the new pastor delivered the sermon. He preached the same sermon on loving one another again, word for word.  The congregation was very concerned and wondered if this pastor had only one sermon to offer.  A group from the congregation decided to meet with the pastor to express their concerns. They told the pastor his sermon on loving one another was great the first time, good the second time, but troubling to hear the third time.  The group asked the pastor if he knew there were other commands and topics about which he could preach.  The pastor said he was aware of the other commands and could preach excellently on those topics.  But he said there was not point talking about other topics and other commands if they did not love one another.

          From the Biblical accounts and that story we come to learn that Christ intended for his church to be comprised of committed disciples who would evidence that commitment by loving one another.  The early Christians had a word for this type of love between believers.  It came from the Greek language, koinonia, which we translate into English as fellowship.

          Fellowship then is an essential character of the body of Christ expressed through and within the church.  It is a deep inclusive caring for those who are here.  Church should be a society of friends not a building of passing strangers.  The earliest expression of fellowship, koinonia, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. The church had just begun.  Luke described the behavior of the early Christians this way, “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [committed] and to fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

          The early Christians, the founders of Jesus command for a church, practiced their belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, by loving one another was a bright beacon on the landscape.  They were committed to the teachings of the apostles.  People were committed to Christ.  They were hungry for Jesus.  They did not want the day to go by without immersing themselves into the word of God.  And these committed Christians were engaged in fellowship, koinonia.  They wanted to spend time with other Christians. They wanted to know their stories and celebrate the new life that each of them had in Christ.  Everyone was excited by the prospect of more people into the church because it meant more people were being saved and would be expressing their lives through koinonia, or Christian fellowship.

          The Apostle John saw the development of church and fellowship this way, “That which was from the beginning (Jesus), which we (his disciples) have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared (Jesus); we (his disciples) have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We (his disciples) proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus ChristWe write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

          John saw the gathering of the early church as the company of the committed coming together to be in fellowship with God through Jesus and in fellowship with each other.  John’s view was that fellowship with Jesus made possible fellowship with other believers.

          To John, joy in Christ became complete with and through the fellowship with other believers.  Sadly, there are many people across our communities who enter a church building, pray, perhaps sing, and leave without speaking to another human being or having another human being speak to them.  Why does that happen with such frequency?  I think this happens because there is no desire for genuine fellowship.

          In some cases, people enter a church and welcome the idea that they did not have to speak to anyone because too often those exchanges come across as judgement rather than welcome.  The visitor feels their past will be judged instead of their present life in Christ being celebrated.  This is not a new phenomenon. 

Consider the case of the Apostle Paul who was originally known as Saul from the city of Tarsus.  Saul was a devoted Jew who ruthlessly persecuted Christians.  Saul encouraged a mob to stone to death a Christian named, Stephen.  Saul went house to house dragging Christians from their homes and sending them to prison simply because they were Christians.  Then, Saul encountered Jesus and committed his life over to Christ, fully, unconditionally.  Saul had given up his former ways and had a new life in Christ.  But Saul wanted fellowship with other Christians to make his joy in Christ complete.

          But look at what happened to Saul when he tried to make that joy in Christ complete by engaging other Christians.  “26 When he (Saul) came to Jerusalem, he (Saul) tried to join the disciples (the other committed believers), but they (the members of the church) were all afraid of him (Saul), not believing that he (Saul) really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  The members of the church had reason to be concerned with Saul the Jewish persecutor.  That Saul was destructive and dangerous.  But the Saul who came to the church was Saul the committed Christian.  The church was not buying it, preferring instead to remember Saul as his was.

That might have been the end of the Saul’s story in the church of Christ if not for that all important word at the beginning of the next verse, verse 27.  “They were all afraid of Saul, not believing that Saul really was a disciple.  27 But Barnabas (a member of the church) took Saul brought him to the apostles. He (Barnabas) told them (the Apostles) how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him (Saul), and how in Damascus he (Saul) had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them (the church) and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:26b-28). 

But Barnabas took Saul.”  Barnabas, committed to Christ, took charge of Saul, and spent time with Saul to learn Saul’s new life in Christ.  Barnabas was not interested in Saul’s previous behaviors.  What Barnabas wanted to know was what God had done and was doing through Saul’s life now.  Barnabas then took the next step to make his joy, Saul’s joy, and the joy of the church complete by bringing Saul into the fellowship of believers.  Barnabas’ example teaches us that at any given point we might be called to serve as the “but” person who welcomes the stranger into the fellowship of the church.  We might be the person who says “but look at what is happening in this person’s life since they came to Christ.”

Saul, who would later change his name to Paul and establish many churches encouraged Christians to acknowledge the power of Christ’s forgiveness within a believer which made every new.  Paul wrote, “11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:11-14). Paul, who had been forgiven by Christ and brought into the Christian fellowship by the aid of Barnabas, encouraged others, you and me, to express fellowship with other believers through compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness and then to bind all those virtues in love. 

Paul’s words give a wonderful expression of Christian fellowship expressed between believers.  How could joy not be found in that image?  How could that image not express to the unbelieving world the power of Christ to change lives for good?  I think the answer is clear that to love in this manner would be convincing evidence of the Christ in our lives.

I want to encourage you this week to reflect on Christ’s purpose for His church to be a company of committed disciples and that that commitment would be expressed through fellowship.  Let the idea of Koinonia, that deep intimate belief that members of Christ’s body should be loving to one another sink into our conscious thinking. Examine what you do and how you express yourself to and about other believers.  Think about Barnabas and whether you are that “but in” person who needs to stand up and bring another person into this church.  Think about your opportunities to express compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness to another believer. Think about how you can bind all those wonder virtues by love so that church may be seen to the unbelieving world as loving society of friends.  Afterall, to love one another is the only criterion established by Christ to mark a genuine church.  Let us pray.