Monday, January 11, 2010

Fellowship vs Partnership

Preached: 1-10-2010
(Originally from 1-10-1993)

Scripture Reading - Philippians 1:3-11

A newly wed husband had always loved camping (he knew all about woodcraft and survival), and his wife had never been camping in her life. He couldn’t get her to go camping for their honeymoon, but he did for their next vacation. After their first day in camp, he took her for a day’s hike and he got them completely lost.

He tried to find their direction from the moss on the trees, but that didn’t work; and from the sun, but it was too cloudy. His wife began to panic, until they spotted a cabin in the distance. The husband carefully studied the cabin through his binoculars and then he turned around and led the way straight back to camp.

When they got there the wife said, “That was terrific honey, how did you know which way to go when you were so lost?” He said, “Simple, in this part of the country all TV satellite dishes point south.”

Paul, with all his experience of the Lord’s love and his desire to love and serve the Lord by loving others, is like an antenna focused on Christ. He points us the right direction; maybe not back to where we came from, but to where our real home is.
Paul tells his friends in Philippi that he is praying for them. He tells them how he prays that, “your love may abound more and more, in knowledge and depth of insight.” (Philippians 1:9) And something about the way he describes this prayer and his love for these friends of his tells us where he wants us to go.

There is a certain way of “abounding in love” which Paul is able to express in such a wonderful way; but even more he is able to live it out in such a way that he became a gift to others, and he was able to teach his friends how to be the same kind of gift.

This is a love that we have to pray ourselves into, or have others pray into us, because it is pretty far beyond us. I mean, as much as we may want to love others, do we really want to have insight into them? Don’t we really want them to understand us, first? And so Paul is teaching us about the kind of love that we pretend that we want, until we really experience love as a pure and undeserved gift.

Part of Paul’s gift of love was to see other people as his partners. And Paul also saw his purpose in life as being a partner for them.

First of all Paul, felt this partnership with other people who knew the love of Jesus. They were just like brothers and sisters to him. He would never be able to disconnect from them, or walk away from them. He would always have to want what was good for them, because they were his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Before we go on, though, we have to say that Paul saw his purpose in life as sharing the good news of the love of Jesus with people who had no concept of that love at all. He could never have done what he called “defending and confirming the gospel,” which means defending and confirming the love of God for us in Jesus, unless he was living proof of that gospel in action. People who had no notion of the love of God in Christ would have to see the value of it from their contact with Paul.

In the church, we have the word “fellowship” which we might think of as a kind of togetherness, but fellowship is just an old King James English word for “partnership”. There are so many churchy things we do that must seem odd to others. We think these churchy things give us the blessing of fellowship in the form of togetherness. The truth is that the things we do together are meant to train us to be partners; to think, and pray, and work together.

Fellowship is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with the word. But fellowship is not nearly enough. Paul wanted his people to become partners. And this was not just his idea. He had learned this from knowing Jesus. He had experienced “the affection of Christ”.

Partnership in Christ is all about necessity. You can have fellowship when you like each other. But you only have partnership when you need each other.

Sometimes, when I get frustrated, I like to think that I just don’t need what is frustrating me. In fact, I sometimes get tempted to think that I don’t need anything. The truth is that whenever I think that I don’t need anything or anyone, I am definitely being stupid.

There are a bunch of churchy things we call fellowship, and some people don’t do them because they don’t enjoy them, and they also don’t do them because they don’t know that they need them. And those of us who are used to doing these churchy things don’t even think about why we are doing them.

We call worship fellowship. But worship is not fellowship. It is partnership because in worship we are called to come as we truly are into the presence of God as he truly is, and we can never truly know ourselves or know God without knowing ourselves and God in the light of others. Knowing ourselves and God in the light of our partnership with others is the test of truth. It is true that we can never truly know God or ourselves without the work of the Holy Spirit within us, but we also cannot do it without the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit working on us through other people’s lives.

All the cozy, churchy things we do that form our fellowship with each other are actually supposed to be the construction sites where we learn about our partnership with others. The reason why things like Bible studies, and potlucks, and choir practice when we have a choir, and elders-and-trustees-and-committees, and visiting people in the hospital and nursing homes, and the Lord’s Supper are all examples of what we call fellowship is because they are only doorways or windows that we enter in order to become partners in each others lives, and partners in the Lord’s life.
When Paul tells his friends that they all, “share in God’s grace with him,” (1:7) he is actually using that Greek “partnership” word again. We need to be partners in grace and partners in the gospel before we can be good partners in each other’s lives.

When you study business, you learn that, of all the different ways to organize a business (like setting up a corporation or a sole proprietorship), the most unstable of all forms of business is the partnership. A business partnership depends 100% on the part each partner plays, and each partner is completely responsible for the other partners.

The church is a partnership. It is both a surprisingly tough and a surprisingly sensitive thing. One person, one hasty word, one lapse of memory of an absent minded pastor or member, one forgiving gesture, one pat on the back, one good word, can change everything.

So we need to be partners in the grace of Christ in order to have the ability to do the right things, and in order to have the ability to forgive when the right things are lacking. Each one of us, as partners in the gospel, needs to let that gospel live in us.

The gospel is about mercy, compassion, forgiveness, patience, strength from God, and a new life. A little girl once asked a pastor, “Who is this amazing Grace we’re always singing about?” I think being a Christian means growing up in the school of grace where grace teaches us, every day, to be gracious.

We need this gift because our partnership is such a sensitive thing, and yet it is surprisingly tough, because we are partners in Christ and anything started by Christ has got to be a tough and scrappy thing. It has got to be impossible (or almost impossible) to stamp out, because “He who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (1:6)

Another part of the gift that Paul points us to is the gift of praying for the growth of others. “This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more.” (1:9)

What do you do when someone else is doing something wrong? What do you do when someone is somehow deficient somewhere? Well, of course, you help them; as Paul promised to do for his friends when he was set free. And you pray for those people. You pray for those people to abound. You pray for them to be helped. You pray for them to grow more loving, and faithful, and committed, and hopeful, and wise.
This is part of being partners in Christ. When you are partners in Christ, you always keep on praying for good things for your partners.

That’s what Paul means when he writes, “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ.” The Greek language, in which Paul wrote, had a funny way of referring to affection; something very picturesque. Affection is a word that refers to the intestines, the liver, the lungs, and the heart. “The affection of Christ” is literally “the intestines of Christ”.

I imagine that this odd way of describing affection came about because someone you care deeply about can tie everything inside you into knots, or make your heart flutter, or cause you to hyperventilate.

I imagine that when Paul wrote “I long for you all with the affection of Christ,” he felt something like what mothers and fathers feel when their kids are playing on the football field, or on the basketball or volleyball court, or playing in school plays, or playing a band solo, or lined up in a spelling bee. You must want to cheer and take an antacid at the same time.

Parents feel all kinds of pride, fear, and desire because parents are their children’s partners, and they are always praying for good things for them. This is what the Lord wants us to do for each other all the time.

We see in Paul the gift of assurance about others; the gift of confidence in others. This doesn’t mean seeing others through rose-colored glasses. If you did that how could you possibly see clearly enough to pray for them or help them? That’s why Paul wanted them to be able to love “with knowledge and depth of insight.”

Paul wrote, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” I think that here Paul has the hope and the realization that our worries, and frustrations, and fears for others will resolve themselves and drop away when we see each other in the full light of Christ, and see Christ face to face.

Growing up as partners in Christ, growing up in Christ, can be fun and wonderful, and it’s a lot of trial and error too, and it’s probably a good thing we don’t fully realize just how important every day of our lives is in making us what God intends us to be. The important thing is that your life is a good thing started by God, to which God wants to bring meaning and peace; and because of Christ, you have a different kind of life that is started by the Lord. You have a new life that is always new every morning (if you are willing to believe it).
We need to hear God’s voice telling us this.

I am thinking about the song “Amazing Grace” and the last verse that says, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” We will always be growing forever, and so we are all just beginning on the road to being the people that God is planning us to be, but Paul says that we can have confidence that God will get us there.
We don’t understand our own potential unless we put God at the center of it. And we also don’t know what to make of others (our own family, our neighbors and friends, and our fellow members) unless we trust God about them. We need to never forget to long for them with the affection of Christ; which means trusting that Christ loves them the way Christ loves you (if you really believe that Christ loves you).

So you serve them any way the Lord allows you to serve them. And you speak to them with any word the Lord gives you to speak to them. And you put them in the Lord’s hands, and you know you can trust the Lord to take care of them and nurture his meaning for their lives just as he cares for you (if you know that he cares for you). This is spiritual partnership.

The same word that gives us the idea of partnership, and sharing in grace and fellowship, also gives us the translation of the word “communion”; as in communion with the body and blood of Christ.

When we are partners we make an investment of our lives in each other, and we can do this because Christ has invested his life in us. He spent his life to the last drop for us, and now he really lives in us. When we share in the communion together, we are saying that we love him for doing this and that we want to be his partners, and partners with each other forever.

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