Monday, November 29, 2010

What it means (wow, that's loaded, huh?)

I've been thinking a lot about fellowship lately.  A big meal around a table with family and friends, such as American Thanksgiving leads one to consider this word.  Food and fellowship go hand in hand to American Christians, I think.  But the fellowship Paul writes of, the Koinonia of the New Testament, is more important than potlucks and cookie exchanges or even holiday dinners where everyone tries to be on their best behavior.  Fellowship, New Testament-style, is less about what people do together than how they treat each other in the daily living they do together.  In other words, it's about how we live together as the people of God--in families, in various church communities, and as Disciples of Jesus Christ in this world we still inhabit.

I've been thinking about this not merely because we just had Thanksgiving, but because recently I've had occasion to listen to people whose most immediately community--ie, their family--had become a place of pain and rejection.  Of course, we should never be surprised at the things non-Christians do to one another...but in at least one of these situations, I'm talking about a Christian family.  These many conversations have made me consider what we are called to in our most intimate relationships.  And that, of course, leads me to the sentence I have written here a dozen times: We are called to walk/live/act in a manner worthy of the gospel.

But once I've written that sentence, what exactly am I saying?  Paul, fortunately, is given to expanding ideas.  He never likes leaving his flock wondering what he means.  So after charging the Philippians to live lives worthy of the gospel, he goes on to explain what this means.  Chapter 2 begins with the assumption that the readers of this epistle are disciples, are people who have committed their lives to following His call and wanting to be like Him.  This is no great assumption for Paul, since he knew well the people who populated the church at Philippi.  However, I sometimes wonder if we can make the same assumption about all those who populate our churches today.  Being a disciple of Jesus Christ isn't a matter of sitting in the pews and joining some committees.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "When God calls a man (or woman), He bids him come die."  Answering His call means giving over our lives, lock, stock and barrell.  Holding nothing back.

  • But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Paul says it in Philippians 2 far better than I can, and what he's talking about in the first half of the chapter is how we are to live together so we can have the same unity between us that we have with Christ.  He suggests in his never subtle way that if we're united with Christ (which is the basic reality of salvation) certain things flow from that foundation: comfort from His love, common sharing in the Spirit, tenderness and compassion.  And if these things flow from us, fellowship follows.  How? By...

  •  being like-minded-- meaning a unity of mind
  • having the same love--meaning a unity of heart
  • being one in spirit and mind--meaning a unity of spirit and again, of mind
  • Doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit
  • in humility value others above yourselves
  • not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others
All these things motivate them to unity, or Fellowship.  The real Fellowship.

Finally (although this isn't at all finally but primary!), though, Paul gets down to what it really takes to live in a manner worthy of Christ, to have unity, to live in Fellowship, and that is: "To have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had..."  Christians are to have the attitude toward each other that Jesus had while He was on earth-- the heart, spirit and mind that made Him not merely serve but to give His life as a ransom for us all. Philippians 2: 5-11 is what I'm talking about.  This is called the Christ Hymn, and in fact was very likely an early Christian Hymn.  It's a picture into the world of the early Church between the events of the gospels and the epistles, and the content is profound.  A concise summation of Jesus Christ's Incarnation.

Here's my point.  It's possible that, like Paul in prison writing the letter to the Philippians, we live with people openly hostile to the gospel.  It's also possible that we live with people who claim to know Christ, but whose actions and words do not always correspond with such a claim.  Unfortunately, Paul gives no caveats.  He does not say that only those who live in easy community are obliged to practice Philippians 2 attitudes.  I might wish otherwise, but...
"In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not count equality with God something to be used to His own advantage;
rather, He made Himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant;
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
He humbled Himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place
and gave Him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."

Every time I ever hear these words read in church, I feel the need to stand or kneel (or both at once, if that was even possible).  Tears flow and my throat chokes up.  Even tonight as I wrote them, I feel it. But when that day comes?  That 'Name above all name' day comes?  I think there will be kneeling, but I'm sure there will also be singing and crying and...oh, for that great day.

Until then, where-ever you are, in whatever situation you find yourself, this is what it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.

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