The lock down orders that have been imposed all over the country have revealed to us a number of things—outside the church, in the relationship of the church to our broader society, and within the church. The thrust of this message has to do with the latter. What have we learned, if anything, about true Christian fellowship, true Christian koinonia, true Christian community?
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41–42).
Summary of the Text
In the second chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples of Jesus (Acts 2:2-4), and the first great gospel sermon was preached to the people of Jerusalem (Acts 2:14ff). Thousands began to flood into the church, and Luke describes for us how the church began to assume its ordained shape, and our text describes four features of their community.
Those who received the word were baptized, which ushered them into the body of Christ. About three thousand came in that first day (Acts 2:41). And what did these three thousand people do? Luke tells us that they did four things, continuing in them steadfastly. The first was that they submitted to the apostolic teaching. The second was that they continued in fellowship with one another (koinonia). The third was the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of bread together. And the last was prayers (Acts 2:42).
Back in the seventies, the great question was what is truth? Today the pressing question is where is community? Some might make this kind of observation in order to set the questions against one another, but rightly understood they are complementary questions. Truth is foundational to any true community, and community is the only appropriate response to the truth. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). Fellowship exults in the truth, and truth generates fellowship. In our text, it was dedication to the apostles teaching (truth) that resulted in fellowship (koinonia).
And so here is how the fact that the biblical word for fellowship is koinonia, connects to true discipleship. Think of how Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry. In order to welcome Christ into Jerusalem you have to go down to the street He is on. When you do so, you are not just praising Him as He travels by you. You also have a necessary relationship to those people on your right and left who are also praising Him. Christ was welcomed to the week of His passion by a crowd, and not by the last true believer. Save us, they cried, and that is what He did.
But the crowd had to come to Christ. They could not have gone two blocks over, turned and faced each other, and establish a little koinonia by themselves. It never works. The point of integration must be the incarnate truth. But at the same time, life that doesn’t congregate around the truth is not really alive.
In modern church parlance, fellowship means coffee and donuts. But in the biblical world, fellowship meant mutual partaking and indwelling. Fellowship is what we have in the body together, as we are being knit together in love.
A body is what we are. We do not act in a particular way in order to become a body, we are to act that way because we are a body and we desire to be a well-functioning one. “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).
When it comes to life in the body, there are all kinds of offenses. There are business offenses. There are family offenses. There is petty rudeness in the parking lot, and there is glaring sin within a marriage. What in the world are we to do with other people? “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
It glorified God when Christ received us, and it glorifies Him when we receive one another. When we receive a brother or sister, we are not promising to “look the other way.” That is not biblical receiving. We are promising to let love cover it, when that is appropriate, and to confront it, when that is appropriate. We are promising to not complain about it to others. We either cover it or confront it, and this principled communion is why it is possible to excommunicate in love.
Of course the center of this is love. When we look at the “one anothers” of Scripture, this has a central place. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “These things I command you, that ye love one another” (John 15:17). “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).
We can only love because we have been loved. And we can only know that we have been loved if we grasp—through a living faith—the glories of the gospel. Christ died and was buried, Christ was buried and rose, and He did it so that you might be put right with God. You are ushered into the fellowship of love that He offers, and this is what makes it possible for you to love your neighbor.
But it is very tempting for us to conceive of love as a generic disposition to “be nice.” But love rolls up its sleeves, and gets into the dirty work. If all we had to do was sit around and radiate love rays at one another, I am sure we would all be up to the task. But what about all those provocations that come from . . . you know, other people?
We begin by making sure that we do not rise to the provocations. We need to have peace with one another. One of the characteristics of the band that traveled with Jesus is that He had to caution them to preserve the peace with each other. “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another” (Mark 9:50).
We should labor to think alike. We noted earlier that truth is the foundation of community, and the more we share in the truth, and walk in it, the greater will be our unity. “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Our modern temptation is that of simply “agreeing to disagree,” which is fine as a temporary measure—but it is not the ultimate goal that Scripture sets out for us.
But the “one anothers” we pursue should not be limited to staying out of fights. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Rom. 12:10). Scripture tells us to point the honor away from ourselves, and toward the other.
As the people of God, we are being gathered. But we cannot be gathered without being gathered together. And once we are gathered together, we face the glorious calling of life together. But in order to maintain this, we have to keep emphasizing the basics—gospel, love, forgiveness, truth. And the fact is that in the time of the coronavirus scare, these truths about koinonia must be prioritized by us, and not placed on the back burner. One of the things that has happened over the last couple of months is that we have started to accept some unbiblical definitions of words like essential. The only way to say that our gathering, our worship, our singing, is unessential is by saying that the church is unessential.
We cannot invite Christ to accompany us without inviting His bride to accompany Him.