II. THE PRACTICE OF FELLOWSHIP
Fellowship as a Practice of Evangelism
For decades, much of Christendom has viewed evangelism primarily as an exercise in verbal communication: preparing a sermon or delivering a speech where the audience is asked at the end to make a decision for Christ as Savior and Lord. With this way of understanding evangelism, the responsibility has primarily been placed on pastors or specialized preachers usually identified as “evangelists.” Perhaps some of us have reached the path of faith in this way, so it has been beneficial to many over time. However, we should remember that the task of evangelism is the business of every disciple of Jesus Christ and not a practice tasked to pastors or church leaders only. It is a collective responsibility of the Church as a special community: the body of Christ.
Essential to the formation of a community is establishing and fostering authentic relationships, and in life everything is about relationships. The Church, as the body of Christ, is called to be a community, not just for the sake of gathering, but also to be in relationship with God, with each other, and with the world, to model the values Jesus lived and taught. The “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section in the Book of Order states what the church should strive to become:
“The Church is to be a community of faith… The Church is to be a community of hope… The Church is to be a community of love… The Church is to be a community of witness…”. 2
Notice that faith, hope, love and witness are cultivated in the context of community.
Donald McKim reminds us that “the church represents the reign of God within its own community. It should be a fellow- ship that models the love, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation Jesus embodied. It should ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). The church is the fellow- ship where we find a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom.” 3
With this in mind, in this lesson we offer the following perspective: The way we relate to others is a practice of evangelism, a way of communicating the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. The New Testament uses the Greek term koinonia to describe these relationships. Koinonia is fellowship, participation, partnership or communion within the context of the community of faith.
2. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Book of Order (2019-2021), F-1.0301.
3. Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers (Louisville: WJK, 2017) 68.
III. SCRIPTURAL REFERENCE
Before exploring the practice of koinonia as portrayed in Acts 2, let’s consider from whom the first Christians learned about true fellowship—Jesus. An example is found in Luke 19.
(Read Luke 19:1-10)
Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and in First Century Judea, tax collectors were despised for three main reasons. First, they were part of the Roman Empire system of political and economic oppression. Second, their frequent contact with the Romans (who were foreigners) made them ritually unclean in Judean eyes. Third, tax collectors were known to get rich by cheating and overcharging, keeping the extra money for themselves.
They were so despised that the term “tax collector” came to be synonymous to the word “sinner.” A Judean male who considered himself “a decent person” would not “hang out” with a tax collector, much less enter his house or share the table. Yet that is precisely what Jesus did. Instead of ignoring Zacchaeus and passing him by, Jesus looked at him, acknowledged him and even invited himself to stay at his house! Note that Jesus approaches Zacchaeus not with the purpose of selling him “a product” or pushing a dogma. Jesus goes to his home to be in fellowship with him. That gesture of sincere fellowship touches the heart of the one others called a “sinner,” and Jesus called a “son of Abraham.”
John Pavlovitz 4 explores the concept of “agenda-free community,” and compares the approach some Christians take when sharing the gospel, to that of a salesperson whose clearly defined objective is selling something. In Jesus we do not find the salesperson approach, but the fellowship approach: Jesus sees the person as they are, welcomes them and offers an open heart with an authentic desire for building a relationship.
(Read Acts 2:42-47)
While the Gospel According to Luke presents the life and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, its sequel — Acts of the Apostles — tells the story about the community of disciples after Jesus had ascended and their ministry under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:42–47 describes the daily life of that discipleship community after being invested with the power of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The detailed description portrays a community where good relationships were cultivated — with God and with others. It was a community that practiced fellowship: learning, worshiping and praying together, helping and caring for each other, sharing meals and sharing resources. This lifestyle had a favorable impact on the people around them. In times of empire and oppression, the Church modeled and embodied a different path for the community at large. The account concludes by stating, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Notice the phrase “the Lord added to their number.” It is not our task to “add.” Our task is to testify, to witness, in word and deed. It is God who adds. This bears honest reflection: Instead of focusing on how to add new members to the church roll, perhaps we should focus on how we are practicing fellowship in a way that reflects the character of Jesus Christ. Growth is, and has always been, in God’s hands.
4. John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Expanded Edition with Study Guide (Louisville: WJK, 2020), Chapter 10.
Familia: Stories of Koinonia
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Jay5 hadn’t set foot in a sanctuary in decades. A successful businessman, Jay was a pillar of society: respected, recognized, beloved. Yet as a gay man, he felt judged and rejected by the faith community that had nurtured him in his childhood. Sadly, this was true … no sugarcoating there. He had made his life outside of the church community. Prejudice had kept him away from the church, but not from a loving God.
Despite this, Jay had fond memories of his childhood at church, particularly of helping his mother prepare the elements of communion. One day, Jay found himself in a sanctuary again on communion Sunday. A family member had insisted and insisted he attend. “This church is different,” Jay was told. I (José Manuel) was serving that day. “¿Falta alguien por participar de la mesa?” I walked to the pew where Jay was sitting and offered him the bread and the cup. He participated in communion for the first time in many years.
When the worship service was over, Jay joined us for lunch. By then, he was already family. Later that evening, I received a call from him. I could hardly understand his words; he was sobbing, overcome by emotion. The words I understood were “Me incluiste.” “You included me.” Jay became an integral part of our faith community until his passing day some years later. He passed knowing of God’s profound love for him in the fellow- ship of a faith community that loved him, too. This sense of fellowship and communion, embracing him without judgment or condemnation, rekindled a long-lost spiritual connection with the God of love.
…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
“Hola, mima, Dios te bendiga. Besitos…” This is the preferred greeting of our dear Alina, the matriarch of the Soto family; these words are always accompanied with a hug. Along with her husband, Luis, and their young-adult children, they make up la familia Soto. Their family, extended family and friends, of all age groups and walks of life, easily occupy two pews of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. This is so because of the relationships they establish and cultivate with family, friends and neighbors.
For as long as we have known them, their home has been a refuge for many who may need a place to stay, a conversation, or a home-cooked meal. From family members recently moving from Cuba, to acquaintances that become family, the Sotos have welcomed many into their home in their time of need. Luis and Alina are the epitome of what it means to be in relationship with others. They know what it means to be family and, in their presence, that’s exactly what you are. Being intentional in nurturing relationships and friendships within their extended family and in their neighborhood has provided opportunities for sharing the good news — meeting and loving people as they are. The Sotos’ glad and generous hearts are an offering of praise to God, who loved them first, and a blessing to the faith community they nurture and call their own.
5. The name of the person in the first story has been substituted at the request of the writers.
V. HABITS FOR FELLOWSHIP
To quote the Rev. Tom Bagley in the lesson on Prayer, “Living the distinctive lifestyle of Jesus is not easy; it can only be accomplished in dependence upon God and in relationship with a community of others.” To be in fellowship with a community of others takes purpose, time and intention. It is working toward a community that prays, helps and cares for each other, learns and shares resources, and engages together in ways that are welcoming, accepting and nurturing. We offer three habits that can help in cultivating fellowship:
Recognize Imago Dei, the image of God, in all people encountered.
Recognize all people as “image bearers of God with stories to tell and wisdom to share…” 6 Having been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), there’s a bit of God in every one of us.
In the story of Zaccheus, we see how Jesus approached and treated him. A few chapters before that, in a conversation with a lawyer, the crowd following Jesus, including his disciples, had been taught about the main commandment: to love God and neighbor. The onlookers in Zaccheus’ story, grumbling and judging Jesus, much like the lawyer in chapter 10, were wondering who was “fit” to be their neighbor, when it is the other way around. We have the example of Jesus, who became a neighbor to others and acknowledged the dignity in all human beings. Working toward creating authentic relationships and healthy communities includes doing the real, honest work of introspection, intentionally considering implicit biases and prejudices in order to see, really see, the people we encounter, “image bearers of God.” In developing this habit, congregations or individuals may assess the need for guidance or training in areas such as cultural sensitivity and anti-racism.
Cultivate the art of listening and paying attention.
In this distraction-filled world, listening and paying attention requires being present, using all senses, and considering the nuances in body language and conversations with the people we encounter. The Revs. Rob Mueller and Krin Van Tatenhove describe this as developing “The DNA of Listening.” They quote the Rev. Kay Lindahl of the Listening Center in Long Beach, California: “Learning to truly listen to one another is the beginning of new understanding and compassion, which deepens and broadens our sense of community.” 7 In fostering authentic relationships with God and with each other, it is important to listen to life stories, truths, experiences, needs, hurts, joys and sorrows. In doing this, we may discover common interests, mission approaches and projects, what is working in our community and what is not, and what our communities desperately need. New ideas are bound to flourish, bringing relationships closer and propelling the mission forward. So much can happen if we pay attention to each other and to the Holy Spirit. In developing this habit, consider how you practice listening and paying attention. Are you slowing down, being present and listening intently? Are you distracted with your own thoughts, electronic devices or activities? Are you, and your community, taking time to listen to others and to the Holy Spirit among you?
Establish authentic relationships and work in concrete ways to connect with others.
As stated before, being in fellowship with a community of others takes purpose, time and intention. Make it a priority to connect with at least one new person or family in the community: a neighbor, a co-worker or fellow student, a family member. While being intentional in connecting with others, be mindful of not being intrusive or judgmental. Respect boundaries and personalities. Following the example of Jesus, we wish to foster relationships that empower and enliven us all, build friendships that are life-giving and change people’s lives for the better, and witness to God’s love and grace. In developing this habit, consider the following quote by John Pavlovitz: “What if the way we best make disciples is by showing people the fullest incarnation of Jesus that we can manage and resting in that?” 8
A word to the wise: These habits are interdependent and ongoing. For example, in the process of fostering authentic relationships, a community may discover the need to learn more about the struggles of the people among them.
6. John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Expanded Edition with Study Guide (Louisville: WJK, 2020) 98.
7. Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission (Louisville: WJK) 34.
8. John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Expanded Edition with Study Guide (Louisville: WJK, 2020) 100.
VI. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- In light of the examples of fellowship in the passages in Luke and Acts, can you identify examples of what authentic fellowship looks like in your context/community?
- Reflect on John Pavlovitz’s quote: “What if the way we best make disciples is by showing people the fullest incarnation of Jesus that we can manage and resting in that?” How can you or your faith community show others your fullest incarnation of Jesus? Share concrete ways or ideas for starting points in this direction.
- Many people have been part of faith communities or groups that, rather than establishing relationships that are life-giving, become toxic and life-draining. In the pursuit of fellowship, fostering communities that empower, enliven and witness to God’s love and grace, how can you or your faith community prevent becoming toxic and life-draining? Share examples of practices, spiritual and otherwise, that ensure safe-spaces and healthy relationships.