There is the story of the wise English pastor who, having noticed that one of his parishioners had stopped attending services on Sunday mornings, went to pay him a visit. The old gentleman warmly welcomed the pastor into his home and together the two sat in front of the fire. When the right moment came, the pastor asked his wayward parishioner why he had not been in church these past few weeks. To this the gentleman responded he did not feel the need anymore. He felt he could worship God just as easily and fully at home as he could in church. To this, the pastor said nothing but simply reached into the fire with the tongs and removed a single coal. Together the two men watched as the coal turned from red to gray and then eventually extinguished to black as the rest of the fire blazed on. After seeing this, the gentleman looked at the pastor and said, “I get the point, I will see you in church on Sunday.”
Since the days of Christ, Christianity has been understood as a group effort as our emphasis throughout the centuries has been placed on the gathered community over the individual. And we, as Christian people have always acknowledged that there is something sacred about the gathered community. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his listeners that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of them. (Mt, 18) As a priest, even though I have been given the authority to consecrate bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, I cannot perform the act of the Holy Eucharist with out at least one other being present. And, when Jesus tells his disciples that followers who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt, 16:5) he is really telling them they must be willing to set aside their personal desires to the vision of the body.
To emphasize the historic importance of the community, the first vow of Baptism is a commitment to being an active part of the community of faith, the Church, the Body of Christ as we promise to “continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”
What is it about community that is so important? Many argue, as I am sure the gentleman from this morning’s illustration may have, they can be spiritual and not religious, that God can be experienced more fully in nature. And while on some level all of these statements are true, even the desert hermits of early days and those, who to this day, have chosen to live the lives of solitaries, even they regularly join with the community for fellowship and the celebration of Holy Eucharist.
And we do this, if for no other reason, because there is strength in numbers. Let’s be honest with ourselves, living a life committed to Christ is not easy. While the majority of the American population may claim to be Christian, I would wager most of that number lives within the bounds of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed cheap grace. Or, what one person at Pine Grove termed Cafeteria Christians, those who pick and choose the parts of Christian faith that work for them and disregard the rest.
Alone we are vulnerable to the temptations of evil. There is little in this world today that supports a disciplined life in Christ. Like the early Christians, at times, it feels as if we almost have to worship in secret to avoid ridicule of a world that has left little time for Sabbath rest. Carl Jung once wrote that busyness is the the Devil’s handmade in that it keeps us from being able to focus on our relationship with God. As individuals, it is easy for us to think we are worshipping God when in reality, without the accountability and the stability of the community; we ultimately wind up worshipping our own image by mistake.
This is how subtle and insidious evil can be. It works hard to isolate us from the Body, and once alone we are vulnerable to temptation. In the Gospels, Jesus separates himself from community for forty days to pray and prepare for his public ministry. It is at the end of this time the devil chooses to tempt him. Why? Because, this is when the devil perceives Jesus to be most emotionally vulnerable and alone. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Valdemorte constantly seeks to isolate Harry from his friends, and the Hogwarts community. Why? Because alone Harry is vulnerable and easy prey, but when among the group, the power of the group is more than his powers can overcome.
There is a divine power present and power in the gathering of the saints, in the same way J.K. Rowling describes as the power of the united Hogwarts’ Community at the end of book seven, and Jesus testifies to when he tells us that he is present when we gather in His name. However, this divine power is only present when true fellowship exists.
In this first vow, we promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, then in the breaking of the bread and prayers. As I read this vow, I perceive there is a hierarchy of sorts that presumes the breaking of bread and the prayers is the result of participating in the apostolic teaching and fellowship.
If Jesus is the root of Christian community, then the fellowship of the faith community is its trunk. However, this is not true in the context most churches understand today. In so many ways, fellowship is equated with socializing. In most churches today, there are fellowship committees whose sole purpose is to plan social events. And we often refer to coffee hour as fellowship hour. While socializing is an integral aspect of fellowship, true fellowship, as used in the first vow of Baptism, goes deeper than this.
Fellowship provides sanctuary; places where we can arrive burdened by the struggles and hardships of life and know that for a little while we will find rest from them. Fellowship offers us space to share both our successes and our failures and know we will not be judged; it is a place where we can be vulnerable and lower the masks we hide behind throughout most of life, and be truly who we are. Fellowship allows us a space in which to share our doubts, even when they are about our faith.
Fellowship encourages us to journey deeper with God, even when we are afraid to take the next step. Fellowship offers us the opportunity to experience what the Rein of God may be like, and energizes us to proclaim this to the world.
Fellowship leads to corporate action . . . actions that include, worship, praise, study, and the breaking of bread. . . actions that bring about the Reign of God through divine justice. And, true fellowship occurs when the community of faith perceives itself more as a hospital for the broken and the sinful then as a museum for the perfect and the sanctified.
The first vow of Baptism is to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. It is a reminder that the reign of God can only be experienced in community and not as individuals. That it is only through the love and support of the community we are able to stay true to our journey with Christ and grow in faith. And, it is only through our participation in the community of faith that the Reign of God can be realized on Earth.
This week I invite all to share times what you look for from the fellowship of the Church, and when you have experienced this. frcraig+