I Believe In FellowshipErwin W. Lutzer | January 21, 2001
Selected highlights from this sermon
The early church had a type of “unstoppability.” Nothing seemed to hinder its growth. Why?
Looking at the book of Acts, Pastor Lutzer explains how, through their fellowship with God and accountability to one another, the early church believers were able to grow their church.
Let me begin today with a question. What was the secret of the early church’s unstoppability? Now I don’t know if there is a word like unstoppability. I have a computer that likes to tell me right away when I’ve made a mistake. You know it used to be that you had a computer and then when you stopped writing you could hit “spell check,” and it would tell you. Now mine wants to underline with a wiggly red line the moment I’ve made a mistake. It says, “I’m not going to wait until you get to the end of the paragraph.” At first, when I got it I thought the wiggly red line meant that it was an important word, and then I realized that it was a mistake.
When I typed the word unstoppability into my computer, it has a wiggly red line under it. Now maybe I just misspelled it. I don’t know. But what was it about the early church that nothing could stop it? Political authorities, other religions competing for the same minds and the same hearts, but Christianity just marches along with tremendous strength. Unstoppable!
In the book of Acts it says that they continued (and this may be the secret) in the Apostle’s teaching (That was the foundation of it all.) in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, which I take to be communion, and in prayer. Maybe that was the secret of its unstoppable power.
You’ll notice number two on the list is fellowship. And I’m not sure that the list necessarily designates order of importance. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. It means common. It means that they shared something in common, and it’s also the word that is really at the root of our word communion. It means that we have something that unites us that is stronger than anything that might divide us.
What was it that united them? Was it the fact that they were all Jewish in their origin ethnically? No. As a matter of fact there were many people who were Jewish who strongly opposed the fledgling Christian Church. Was it because they were all of the same education? No, certainly not! As a matter of fact, Christianity had a tremendous amount of power also among the lower classes. Was it the vocations of people? No.
Today there are church growth leaders who tell us that churches only grow if you have homogeneity. Today I just feel like using some big words. That means that we all look alike. We all act alike. We’re all economically alike. We’re all the same color. Then the Church will grow.
I want you to know today that the strength of the Church, it seems to me, is diversity in those matters. It looks a lot more like heaven to see diversity. As a matter of fact, Kenneth Scott Lautourette, who wrote an awesome book on church history, said that the strength of the early church was that all the other gods (whether Roman gods or Greek gods) were kind of tribal ethnic deities. He said that Christianity came along and it reached out to everyone and united people on the basis of a different principle. And that principle was the fellowship. It was the common life that we’re talking about.
Take your Bibles and turn to 1 John 1. Now that’s the letter of John. It’s not the gospel of St. John but one of his letters. It’s very close to the book of Revelation, and you’ll notice that it says in verse 1, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
I’d love to comment on that and I will do so very briefly. You know in those days, it was believed that God could not have come in the flesh, and so there was this idea that Jesus wasn’t real. He only appeared to have a human body. John said, “We touched Him. We touched the Word of Life. The Life appeared. We have seen it and testify to it and we proclaim to you the eternal Life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us (and notice it now), and our fellowship is with the Father with His Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make your joy complete.”
What was the common life that the early church shared? What was it that gave it that sense of invincibility? Well, first of all I want us to look at the fellowship that they had with the Father and the Son right out of the text there in verse 3. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with the Son, Jesus Christ.” Now left to ourselves in our natural state, we have nothing in common with God because God is holy, and we are sinful. Even when we don’t think we are sinful we are, and therefore there is nothing in common. But John said the Word of Life came, and Jesus came, and took upon Himself the nature of man, or at least the body of man, and the nature of man, though without sin. And as a result now His forgiveness and His reconciliation means that we can have contact with God. God’s holiness has been appeased and as a result God says, “Now you can draw near to Me and you and I can have fellowship together.”
As a matter of fact, when the Bible says that we are partakers of the Divine Nature, that word partakers in Greek is really at root koinonia. We have within us the very life of God implanted. It’s not something we grew up with. It’s not something that happened just because we went to Sunday school. It’s not something that came about as a result of the fact that we are good people. It was implanted by God when we were born again. We share the very life of God. Notice John says, “We are declaring to you this eternal life which appeared and was revealed to us.” So we share the life of God.
We also share the light of God. Notice in verse 5 it says, “This is the message we have heard from Him and declared to you that God is light. In Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him, yet walk in the darkness we lie, and we do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us.” It’s the word from which we get catharsis. It cleanses us from all sin. God is life and we share it, and God is light and we are to walk in it.
What about light? Light reveals reality. I can’t tell you the number of times (and this is somewhat embarrassing to say) that I’ve awakened in the morning and decided to wear a black suit, and of course, as you know, with a black suit should go black socks. So I’ve looked in the drawer, and boy, these sure look black, and I put them on and walk in the sunlight and I chose blue socks. Today I’m wearing a gray suit and I want you to know that I checked my socks out good and proper. They are black. But I could imagine somebody saying, “Yeah, he’s got black socks but look here. He’s wearing a blue tie with a gray suit.”
The simple fact is that you and I, until we come into the light, don’t know reality. Reality shows the flaws. Reality shows how things are. Light reveals. John Whittier wrote, “Our thoughts lie open to Thy sight and naked to Thy glance. Our secret sins are in the light of Thy pure countenance.” Wow! And as a result of God coming to us we recognize that it is He then who brings reality. We finally understand who we are. We understand both our sinfulness, but we also understand His grace. Light has to reveal both.
Back on November 11, 1951, electricity came to the farm on which I was raised. You say, “Well how in the world do you remember that?” Well, it’s just one of those little things that I can pull out of my mind because it was a big deal. You say, “Well, how can you remember back to 1951?” Well, the answer is I was very, very young, but I do remember it.
Along with electricity came a yard light. That was something new. We as kids just kept flashing that thing on and off. We couldn’t believe it. (laughter) That’s alright. I came from a town where if you plugged in an electric razor, the streetlights used to dim. (laughter) But one of the things that we as kids learned about the yard light was that when you get away from it you cast a very long shadow. And as you get closer, the shadow gets shorter and shorter and shorter until you are standing right under it and there’s almost no shadow that you can see. You were standing in the light.
Now listen to me, my friend. If you want to know your length, and if you want to know who you really are, you have to get close to God because that’s reality. Standing away from God you can have a conception of yourself, a measurement that is totally skewed because it is your idea. Listen to me when I tell you that darkness is your opinion of yourself. Light is God’s opinion of you. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all, and if we say that we have fellowship with Him (and I’ve met Christians like this and they walk in darkness), we lie,” John says, “and we do not do the truth.”
Let me ask you another question. When I am in fellowship with God does that mean that it’s a one-sided thing where I am in fellowship with God, and God’s not having fellowship with me? No, no, no! It’s two-sided. God is having fellowship with me. In fact, even when He says, “When we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another,” if you remember what an antecedent is (that’s going back a long time), the antecedent in the verse is actually God. We have fellowship one with another. God has fellowship with me and I have fellowship with God. And as a result of that we have fellowship together. Sometimes people say, “I don’t read my Bible. I don’t have devotions because I don’t get anything out of them.” I want you to know that that’s not really the question. The question is, what does God get out of them? He desires our fellowship, and if we walk in the light we have the opportunity of being in fellowship with Him.
What hinders fellowship? Sin! What brings about joy? Fellowship with Him! Notice this! I have to comment on verse 4. It says, “We write this to make our joy complete.” And we say to ourselves, “No, it’s in darkness that I find joy. I will not give this up. I will not do what I know God wants.” No, that’s an incomplete joy that is always twinged with that cloud. There is such a thing as joy, inexpressible and full of glory, walking in the light.
What is the power of the early church? Why did they turn their world upside down? They knew the power of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. But secondly they also knew fellowship with one another. They understood that. In verse 3 it says, “You are to have fellowship with us,” and of course also in verse 7 perhaps he is referring not only to fellowship with God but fellowship with one another as we walk in the light because darkness separates us, and light unites us.
Now listen. This is just for you and me listening together here. How is it possible for two Christians to walk in the light? Let’s suppose they are married and the man is walking in the light. He claims to be walking in the light, and his wife claims to be walking in the light, and yet there’s no fellowship. They can’t get along. What’s going on there? I think there’s darkness somewhere.
I saw a cartoon this past week of a woman who was receiving counseling. She and her husband received a lot of counseling and they went to their pastor and said, “You know we’ve settled all of our differences and now we have nothing in common.” You know, the problem with some counseling (and not the kind that we do here) is that people want to get along and still walk in their darkness. And the text is talking about us walking in the light, as God is in the light.
Now I’ll tell you what happened in the early church. When you walk in the light and you see your sinfulness and you see God’s grace, and you have to see both or else you are devastated, what happens is that you become open so that you begin to share with other people. And soon you aren’t threatened by the encroachment of intimacy because you know that the one who knows the most about you loves you the most. And so it gives you a sense of security. And the early church was able to share and able to work through without having to wear all the masks that some of us sometimes put on. That was one of the strengths of the early church.
Here’s a man who is about to declare bankruptcy. This is a true story. As a matter of fact, not only is he about to declare bankruptcy, but also he’s going to disappear supposedly off the face of the earth because of everything that has collapsed around him. And the day before he disappears he plays 18 holes of golf with friends from his church, and nobody knows what he’s going through. Why doesn’t he reveal it? Well, maybe he thinks that people would be judgmental. Maybe he thinks that it would be painful. I tell you that he would have spared himself a lot of pain if it had been revealed.
But as a result of that, you see, what happens is that we live these separated lives and we say, “Only God sees who I really am and I am not willing to walk in the light so that I can have fellowship with you, because if I really walk in the light I’m going to have to be honest. I’m going to have to have some transparency, and I’m going to have to be able to reveal to other people who I really am.” And that is terrifying for many people. But the early church was able to do that because of the power of the light.
I read a story this past week of a man who was going to raise ducks. And he lived beside a river and thought that that might be a good thing to do. And so he made all these different pens because there were different kinds of ducks. So one color ducks go here, and there’s another kind of duck, and he made these fences out of wire, and was able to keep the ducks there as long as their wings were trimmed and so forth. And then a huge flood came, and the water went well above all of the fences. And suddenly he realized that now all of the ducks are swimming together.
When the Holy Spirit of God works in power in a congregation, when the rain showers of blessing begin to come, all of the fences disappear and the ducks start swimming together. And as a result of that, you see, we have fellowship one with another. There’s a sense of authenticity. There’s a sense of honesty. There’s a sense of openness in which it is okay to be fragile and frail and hurting because suddenly we realize that we are all the same. And the fences go down and the different colored ducks, and the ducks from different geographical areas all swim together. John said, “We have fellowship with the Father and the Son, and now we have fellowship (those bonds) with one another.”
Throughout the New Testament there are also other uses of the word fellowship. And I’ll comment briefly about the fellowship of sharing. When the Apostle Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians about giving, he says, “You participated in the fellowship of the saints.” He’s talking about the offering, and it only makes sense, because you see, if we begin to give ourselves to one another, then suddenly we will be very anxious to have the opportunity of giving because it’s so much a part of who we are as people who love the light.
I want you to know today that it is possible to give without love. That’s why some people resent giving so much. It’s because there isn’t that love, but it’s possible to give without love. But it is impossible to love without giving. You love and you will give. God loved and He gave, and He gave, and He gave. So that’s why in the New Testament, offerings were talked about as the fellowship of the saints. It’s because what they had in common was that mutual sharing – that mutual giving.
You know here at The Moody Church we’ve had many new members come, and many of you have stayed with us and you’ve been here for years. But we’ve also had a lot of people who passed through this place. And there are different reasons. Some people moved geographically. Maybe they moved out to the suburbs or they moved out of the city or whatever. But one of the things that we’ve also learned is that the people who really buy into our vision, who say, “This is where God has called us, and this is where we are going to stay,” are not just people who simply have found enjoyment and blessing through our worship services. They are people who have bonded with other people and they have had a sense of real genuine fellowship because that’s so necessary for a church to be unstoppable. We can’t live this life alone. We need each other. And we have opportunities here through ministries such as small groups. We have adult Bible fellowships that meet before our worship service. For some people their sense of bonding and community is the choir. The women’s ministry here has always flourished for many, many years under the leadership of Mary Whelchel. But I want you to know, women, look out, because the men are going to catch up to you. We had a wonderful meeting yesterday with about 90 or 100 men and we want to do this every month. And it was wonderful to see that kind of bonding and fellowship, because, my dear friend, it is part of the Gospel message that we have fellowship with God and we have fellowship with one another.
One day I was reading the biography of Murray M’Cheyne who was a great preacher. And he said something that I could hardly relate to. He said that when Sunday was over, he would weep for such sadness to think that he would not see the saints again in that setting for a whole long week. Wow! Now that is love. That is community. You build that into the ministry of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit and we too will have (and here’s the word now) unstoppability, whether the computer believes there’s a word like that or not.
What am I saying today? I’d like to wrap it up with two important applications. Number one, what am I asking for today? First of all, I am asking for a radical commitment to God. You know there is a parable of a cave that was down in the heart of the earth, way below the surface. And somebody said to the cave (this is of course a fable), “Why don’t you come out in the light and see the light?” And the cave said, “I do not believe that light exists for I have seen only darkness.” And so the cave stayed there, but once it took up the challenge and it came into the light of the sun, he thought, “Oh my, there IS light.” And then the story goes that the cave invited the sun down and said, “Why don’t you come into the cave and see what darkness is like?” So the sun took up the challenge and it went into the cave and it said, “I do not see any darkness. What do you mean by darkness? Where is the darkness?”
Notice it says that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Wherever He shines the darkness must leave because darkness is just the absence of light. It does not have energy. It does not have power. You’ve heard me say many years ago that that’s why you can’t go into Ace Hardware and say, “You know, last time I was here I bought a flashlight, but this time I’d like to buy a “flash dark” because sometimes the lights in my home are too bright and I’d like to just shine some darkness. Do you have a “flash dark”? No, no, there is no “flash dark.” You have a flashlight.
What I’d like to ask is, are you inviting God into the cave of your life to look around and dissipate the darkness?
Yesterday evening I spent about a half hour in the presence of God, not praying, not asking Him for something, but asking Him to simply search my heart and show me what’s there. And it’s always so painful because I see self-will. I see selfishness. I see all this and it is just so, so difficult to have to admit to all these things in the presence of the light. But if you are serious about it, whatever God reveals, you just wait before Him and you confess this and you admit to that, and you admit to that, and He doesn’t let me by with anything, and I admit to this, this and this. But then it says that we are cleansed. And I thought to myself, “I wonder if there are Christians who have been saved for years who have never spent a half hour in God’s presence, saying, “I know that you have searched me and I know that your light is upon me. Now show me what you see.” It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s there that He meets you in grace and that’s where you have your catharsis.
You say, “Well what about the sins we can’t remember?” Listen, it says, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” I interpret that to mean that if we confess the sins that God reveals to us, the sins that we weren’t even aware of are also cleansed so that we now today are walking in the light.
I’m sure there are many sins that I’ve committed that I don’t even remember, that I’ve never confessed. There are probably people that I’ve offended, and who knows what all, but I want you to know that today, as far as I know, having spent that time in God’s presence yesterday evening, I am walking in the light as much as God could show me. The cup of joy springs a leak because of sin, and when we open our caves to God and say, “God, what’s in there that You want me to confess and to get rid of, that’s when we really have fellowship with God and God says, “Now, you and I can have fellowship together. This isn’t just a one-sided thing.” So it’s radical commitment to God, whatever He might have you do or say.
Secondly, radical commitment to one another! It flows out of that. That means that we begin to sacrifice for others. That means that we get to know others, and to bring them into the circle of our sacrifice and our joy and our prayers. And how I thank God for the many, many people who pray for us as a staff, and you bring them in because you are radically committed to one another. In fact, the Bible says you should be willing to lay down your life for somebody. And nobody has ever asked us to do that. Nobody has ever asked me to do that. They ask a whole lot less and it becomes a burden. Why? If you are not walking in the light and you walk in darkness, every act of sacrifice is a resentful burden. You walk in the light and it’s a joy.
There was a deacon who was given an assignment and that was to find out who in the world was stealing the soap in the washrooms of the church. That was back in the days when they just put a bar of soap there. Now I guess they’ve got all kinds of fancy gadgets, but every time they turned their back, the soap was gone. So this guy decided to hide in a washroom, maybe behind the garbage can or whatever, but he was there. In walks a man and takes the bar of soap, wraps it in a Kleenex and puts it in his pocket. The deacon did not see who it was because he saw only the back of the man, but he shouted, “I saw you do that.” And the man turned around and instantly the deacon was looking into the eyes of a very close friend. Now can you imagine how that moment was transformed when he recognized who was doing it? You know, as long as it’s somebody out there without a name, you don’t care too much, but when it’s somebody you know, then it has a different face, and this is the outcropping now of fellowship one with another and being involved in other people’s lives.
When I came to this church many years ago there was a woman who used to walk along LaSalle Street. She was an older woman who used to just curse and swear obscenities to herself as she walked along. And from time to time we would see her and she’d walk by us with all of this awful stuff coming out of her. We just kind of ignored her. I mean, you know, she seemed to be mentally unstable and so forth. And one day when I saw her I thought, “What if she were my mother?” Boy did that put a different face on it. And then I began to think, “You know, maybe she IS somebody’s mother, and I began to think, “Who knows the abuse that this woman endured? Who knows the men that have taken advantage of her? Who knows what addiction and sin she fell into?” And after that, whenever I saw her I tried to walk with her and I tried to talk with her and tell her about the love of Jesus. Now I wasn’t successful. This is not a success story. All that I am trying to say is that if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and as a result of that, that begins to spill over into the lives of other people who are no longer simply faces, but they are real people, with real needs, with real desires, with a real need for the warmth of the Father’s home.
What is going to make Moody Church unstoppable? I hadn’t planned on saying this, but I’m on a roll today. It’s not really going to be the preaching. It’s not going to be necessarily the choir and the beautiful music, though we thank God for all of that. It is going to be walking in the light, beginning to seek God in our prayer meeting, which incidentally is a marvelous experience at 7:00 o’clock on Wednesday. It is going to be saying, “God, what is there within us that must be cleansed, and forgiven and taken care of so that we have fellowship with You, and therefore have fellowship with one another?” I believe that just as the early church was unstoppable, so we can be too under the good hand of our God.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we want to thank You today for all the mercies that You’ve given to us that are so undeserved, and we ask in the name of Jesus that the light of Jesus, with all of its power, may shine upon us. We pray that You will give us the courage to walk in the light. Help us, Father, to be willing to go into the caverns of our own heart and say, “Bring Your light and shine it, and shine it that there might not be darkness.” Oh God, do that for us as a people. We pray for the strength of this church in this city. We think of those who have opportunities to witness to God’s amazing grace in all the different vocations, in all the different neighborhoods, in all the different opportunities that You put upon us. Change us, oh Lord, by your Spirit, we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.