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Human beings are relationship oriented. We develop casual connections to people at work, and in the stores and restaurants we frequent. We develop deeper connections with family and friends, with whom we spend more time.
Casual relationships are easily broken. We get a better job offer, and we go, even though we like the people we used to work with. A store raises its prices, and we shop somewhere else, regardless of how nice the employees were. But deeper relationships are not so easily broken. These connections are too precious to cast away at the first sign of trouble or opportunity.
Today our sermon meditation is about the relationships that exist within our Christian fellowship. There are many reasons why Christians value their church relationships. But when you trace the blessings back to the source, you eventually find that Christ is the primary reason why we treasure our Christian fellowship.
Christian fellowship involves three people: the Christian, God, and other Christians. The apostle John describes this triangular relationship in our first reading.
1 John 1:1-4 (NIV)
1 That which was from the beginning, which we 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. 2 The life appeared; we 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. 3 We 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 Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
In the Greek, the word for "fellowship" is "Coin-oh-nee-ah". This Greek word means "association, communion, close relationship".
The close relationship of Christian fellowship begins with a close relationship to GOD. There is simply no other way. When we hear and believe the message that Jesus died to take our sins away we are drawn into fellowship with the God who created the universe, and who loved us enough to suffer in order to redeem us.
There is no relationship that can be more important, fulfilling, or rewarding than a relationship with the God of the Bible. In this relationship we are guaranteed eternal life in heaven. We are assured that each sin we bring to God in repentance WILL be forgiven because of Jesus' cross. The Bible says that when you're in a relationship with the true God, the Spirit of God actually LIVES in your heart to teach and guide you through His Word. The Bible says that God will never abandon the people who are in this relationship with Him, rather, He will work powerfully in our lives to turn every evil thing that happens into something that will benefit us and others, and bring glory to God.
In Romans 8 Paul writes...
"If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32 ESV).
A relationship with God means that all our sins are forgiven, everything in this life will be made to serve our good, and when we leave this life we will go to live eternally with God in heaven. What other relationship can promise this level of security and peace? And it's all possible because Jesus opened the door for sinners to have this relationship with God when He took away our sins. Christ is the reason why we treasure our Christian fellowship.
So, those are the first two people involved in Christian fellowship - the individual Christian and God. But, like I said, this relationship is triangular. It also involves OTHER followers of Christ.
Like I said, the Greek word for "fellowship" means "association, communion, close relationship". Another word we might add to this list is "sharing". Christian fellowship is all about sharing. One thing it's NOT about is competition.
Recently I read about a special race called the Western States Endurance Run. It's an ultra marathon event that covers 100 miles of trails snaking through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California. Now, it's one thing to go out and do some casual jogging around the neighborhood, it's another thing altogether to run 100 miles in 24 hours. But that's exactly what runners try to do in the Western States 100.
Now, the fact that there are people out there crazy enough to try running 100 miles is interesting enough, but get this - all the runners who finish Western States in 24 hours get THE SAME THING: a belt silver belt buckle that says, "100 Miles, One Day". They all line up to race next to each other, but they're not running against each other so much as just running to finish.
This is how it works in the Christian Fellowship as well. We're all in this together, and we all get the same prize. In fact we're given the prize at the start of the race. Through the precious sacrifice that Christ made on the cross, we're given forgiveness and eternal life. And all we want to do is finish the race of life still holding Christ's precious gift in the hands of faith.
They say that you can't run 100 miles and not be a changed person. The same is true of the Christian life. God changes those He draws to Himself. Through the forgiveness that Christ gives, we are enabled to forgive each other. Through the astounding love that God has for us, we are enabled to love each other in truth, and in action.
Instead of competing with fellow Christians we are running on the same team. We don't seek to climb over one another, but instead we build each other up and encourage each other with godly words and constant prayers. When some other Christian in our fellowship excels, that's a good thing to us! Their growth helps us to grow in faith.
And as we continue through life, we have help from those who run beside us. Being part of Christ's team means that we share in troubles and triumphs, whether those things are physical or spiritual. The apostle Paul wrote about this sharing aspect of Christian fellowship in Second Corinthians (our second sermon reading in the bulletin). He said...
"3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many" (2 Corinthians 1:3-11 NIV).
The fellowship we have in Christ is not built on competition. It has instead, a team attitude. In Christ we have the same prize. Through Christ's Word we are given spiritual gifts to use to lift up our fellow Christians. We are called in Christ to be engaged, part of the team, sharers in the struggle, not to be loners detached from the fellowship and unconcerned with the spiritual walk of others.
Again, the reason why we treasure the fellowship we have with other Christians, is because of the fellowship we have with Christ. He didn't leave the human race to fend for themselves. Instead Christ joined the team and won us forgiveness and salvation. He continually comes to our local fellowship through His Holy Word, in the waters of Baptism and in the Lord's Supper. And through these He builds up our faith in Him. Christ is the reason why this church is more than a social club or a community center. Christ is the reason why this place is center where forgiveness and eternal life is found. Christ is the reason why we treasure our fellowship and want others to receive the same grace that we have.
If you read through the New Testament of the Bible it doesn't take long before you see that only through Christ can a person have a right relationship with God. We are sinners. Apart from the cleansing that Christ provides, we cannot approach or have a relationship with the Holy.
And if you read through just the beginning parts of the New Testament letters, it becomes clear right that this whole Christian thing is about being part of a team under Christ. Like Paul writes in the first chapter of Philippians,
" 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:3-6 NIV).
Through the message of sins forgiven we are called to be ONE with Christ and ONE with each other IN CHRIST.
But because the gift of salvation is so precious, there are times when we must stand apart from other people who profess to be Christians.
Throughout the New Testament Christians are called to hold tightly to what CHRIST teaches alone. When people start trying to bring in other teachings, teaching that don't agree with what Christ teaches, God tells us to take action, and sometimes to part ways.
In 2 Peter it says...
"1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep" (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV).
In Galatians the apostle Paul wrote...
" 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-8 ESV).
When writing to the young pastor Timothy, Paul wrote...
" 3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm" (1 Timothy 1:3-7 NIV).
And in Romans Paul puts it quite bluntly what Christians are to do when we find people teaching contrary to what Christ teaches. He says...
" 17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them" (Romans 16:17 ESV).
I mentioned earlier that the Greek word for "fellowship" means "association, communion, close relationship". But what I didn't mention is how this word was used in the ancient Greek world. Quite often the word for "fellowship" was used to describe the marriage relationship. And this makes perfect sense. What other human relationship could be considered a closer sharing relationship?
Churches sometimes flirt with false teachings. They might say, as long as it's not directly negating the message of sins forgiven through Christ, than yes, we can tolerate that. But who among us would accept that type of attitude in our marriages? Sure honey, I don't mind if you date other people, as long as you don't get married to them. The idea is absurd.
Any false teaching is dangerous simply because it's false. So what if it doesn't destroy faith right away. Would you say it's okay to drink poisoned water as long as it doesn't kill you the first time? Fellowship with our Creator is too precious to take chances like that. That's why God says to hold tightly to the teachings of Christ and to separate from false teachers when they show themselves, no matter who those false teachers may be. Part of treasuring our fellowship with Christ is to GUARD that treasure.
Earlier I mentioned the Western States Endurance Run. When you run a race that taxing on the human body, strange things can happen. Throughout the race there are aid stations where doctors monitor the weight of the runners and make sure they're not becoming dangerously dehydrated.
Along the way, sometimes runners become so physically stressed that their minds begin to unhinge a little. Some become disoriented or experience hallucinations. For this reason and others, runners are allowed a "pacer" in the final stages of the race. This person runs beside the racer making sure they don't step off a cliff or wander into the wilderness after some hallucination.
And this too is like the Christian fellowship. Running alone we can get lost in the wilderness of this world, distracted and disoriented by the temptations and false doctrines that Satan causes to spring up all around us. For this reason, Christ Jesus gave His beloved people the Holy Spirit, and each other, as pacers who will guide us in to the finish.
Many churches today don't seem to mind who goes where. As long as you're following Christ, they say, go ahead and drop in on any group. Fellow Christians, don't choose a pacer so lightly. Stick with the ones you can trust. Stick with those whose profession of faith you know. Stick with the ones who you know will bow to the Word of God when it speaks. We have too much at stake here to break faith at the first sign of trouble or opportunity. Our fellowship is with Christ and with like-minded Christians. Our fellowship is precious. Treasure it.
Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for drawing us together in fellowship here at Redemption Church. We are united to Christ by faith, knowing that our sins are truly forgiven. Thank you for giving us the gift of being united to each other also, through faith in all that Christ teaches. Help us to build each other up, encouraging and correcting one another according to your Word and according to your Word alone. Help us to cherish our connection to you and to separate from any who would introduce strange teachings at odds with yours. We pray all these things through Christ, our great and precious Savior. Amen.