Koinonia: The Intimate Fellowship

1 John 1:3-10

It started in the 1970’s: that cultural change from “us” to “me”. In 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged a nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In 1977, Burger King challenged us to “Have it your way.”

We saw it in the magazines that became popular: People – Us – Me. We exalted the individual, personal choice became paramount, self-absorption and narcissism ruled. But the more we exalted the individual, the more isolated we became. If I (and my needs and wants) are most important, then others are, by definition, a useful tool or an impediment to my success and/or happiness. Relationships become disposable; we use people and love things. We became obsessed with self-image. Our world became a mirror image looking back at us with adoration. But ironically we didn’t like what we saw.

In 1982, John Naisbitt wrote a prophetic book entitled Megatrends. He envisioned a world in the not too distant future in which technology would overwhelm us. The computer (and remember this is in 1982) would be a part of everything in our lives – it would become our work, our entertainment, our relationships. But he also predicted that with the self-containment and isolation of the individual, we would still hunger for ways to interact and develop intimacy.

And so, we have hundreds of Facebook friends, with whom we share our most intimate secrets, but not a single person we can call when we need a helping hand. We’re too busy or too isolated to date, so we sign up for on-line dating services. We carry around our smart phones, terrified of finding ourselves in a place with no cell service, or sitting across from each other in a restaurant texting each other instead of carrying on a conversation.

Illust – A family went to the movies, and before the picture began the young son had to go to the bathroom. While he was gone, the lights dimmed and when he came back, he couldn’t remember where his family was sitting. In the dark he walked up and down the aisle, and finally stopped and called out, “Does anybody recognize me?” We all want to know that somebody knows us, recognizes us and cares about us.

I’m sure you can see implications for the church in all this. Church went from family to corporation, worship went from encounter to production. Instead of “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” we sat and passively listened while we were entertained by professional musicians. What people were hungering for most, they didn’t find in church. (And understand, I’m speaking in the broadest terms about church – but wherever we are on the continuum, we still struggle with the same issues.)

When you go to the NT and look at the life of the early church, you see something that goes far beyond our concept of an organization or an institution. When Paul describes the church, he talks about a body, in which each of the members is connected with every other member in such intimacy and dependency that when one member experiences pain or joy, every other member weeps with them or celebrates with them, as well. When Peter describes the church, he talks about a building in which living stones are cemented together in an indestructible temple of the living God.

There have been those social experiments, in which Christians tried to live outside the body (monasticism, hermits), away from other people – attempting to experience a private encounter with God – only to discover that the Christian life was never intended by God to be lived in isolation.

There is a word in the original Greek language, in which the NT was written, that will be familiar to you. (There are really two – and it’s interesting how intertwined they are) – one is the word for love (agape), and the other is the word for fellowship (koinonia).

You have to be careful when you translate either one of them, because those words are so much richer and deeper than the English words we are familiar with. I’m sure you are familiar with the different types of love that we could talk about. The same is true with the word koinonia which we usually translate fellowship. The word occurs 37 times in the NT, and it has a variety of meanings.

Yes, it means fellowship, and so we have a fellowship room and fellowship meals, but fellowship is so much more than food, fun and frivolity. If we think we have exhausted the need for fellowship with a social get together or a potluck meal, we have really missed God’s rich gift to each one of us. There are four dimensions to this word that I want us to notice this morning:

The first is relationship – a relationship that begins first in the relationship we have with the Father and the Son. Listen to Jesus’ own description in his prayer in John 17:20-23 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is a relationship, not an activity that defines us – something we are, not something we do.

Those first Christians in Acts 2 were not devoting themselves to a series of social activities, but to a relationship in Jesus Christ. They were sharing together the very life of God through the indwelling Spirit. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 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 2:42-47)

If we miss the fact that koinonia denotes, first of all, an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ among all believers, then we miss the most significant aspect of biblical fellowship. We must grasp the idea that fellowship means we belong to each other in the body of Christ, along with all of the privileges and responsibilities that such a relationship carries with it.

The second dimension of fellowship is found in the word “partnership.” We usually think of this word in the business world, and it’s used exactly that way when Luke tells us about Peter, James and John who were “partners” in their fishing business.

But it’s used in the non-business description of our life in the church. A partnership is always formed to pursue an objective. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6 that we are in koinonia – in “partnership” with God: “As God’s fellow workers…”

And we are in partnership with each other:
Jude 1:3 “Dear friends, I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share…”
1 Thess 2:8 “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
Hebrews 3:1 “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus…”

Paul describes this connectedness in Ephesians 4:15-16 “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Illust – John Brodie, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers in the early 80’s and one of the first of the million dollar quarterbacks was asked by an interviewer why such an important and valuable part of the team would be required to hold the ball for the point after. Brodie gave him a strange look and said, “If I didn’t, the ball would fall over” / Houston Nutt said, “It takes eleven”

In our partnership with each other in Jesus Christ we are linked in a momentous undertaking – to spread the news of Jesus Christ with every person. We stand together, we fall together. It cannot be accomplished unless every person does their part.

The third dimension of koinonia is communion. Although we usually use the word “communion” as a term for the Lord’s Supper, it is because that meal represents a place where we come together and leave all of our differences at the door and become one – sharing together on an intimate, personal level.

In Acts 2:5-11, Luke describes the diversity of that original group of people out of whom came those who believed and were baptized, who were bound together in something so powerful that it overcame every other barrier to unity: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

Can you imagine the kind of animosity and cultural clashes that those differences created? Nothing in common, thrown together. But on that day of Pentecost, something so powerful and transforming took place that their lives were changed forever.

Koinonia was created – “they devoted themselves to fellowship.” From nothing in common, they experienced a closeness they had never before imagined – not because of human similarities, or common backgrounds and interests, but in spite of cultural, racial and ethnic differences. The only thing they had in common was the blood of Christ, but that was more than enough.

The final dimension of this koinonia was sharing. Again, look with me at two of those verses in Acts 2:44-45 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Part of fellowship is sharing what we have – Luke says they had everything in common. Needs were met, goals were accomplished, because these Christians shared what they had with each other.

It is, in fact, one of the most common uses of the word. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of the concern that every member of the body ought to have for every other member. More than just showing compassion or even benevolence, sharing describes the oneness that expresses itself in taking care of family. And if we really want to experience this fellowship we’ve been talking about, we must feel about each other the way Christ feels towards us – loving, caring – as Paul described in Ephesians 5:25-27 - “… Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” I wonder – when you think about the church, is that how you feel?

Do you remember the TV show back in the 1980’s, Cheers? The theme song was a winsome description of what we all really hunger for: “You want to be where everybody knows your name.” That ought to describe the church. The church should be the one place where everyone knows our name, and cares about what is going on in our lives.

Developing Koinonia

The Same Attitude as Christ
We cannot function as a disjointed, disconnected group of individuals doing our own thing, who happen to show up at the same place on Sunday mornings. Paul described, not only what real fellowship looks like, but how we can develop it, and it begins with the humble, selfless, servant-hearted attitude of Christ: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…”

A Sense of Belonging
In humility, and with a servant heart, and the mind of Christ, we look out for each other. We create a sense of belonging, where everyone can come and find a place where he is loved and cared for. We think of each other’s needs before our own, we encourage each other and build each other up, and in doing that – we experience real fellowship.

Practice Confession, Forgiveness and Acceptance

The apostle John had something to say about fellowship, and it also is rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: 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 do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:3-7)

We experience fellowship, because we are honest and transparent; and we love each other, not because we’re perfect, but because we have all been forgiven in the blood of Christ.

Immature fellowship is when we stay together because of all the things we like about each other. And so, I put on a mask so people will like me. I work hard at keeping people from knowing who I really I am, because I’m afraid if they did know, they would quit liking me. And we’ve all known people who, when they find out something they don’t like about you, they do cut you off from fellowship.

That is exhausting – it’s hard work keeping up appearances – instead of just being yourself. And that’s what John goes on to say, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth… If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Real fellowship can only exist where there is honesty and transparency, but also only where forgiveness and acceptance are practiced.

Mature fellowship is born when we begin to know each other, warts and all. And instead of cutting fellowship, we learn to forgive, just as God forgives us, and accepting each other, just as Jesus accepts us. We’re not soft on sin, but strong on reconciliation.

Koinonia focuses who we are. When we come together to worship, we aren’t a group of strangers, but a family who loves to be together. We choose to be together because this is where we experience what we long for the most.

In our fellowship, we are proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord, that we are no longer separated from God, that we are no longer at odds with each other because of where we were born, or the color of our skin, or the amount in our checking account. We are one in Christ Jesus, and that is the only thing that really matters.

Illust – At the 1992 commencement at Boston University, Fred Rogers – that’s Mr. Rogers, stood to address the graduates and asked the 5000 graduates, “Would you like to sing with me?” and then he led the swaying crowd in a song they had grown up on. And together they began to sing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”

That’s the power of a song to unite us. We share something even more important in common that unites us – the blood of Jesus Christ. Paul said in Romans 14-15 that in spite of all the things we might disagree on, Jesus is the one thing that unites us, and so, he says, “with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”