Sunday, January 8, 2012

Life Signs - #1 A Life of Fellowship

We live in a time of declining trust in spiritual leaders, an era of disappointment with organized religion, when alternative creeds and philosophies abound, where many feel that “truth is in the eye of the beholder.”  In such a day, how can Christians be sure that their own spiritual experiences are genuine? In his letter, John gives us some clear signs of an authentically Christian faith that will also be compelling to others. The first of these “life signs” is a life lived in fellowship (1 John 1: 1-4)  Now most professing Christians are pretty enthusiastic about “fellowship.”  We gather in “fellowship halls,” meet in "home fellowship groups," have big potluck dinners together and enjoy activities that strengthen a sense of belonging and community. But is that all there is to what we call “fellowship”?  What is the real basis for this fellowship?  What makes it any different from other social gatherings?  That is the subject of John’s opening verses, where he testifies that…

This fellowship broke into history… when the Word of Life appeared in the flesh (vv.1-2a)!  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it…. John’s point is that the fellowship we treasure as Jesus' followers is based not in fantasy or mythology, but in history…that it was founded by a person who he heard with his own ears, beheld with his own eyes, touched with his own hands.  

My wife Lisa and I like to go to the Hollywood Bowl at least once during the summer with some old friends.  We enter the turn styles and then begin the climb past section one up the first escalator…then the second, then the third…above the tree line where the air is pretty thin and binoculars are mandatory.  We’re thrifty…what can I say? There was a time, though, when we got to sit in one of those really good box seats at the Bowl with a vice president at Warner Bros who who just happened to be my church's Clerk of Session (please excuse my Presbyterian polity lingo).  What thrill: I could actually see the performer’s eyes!  He was almost close enough to touch.  Now when John says that he saw Jesus “with his own eyes” he uses the Greek word theaomai: to look at intently, to calmly and continuously contemplate.  In other words, this was not someone John saw from the upper deck of a crowded stadium.  He got a really close look; touched him with his own hands; spent countless hours with him…and shared real fellowship with this extraordinary person. He calls him “the Word (logos) of Life.”  The Greek word "logos" combines the Hebrew idea of wisdom (hokmah), and the Greek notion of reason/word/thought. John seems to be saying that the very mind and wisdom of God appeared in flesh and blood. For the first chapter of John's gospel says that this very Word "was with God" and "was God" (John 1:1) "...and became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

Along these lines, it amazes me that some actually doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood man.  Director Brian Flemming, a self-described “atheist Christian,” in his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, tries to prove – rather unconvincingly -- that Jesus never existed.  That’s a tough assignment considering not only the witness of the gospels but the first century Jewish and Roman historians who wrote about him (see Josephus who at the very least testifies to Jesus' crucifixion; and the hostile Roman sources, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder among others).  In addition to these is the very fellowship that has bared his name for 2000 years!  Of course, the miracle is that in this fellowship we can still meet him today.  Not just in a symbolic sense…but really and truly.  He speaks to us through his word, and guides us with his Spirit in the company of his followers. Spend enough time among his genuine followers and you will hear them speak as though they really know him and talk with him…and they do.  How is such a supernatural fellowship possible?  Because, as John testifies…

This fellowship existed from eternity…with the Father and the Son (vv. 2b). “…and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father (from the beginning v. 1) and has appeared to us.” Jesus was not only a figure of history…He was “from the beginning” with God the Father in eternity.  There are two great truths that Christianity affirms about Jesus. One is his complete humanity…that he was not a ghost or spirit masquerading as a man, but a flesh and blood human being who could be seen and heard and touched, as John just told us. The other is Jesus’ complete divinity…that  he was the incarnation of God, the Eternal Son who existed with the Father from the beginning.  

In case you’re wondering, this doctrine was not invented in an ivory theological tower.  Within 20 years of his crucifixion, they began writing down how the One True God had become incarnate, embodied in the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 2, which can be confidently dated between 55-60 AD). The implication of this testimony is astounding…because it means that the one true God is a fellowship of loving Persons!  In God there is perfect community.  In God there is perfect relationship.   And because in God there is perfect self-giving love, we have been invited to experience the intimacy of this ever-expanding family with Him.

This is the witness of Scripture: that all human beings have turned through sin and pride from the very one who made us and loved us and therefore from the very fellowship of life and love itself.  Outside this fellowship there can be only death and darkness because he alone is the source of eternal life and light.  This is why his Son came: to restore us to real fellowship with God once and for all.  Occasionally someone will say to me, “I’m really not that in to organized religion.”  Or, “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need the church.” John gives me a whole new appreciation for “the Church” (ekklesia)…because it is really something so much bigger than churches, denominations, potlucks, and fellowship halls.  It’s something so much older than the thousand year old cathedrals of Europe…older than Christianity and time itself…for it is born of the original fellowship of infinite love which has existed from Eternity.  That’s the Church I really want to be part of; I really need to be a part of; I’m really grateful to be a part of because…

John testifies that this fellowship is a growing family… marked by joy (vv. 3-4)!   “And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”  Christianity is unique among the religions of the world in that it describes God with family language: the Father and the Son in communion with the Holy Spirit.  “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus (John 10:30).  At his baptism, the Father says, “Listen to my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17; Mark 9:7; Luke 10:35). But here is the key point: John says that “our fellowship is with the Father and his Son…”  That “our fellowship” is with “their fellowship.”  That their circle of love, is now “our circle.”  That we are now part of this ever growing family. That’s Jesus’ prayer for us!  For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).  

Finally, John says, “we write things that our joy may be complete.”  That tells me two things about the fellowship of God’s family… 

First, joy is a mark of God’s family.  In other words, the essential character of the church is not despair, or discouragement…it is one of joy and hope.  This is not to say that there are no tears here, that there is never frustration or anger or sin here…there is.  But there is something greater than that here.  There is life here, there is forgiveness here, there is laughter here; and there is hope here because we serve a Risen Savior…and behind all this is One who loves us and gave himself for us.  Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian life (G.K. Chesterton).  

And secondly, the joy of this family must be shared, for John writes so that our joy (his and ours) may be complete (pleroma): fulfilled and filled full! Hear me!  The fellowship of the church is a joyous life-giving fellowship which must be shared or it is not a fellowship at all.  St. John’s, as a part of Christ’s Body is not truly a fellowship or a church…if it is not also an open channel of joy; welcoming others into the ever-expanding family of the Father, who sent his only Son who sent the Holy Spirit to reclaim us as his children!

I came across a news story about two men who worked together every day at a furniture delivery company.  Gary would lift one end of the couch and Randy the other. People said they looked alike, but they chalked that up to coincidence.  Randy had been researching his family history. He was an adopted son, and a new law in Maine allowed him to finally see his birth certificate. He learned that both his parents had died but that they had another son, born June 10, 1974. Then, on a furniture delivery run, it happened again. A customer commented on how much Randy looked like Gary. Randy started nonchalantly asking Gary some more personal questions—like when his birthday is. "As soon as he said his birthday, I knew," Randy said later. Gary is his brother. Here they had grown up in neighboring towns and attended rival schools—only a year apart in age—and never known about each other. It was a shock to both of them. "Phenomenal," said Gary. "I still can't wrap my head around it." A co-worker, Greg Berry, said, "There's nothing like family, especially when you don't have one. Now they've got it."  But that's not all. After their story appeared in the local paper, "a teary-eyed woman showed up at the brothers' workplace clutching a birth certificate." She was their half-sister, born 5 or 6 years before them to the same mother. "After all these years," she said, "here I am 41, and now I finally found my brothers' [from "Adopted brothers reunited by work," from the Bangor Daily News and The Nashua Telegraph (9-22-09)]. 

That is a striking picture of the fellowship of the Jesus' followers! Men and women meet here and discover that they are really brothers and sisters—that there is a uncanny family resemblance, a deep, inexplicable bond. And finally we can start being the family we never knew we had.  Friends, you have a family you may not know you have …a forever family that began in history, that existed from all eternity, a growing family whose joy shall not be complete until you are part of it.   

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