Monday, April 11, 2011

True Fellowship

I've learned its a very rare treasure. What is it? How do you get it? How do you know if you have it?

My study of joy in the book of Philippians has begun to shed light on true fellowship and validates some of my experiences. (Bare with me while I sprinkle lots of quotes from Warren Wiersbe's book Be Joyful throughout my thoughts.) To provide a brief background, the apostle Paul is writing to the Christians in Philippi while he is chained in jail, awaiting his (and Christianity's) trial in Rome. But he writes this letter to share the secret to the joy that he has. Say what? Joy while in shackles for his faith? With a good possibility that the death penalty awaits him?

Wiersbe writes: "The secret of his joy is the single mind; he lives for Christ and the Gospel....It is the attitude that says, 'It makes no difference what happens to me, just as long as Christ is glorified and the Gospel is shared with others.' Paul rejoiced in spite of his circumstances, because his circumstances strengthened the fellowship of the Gospel..."

So he had a single-minded goal and motivation that included this thing called fellowship. Whatever fellowship was, it was so important and worthwhile to Paul that he was willing to withstand such hardship to strengthen it. In Christian/churchy circles today the word fellowship often conjures up images of light socializing with other Christians (over food of course!). I'm sorry but strengthening my chit-chats-over-brownies-after-church would not motivate me to suffer through life's tough circumstances. There is more to true fellowship than that.

Back to Wiersbe: "You cannot have fellowship with someone unless you have something in common...It is possible to be close to people physically but miles away from them spiritually...Paul was in Rome, his friends were miles away in Philippi, but their spiritual fellowship was real and satisfying." So Paul wasn't even physically with these friends, never mind able to eat with them, but they shared a strong spiritual bond and single-minded mission based on Christ.

I've spent a lot of time with Christians without having deep or honest conversations about what we have in common or what we can do about it. I've wasted plenty of time hanging out with people and never getting past small talk, or my life or theirs. It is meaningless. It doesn't glorify Christ. It doesn't share the Gospel. It doesn't result in joy. This is not the true fellowship Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians.

I really like how Wiersbe breaks down the definition of true fellowship by summarizing the three sections in Philippians 1:1-11. When you have true fellowship with another Christian, you have them in your mind (vv 3-6), you have them in your heart (vv 7-8), and you have them in your prayers (vv 9-11).

Philippians 1:1 "I thank my God every time I remember you."
When I have you in my mind, I'm thinking of you, not myself. I'm thinking of your circumstances, not mine. Paul goes on to tell the Philippians in v.6, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." When I am focused on encouraging you in your spiritual growth and filling you with confidence that God will finish the amazing work he's started in your life, that gives me joy and leaves no room in my mind for dwelling on my own worries.

Philippians 1:7 "It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart;"
Wiersbe joked that people can be in our minds but not in our hearts. We can remember people by thinking about how much they irritate us, or how bitter they make us, or how they need to change. But...
When I have you in my heart, I have a sincere love for you that cannot be disguised or hidden. This takes it to a deeper level. True fellowship is not just in thought but in action. This takes up my time. This involves me getting to know you and your needs. This involves me looking past your failures. Christ's Spirit in me empowers me to show you love and this results in joy for both of us.

Wiersbe notes the evidence of Paul's love for the Christians in Philippi: "For one thing, he was suffering on their behalf. His bonds were proof of his love...Because of Paul's trial, Christianity was going to get a fair hearing before the officials of Rome. Since Philippi was a Roman colony, the decision would affect the believers there...He considered his difficult circumstances an opportunity for defending and confirming the Gospel..."  He did this for the sake of the other believers as an act of love, proof they were in his heart.

Philippians 1:9 "And this is my prayer; that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight..."
When I have you in my prayers, I present you before God's throne of grace. The more I ask of God for you, the less I ask for me. As Paul shares how he prays for them, a much deeper level of fellowship is present. His prayers for them have nothing to do with their circumstances but instead have to do with the single-minded mission that they have in common. He doesn't share with them how he's asked God to help them out financially or to heal their illnesses or to get them out of a sticky situation (though I assume he prayed those prayers too). He tells them how he's prayed that they will grow in the knowledge and understanding of God. Why? So that they can better love others, discern what is right and live lives that are pure and fruitful to glorify God. Wowzers. My first reaction was, well, he's in jail, he's got nothing better to do than pray like that. But the reality is that most of us, if in Paul's situation, would spend all our time in fear and worry. Communication with others would be spent complaining about the awful details of our circumstances and begging for help and sympathy. We all choose how we spend our time, no matter what situation we are in.

In summary by Wiersbe: "This, then, is true Christian fellowship - a having-in-common that is much deeper than friendship. I have you in my mind . . . I have you in my heart . . . I have you in my prayers.  This is the kind of fellowship that produces joy, and it is the single mind the produces this kind of fellowship!"

Before I studied Philippians 1:1-11, if someone had asked me if I'm experiencing true Christian fellowship I would have said YES! I am so blessed to have that goes-deeper than-friendship-common-spiritual-bond with more than a handful of Christians. But apparently I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to experiencing true fellowship. Lately I've had others "in my mind" a lot. I've been very purposeful to listen to others, to be perceptive of their needs and to let them know they are on my mind by encouraging them with scripture. (Because "sending thoughts your way" doesn't actually do anything.) I've also been spending more of my time keeping others "in my heart." I have been looking for and acting on opportunities to show love to others by doing practical things for them in a way that glorifies God and shares the Gospel.  Every day God provides these opportunities and every act of love results in immediate increased joy for me. That's not my motivation but it is a consequence, and one that is promised at that. My mind is not on my own worries and circumstances when I focus on others and on God.

So it's fairly easy to have others on my mind and a little hard to live a life evidenced by my loving actions toward others, but pray for others to have mature Christian love and character? Not that I'm scoring an "A" in either Mind or Heart but I'm certainly scoring a big old "F" in that Prayer category of true fellowship. Wouldn't I love others to be praying that way for me? Please do! And I will try, with God's help, to do the same. Who dares to experience true Christian fellowship (and the joy that follows) with me?

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