Fellowship and Relationships

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TEXT: John 13

John describes the last supper that has been famously depicted in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Jesus has spent three intensive years training his disciples. There is a special bond of friendship, yet the disciples have so much to learn.  Luke 22:15 says, And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer. It is difficult to imagine how Jesus felt, but the disciples just didn't get it.

In verse 2, the meal has ended and Jesus washes the disciples feet.  Read v.8-11. Jesus revealed that one of them would betray him, but they are still baffled. Even after Jesus told John who it was that would betray him, John couldn't believe it (v. 26-29). After Jesus tells them that his time has come to die (be glorified), he gives them a new commandment. I have been talking about the great commission, which was given after his death and resurrection, but the last item of business at the Last Supper was this "new commandment" (v. 34-35). If we read the rest of the chapter, we see that the disciples still didn't get it!

Collective Witness
Love for fellow believers, which we call "fellowship" or "church" is immensely important for the effectiveness of our witness as Christians. The world recognizes that we are Christians when they see that we love one another (John 13:34-5; see also John 15:12-13 also verse 17). We are also commanded to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), but fellowship is special!

The glue that binds believers together in Christian fellowship is not agreement, but the very opposite! We recognize that we are imperfect and need each other.  Just as education depends upon recognizing the possibility of not knowing, so Christian unity is only possible where believers realize that they are not always right. Listen carefully to the conversations of people who are enjoying good fellowship. They discuss opinions, doubts and preferences. If all have the same opinions and convictions, there is little to discuss.

The difference between the spiritual fellowship of Christians and fellowship of good friends in the secular world is what the New Testament calls "the law of Christ."  In Mark 12, we find the following discourse between Jesus and a scribe.

The Golden Rule
And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.  (Mark 12)

The Jews accredited the “golden rule” to Rabbi Hillel and many Christians think it originated with Jesus. But both our Lord and Hillel were referencing an obscure verse hidden away in Leviticus 19. It is sandwiched between warnings not to curse the deaf, trip the blind or to gossip. The chapter includes rules for sowing seed, sewing clothes and trimming the beard and, if you look closely, you also find the admonishment to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is interesting to note that Hillel’s Golden Rule was in the negative form, “Do not do unto another that which you would not want done to you.” Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which reflects the original text in Leviticus 19.

Rabbi Hillel recognized brotherly love as a fundamental principle of Jewish moral law. Rabbi Hillel’s emphasis on brotherly love motivated several well-known European theologians of the early 19th century to contend that Jesus was a follower of Hillel’s teachings. But Jesus is actually reprimanding the Pharisees in this passage. He reminded them that there was a greater commandment, namely to love God first and foremost. Love of one's neighbor (personal relationships) must be transcended by love for God (our primary objective).

James called the golden rule the “royal law” and declared that it is basically a good rule, but then revealed the down side: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin (James 2::8. 9). The Apostle Paul taught similarly in Galatians 5:14-16, For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. Loving your neighbor as self is a fleshly thing, but we are to love each other with a godly love.

The Golden Rule alone, without the mind of Christ, has its problems. We read about distraught mothers who kill their own children before committing suicide. They love their children as themselves. A drug addict once told me that he would share his last fix of heroin with a friend in need. Many marriages are dissolved on grounds of incompatibility even though both partners attempt to live by the golden rule. They love each other as they love themselves. You have perhaps heard the saying, “Marriage is a matter of give and take.” If it is only that, it may be doomed. A healthy marriage involves giving and receiving, but never “taking.” If one partner gives more than the other, there may be problems, but love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8; Proverbs 10:12). Agape love gives, expecting nothing in return.

In John 13:34, Jesus gives the “golden rule” a powerful new twist: A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. The “golden rule” has been superseded by the “new commandment” or the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). This gives us an entirely new precedent. And our Lord is absolutely consequent in his teaching, calling his disciples to follow that grand example: Just as the father hath sent me, so send I you (John 20:21).

Fellowship Sunday
I once began a sermon with a question: "What is the most important aspect of a church service?“ Answers came from all over the congregation. "The sermon," "prayer," "singing" "scripture reading." I asked why no one said, "the offering"? Then I gave my opinion and explained why I felt that that fellowship was of highest importance.

I said. "God's Word is very important, but we can read or study it at home alone, or listen to recorded sermons. We don't have to go to church for that. The same is true of prayer and music. But we can only have fellowship in a group. That is one thing we can't do at home alone." I used the example of family mealtimes to make my point, "People can eat and keep healthy eating alone. The real value of family meal times is the fellowship."
It was our monthly Fellowship Sunday, when everyone was invited to stay for a hot meal and fellowship. In fact, that is why I preached on the subject that Sunday.

After church the ladies set the tables and soon everyone was called for dinner. As Pastor, I was given a seat at the head of the main table. I thanked God for the food and the ladies began serving everyone plates of delicious-looking and good-smelling food. After all others were served, the women sat down at their places. I had silverware, an empty glass and a plate but no food. Puzzled, I asked where my food was. The ladies were waiting for that question and answered in chorus, "But you said in your sermon that the important thing about mealtime is the fellowship. You get what's important and we get the trivialities."

The incident was inwardly rewarding to me because the church was obviously listening and had gotten the point. And they would not soon forget it either.

Differences between relationships and fellowship:

 CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP  FLESHLY RELATIONSHIPS
 generous, sharing  selfish, greedy
 loving  lusting
 caring, comforting  oblivious, heartless
 looking and listening  wants to be seen and heard
 humility  seeks recognition
 willing to serve  seeks control
 leads by example  dictates
 encourages creativity  suppresses independent thought
 kind correction  criticism, accusation
 graciously accepts criticism  reactionary, anger, denial
 sacrifices for others  seeks own advantage
 trusts God  humanistic
 committed, dedicated  dependant on circumstances or feelings

Austrian believers often testified that a primary factor in their conversion was observation of the fellowship of evangelical believers. Most were Catholics and they experienced little fellowship in their own churches.

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:35).

(See my article on Unity and Separation)

Ralph V Harvey