Monday, October 01, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (13)

What is "fellowship"? (5)

In an earlier post in this series (number 11) I concluded:
The hypothetical examples I've already given in this series are also obvious enough that fellowship simply happens. It happens automatically when people who are in relationship with God come together, and it happens regardless of whether they 'Break Bread' together or gather in a religious service. It can't be legislated against, agreed to, or prevented. It just happens.
In this post I'd like to start answering two questions that arise out of this:
  1. What is it that "just happens" when believers gather together?
  2. How can we make fellowship "just happen", or what can we do to facilitate it?
In another post (number 10) I referred to the Greek word koinonia which is sometimes translated "fellowship" in the English versions, and said its primary meaning is to "share" something. A good starting place in understanding what it is that the first Christians shared is the record in Acts of the earliest meetings of the believers after Jesus' resurrection and Pentecost.

Acts 2:42 says: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."

This verse is sometimes quoted to support the view that "fellowship" is based on sound doctrine, and that the central act of fellowship is the "breaking of bread". The King James Version says "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" so this seems to support this idea. So we need to ask, what was the apostles' doctrine or teaching? We should note here that Paul wasn't among the apostles at this stage, so we need to look at the writings of the other apostles which are preserved in the New Testament - Peter, James, John and Jude - as well as the context in Acts.

First, from the immediate context in Acts 2, we get a clear illustration of how this fellowship was practiced. Two verses later we read "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" (vv 44-45). The word translated "in common" is the Greek adjective koinos, part of the same group of words that includes koinonia. Their "fellowship" was in the sharing of material possessions and a degree of communal living. This sharing of material things was based on the teachings of Jesus and continued by the apostles. "The apostles' teaching/doctrine" is preserved in their writings such as the following:
"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth ... " (1 John 3:16-19)
To John the evidence that someone "belongs to the truth" is the sharing of their material possessions with a brother in need. The apostle's doctrine here is to love "with actions and in truth" and not with words.

James taught similarly:
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

"Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:15-17).
Incidentally, it seems that the whole of James' letter is a commentary on Jesus' sermon on the mount. It's clear that "the apostles' teaching" was a continuation of Jesus' own teaching.

Peter wrote:
"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:8-10).
This was "the apostles' doctrine". In a nutshell we could say that the apostles' doctrine was "share your stuff"!

Luke, the writer of Acts, continues his description of early Christian life:
"Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
We learn from these verses that by "breaking of bread" he meant they ate their meals together in each others homes. There is no hint here that the "breaking of bread" involved any kind of liturgical worship, or organised religious services. It's possible that their daily meetings in the temple courts included participation in the temple services, but the "breaking of bread" is clearly said to have taken place "in their homes" and their fellowship was experienced in frequently meeting informally with each other, sharing meals together, getting to know each others needs, and in sharing their possessions with those in need.

These meals shared together in each others homes were so important in the communal life of the early Christians that Jude calls them "love feasts" (v. 12). In a series of earlier posts I wrote about the central role that meals played in Jesus' ministry and how He used meals as a metaphor for the kingdom of God. I suggested that His words at the last supper - "do this in memory of me" - was an instruction to carry on His practice of including the outcasts, the disenfranchised, the unclean, and the rejected in our meals and in the life of the community. It seems from Acts that the early believers carried on His teaching and His practice.

It's often over informal gatherings, especially if they include a meal, that people get to know each other and get to understand their real needs. If we regularly meet for meals in each others homes it's inevitable that relationships will form and deepen, and bonds will be forged that are difficult to break. This is where fellowship often "happens".

But there are a couple more important things we should note from this passage in Acts. First, there is no suggestion that there was anything "sacramental" about the breaking of bread. It was simply a meal taken together and "breaking bread" was the usual way of saying "having a meal". There is no hint here of the later church practice of having a meeting for worship, teaching and prayer and including a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. This later practice simply preserved a remnant of the earliest custom. The "sacrament" of communion, eucharist or "breaking bread" is a token or symbolic meal, but bears little resemblance to the earliest practice which was a normal and proper meal shared in homes.

The other thing we might observe is that there is no suggestion here that anyone was excluded from this meal. It's hard to imagine, for example, that the children who were part of the household would be excluded from the meal, or that guests would leave their children at home simply because they were "under-age" or not yet baptised. The kind of communal life we are intended to imagine is one which would have included whole families and probably extended to friends, neighbours and the extended family.

In my next post I plan to look at the other references to "the breaking of bread" in the New Testament and see if my conclusions from Acts 2 are consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Steve. What a great "Post"... {perhaps this is what it means to be a "Post" Christadelphian ;-)}

Have you noticed that the word "Doctrine" rarely appears as a plural in the Bible... as in "Doctrines contained in a creed" but as singular... "Doctrine."

To the Hebrew mind, the concept of Doctrine carries with it the idea of a persons "State of Being."

Truly, the early Christian’s "State of Being" was one of Grace and Sharing... or "being like God" or perhaps (we might say) "Modelling Jesus." {For an example of "Doctrine" (singular) read Deut 32:2 and other passages, using various interpretations - ie. as "Doctrine = beliefs" or "Doctrine = state of being", and see for yourself which one is the correct application.}

What happens when a person "models" something, say clothing? They wear "the designer label" and show it off in it's best light in front of others.

Isn't this what we Christians are called to do... "Model Jesus"... wear Him like a garment? He is, after all, our 'designer label'... don't leave home without Him! Wear Him everywhere, as the first Christians did, and show Him off in the best light, by sharing all things in common as they did. We are “all wrapped up in Him.”

I love it... True Unity is based on variety and diversity... not on everybody thinking the same things as someone else was thinking 140 odd years ago.

The Truth that saves is not found in CREEDS... it is found in Christ.