Side by Side or Hand in Hand?
Should worship create fellowship?
Holy Communion Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Micah 4, verses 1-5; Acts 2, verses 42-47
Holy Habits: Fellowship - Side by side or Hand in Hand
Let me tell you about the shock I once experienced when I went along to a Church of England Sunday Service. It was not a church I knew- I was on holiday. Having been warmly welcomed at the door, I settled myself into a seat near the back (as all the best people do….); the church was not crowded so there was no need for anyone to sit close to me. I enjoyed the service. But in the Church of England you go forward to receive Communion, which I did and it was as I returned to my seat that I got my big shock. I looked at the space where I had been sitting and I had managed to spread myself – or at least my coat, scarf, gloves, bag, hymn book, service book over at least half the pew. The message so clearly being given out was “keep away! I want to be alone.” I don’t think I realised just how anti-social I was until then.
But when people here, quite rightly, question how warm our welcome is to strangers and how much warmer it might be-not just at the door but during and after the service- my mind sometimes does drift back to that pew in that church and the message that person-myself- was sending out: I want to be alone. And I did. It was my time to worship God and I needed that time, time which I, for once, was not responsible for creating. There are people- not just ministers on holiday- who attend church feeling that all they want is to worship God, to meet with God, to unload to God what is going on in their mind and in their life. To do this they need space and they need stillness. A lot of kindly-meant chatter is not what they are looking for.
As the Worship and Faith Development Teams looked at our second “Holy Habit” of Fellowship, one of the questions raised was “what is the connection between worship and fellowship?” Is there one? Should there be one? Is it OK for people to worship God whilst simply standing or sitting side by side: no connecting with each other? Or should we be aiming-metaphorically at least- to see a congregation “hand in hand,” that is, through acts of worship, becoming a community of friends; an extended family? “What is the connection between worship and fellowship?”
The reading from the book of Acts is the one from which the whole list of Holy Habits is taken. It describes in a nutshell the lifestyle of the first Christian community. Fellowship is listed as something they practised and developed as a community. It was important to them. They worked hard at it.
But what is fellowship? Is it just a religious way of describing friendship or is it a bit more than that? I must confess that although I am delighted when people say that they like this church because it is “so friendly,” I do also hope that they have found more than just friendship. After all, you can find friendship in a pub or a golf club or on a coach tour. .. The first Christians shared a new and passionate faith. Their old religion (from which they had all come) had been turned upside down; so in the first place they were held together by their excited commitment to this new faith; in the second place, they had a deep sense of solidarity with one another because they were living in a hostile society; in the third place they believed that their lives in this world would be short-term because Jesus would soon return. So there was an urgency about their faith and a commitment that was intense and short-term.
Fellowship was a deeper thing than friendship. It had a sense of God and of being part of God’s holy community; it had a sense of protection and solidarity in a dangerous environment and it was shaped by a vision to save the world- fast. As we heard, this group generously shared their possessions, not only with each other but with people in need. They met regularly to eat and pray in each other’s homes, so worship and fellowship were quite definitely connected.
But then, as serious persecution set in, the Christian community was scattered. A core group remained in Jerusalem but many fled to other towns and cities around the Mediterranean Sea. Once settled in new places, these Christians started to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and set up places of worship to which others were welcomed. A whole lot of new churches sprang up in these different places. But the “fellowship” aspect did not come quite so easily or naturally as it had in those early days in Jerusalem. The population of these towns was far more diverse. People had backgrounds in totally different cultures and religions. They were not the kind of people who would find it natural to drink beer together or play golf together and certainly not enjoy a coach trip together. Maybe it was then that the difference between friendship and fellowship really became apparent.
Friendship is something that tends to start, at least, naturally. You are attracted to another person, you find that you enjoy the same things, laugh at the same jokes and take pleasure in each other’s company. Of course a lasting friendship demands commitment and patience but it seldom becomes seriously hard work. Fellowship, on the other hand, is not just about what attracts you to the people you like. Fellowship is about building relationships with others for the sake of a bigger cause.
Soldiers in the trenches had fellowship; the people of Manchester commemorating the anniversary of the bombing had fellowship; the volunteers and emergency services in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire had fellowship. Many of those in these groups were already friends but it was the commitment to a greater cause which drew together people of different ethnic, cultural, religious and generational parties.
In the same way, the Christian church exists for the purpose of worshipping and serving God. A congregation in which everyone is “friends” with everyone else can feel like a delightful place to be: your church is your social group, your church is your extended family. But if that congregation is nothing more than friends, it will not tend to last more than a generation or so. Because people coming into that church who are of different backgrounds, different experiences, different generations, no matter how warmly they are welcomed, will never really feel they belong. I sometimes think that this is part of the reason why so many local churches are now declining in our more diverse society- might they have been more about friendship than fellowship?
It is the focus on something greater: the worship and service of God; that will hold a congregation together in fellowship no matter what their differences; no matter what the challenges posed by society. It was this “fellowship” at which the early churches had to work hard in order to survive, in order to grow and in order to be a power for good and for God in their fast changing world. And without worship; without the praying together and the seeking God together, I suggest that that fellowship would have struggled to grow.
The vision of Micah- our first reading- shows this kind of “fellowship” on a vast scale. Micah dreams of a place of worship into which people of all nationalities and cultures would be drawn and the worship in this place would create such a sense of fellowship that the whole of society would be transformed. There would be total justice and no-one would be treated unfairly; there would be equal sharing so that every person could sit under their own vine and fig-tree (symbols of prosperity); there would be peace to such an extent that weapons of war would be melted down to make gardening tools. The worship of God would be so powerful a force in human lives that the resulting “fellowship,” solidarity, compassion, mutual respect would create one vast universal community. Because men and women focussed on God rather than on their own selfish desires or their own failings or their own grievances, they would be able to live in peace together.
It is an awesome vision and I, for one, can see the sense in it. As I have said, a focus on something greater than ourselves can create incredibly high levels of fellowship amongst diverse people, and what higher focus can there be than God? The sad thing is that no society centred on and ruled by religion (any religion) has yet managed to create this utopian dream of peace and justice. Far too many nations ruled by “religious” powers have shown themselves to be fuelled by arrogance, intolerance, violence and hatred.
But does this mean that the vision is false; nothing but an illusion or a piece of party propaganda? I hope not. One of the commentaries on Micah pointed out that the Hebrew language and indeed the Hebrew understanding of time has no tenses. The writers of the Old Testament books did not think in terms of past, present, future as we do in the western world. So Micah could have been saying that this vision did once happen, that it was happening now, that it would happen in the future, or all three.
So he might not have been presenting it as a definite promise- this is what will happen- but as more of an idea, an aim-this is what has happened, might even be happening now and could happen again if the people of God are true to their faith.
I would still argue that if true faith and worship produce a deep sense of fellowship with God and with our fellow human beings, no matter who or where they are, then a fairer and more peaceful society, even on a small scale, will inevitably result.
“The idyllic peace and rest for which the whole world sighs can only result from a revelation and teaching from God,” wrote R. F. Horton. We shall need divine power to achieve world peace and justice and we cannot manufacture or argue or resolve divine power into our existence. We can only wait and pray for it to be given by God. Which brings us back to worship……
So, what is the connection between worship and fellowship?
True worship is when our focus is drawn away from ourselves and onto God. True worship is about opening ourselves up to receive truth, inspiration, comfort and challenge from God. If, as the Bible says. God is love, then true worship can only produce a greater love for in worship we receive the love that is God’s.
So true worship will inevitably lead to stronger fellowship.
And, as creating fellowship can be hard work, we need worship in order to enable the Holy Habit of fellowship to grow.
So yes, worship and fellowship are inextricably linked. You might even say that you cannot have one without the other. Without true worship there will be no lasting fellowship. Without a deep desire for fellowship, there will be no authentic worship.
But, just before we finish, what about that woman who spread herself over the pew? Should she have been left alone or should the space she had created have been invaded by fellowship-minded Christians: “You will enjoy coffee in The Link whether you like it or not!”
Fellowship must surely include respect for and sensitivity to diversity. The Christian faith is not about turning out holy clones. The church of Christ needs both introverts and extroverts; it needs those who worship in silence and those who worship with loud charismatic singing; it needs those who are scholars and those who provide food; it needs a Property Team and a Pastoral Team. Good fellowship will surely recognise when someone needs space and quiet and when someone needs a sympathetic ear and a bit of friendly persistence to encourage them into The Link for coffee.
It is not always easy to know which to do but if our worship is real and God opens our eyes to the person sitting near us or several pews away whom perhaps we do not know very well; and if our prayers for that person are totally sincere- do they need me to speak to them or do they need me to leave them alone- that is fellowship because we are recognising a person as a child of God and as a part of the faith community. We are bringing them to God along with ourselves; we are opening ourselves up to the guiding grace of God in the kind of contact we should be making with them; and we are trusting God to show us the best way. That is Fellowship through worship. That is good fellowship through true worship.
Fellowship is a Holy Habit and it needs commitment. Pray with me and for me, that our worship may create good fellowship and that our fellowship may create true worship.