Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

That our Joy may be Complete

Message preached April 15, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon 1 John 1:1 - 2:2

Order of Worship

listen to it in mp3 format

One of the churches in our community, as part of their Easter Sunrise service every year, reenacts the story outside, rain or shine. A creative builder in that congregation even constructed a stage for it, a plywood wall with a stone which is rolled away. The setup does double-duty as the backdrop for their Christmas outdoor live nativity scene. Both events are publicized, inviting people from the community to come and see - a way of testifying to their faith, of sharing the gospel story.

If it were up to me (which it isn’t), there is one thing I would change about the location of this drama. You see, the stage is arranged such that it is aimed toward the church building, away from the road. There are probably good reasons for this, of which I am unaware. Still, I wonder - should the Easter message be aimed at the church, or should it be directed toward the world which surrounds it? To put the question in different words, is Easter an “in-house” story to be shared within the community of believers, or is it (as I like to jokingly put it) an “out-house” message to be lifted up for all people to see?

Having thus raised the question, I have to admit that our neighbor church at least takes the Easter story outside the walls of their facility. Our Easter worship services were, I confess, held inside our sanctuary. From the outside, would anyone know we’ve been to the mountaintop of Easter? How is our resurrection faith visible? It’s wonderful to sing, “every morning is Easter morning,” but can people on the outside of our fellowship see it, do they hear it, can they touch it?

This is no minor question. It is one which should haunt us all the time. Actually, if the truth be told, there is wisdom to both aiming the message of Easter toward the church, and directing it toward the world. It’s not really a matter of “either-or,” but rather “both-and.” It’s not a choice of either telling it “in-house” or testifying to it “out-house.” We have to do both. In so doing, the message becomes complete.

Two big words describe part of our mission as a people of God. One is “fellowship,” the other “evangelism.” These tend to be “in-house” words which we rarely use in our everyday life outside the church. I’m not sure those of us on the “inside,” though, fully understand what either one means. We use them as code words, or battle cries, or as innocuous phrases. For instance, why do we call the large room behind the sanctuary our “fellowship” hall? Is that the only place we “fellowship?” What do we do there that makes for “fellowship?” Is “fellowship” a noun or a verb? Would a person looking in from the outside, someone unfamiliar with our “in-house” lingo, think it is a boat, a “fellow ship?”

Actually, that isn’t as absurd as it sounds. In a way, the church is a ship - sometimes even a “ship” of foolish “fellows.” Let’s be inclusive, now, and abridge that to a “ship of fools.” Fair is fair, you know. We joked in seminary about how the feminists among us had no problem with the statement, “all men have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)  Let’s not exclude the other half of us on that one! In fact, as the first letter of John, which we just read, puts it, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” ... furthermore, “we make (Christ) a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, 10)

Indeed, we’re all in the same boat, whether inside or outside the church. Maybe it was quite appropriate that Jesus went to the seashore when recruiting his first disciples, choosing those who knew how to navigate a boat and cast a net. Peter, James, John ... aside from being good fishermen, these were rather ordinary, common, everyday guys. Yet Jesus made them into leaders of the church, persons called to sail his “ship” of fools.

The word we translate “fellowship” in the Bible comes from the Greek word “koinonia.” Now, the type of Greek used in the New Testament, was itself called “koine” or “common” Greek. It wasn’t “classical” Greek, the language of philosophers. “Koine” means “common.” In other words, “koine” Greek was what your ordinary, common, average person spoke in much of the Mediterranean area at that time – the language of commerce, used for buying, selling, trading of goods. It was somewhat of a universal tongue which transcended the various local languages in that era. More people could speak it than Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. That’s why the New Testament was written in koine Greek, instead of Hebrew or Aramaic, which were probably the languages Jesus used. By writing down the Good News of Jesus in koine Greek, the first century church was making an important point - the gospel is to be shared with all people, not just those who speak the language of Jesus’ hometown.

“Koinonia,” or “Fellowship,” picks up that sense of “common and ordinary” to describe what the church is. It’s a place for all people, not just a few frozen chosen. Furthermore, in this ship of fools, no one is placed above or below another person. In Christ, we are not separated into better-than or worse-than categories of educated or uneducated people, preachers or lay people,  men or women, rich or poor, adults or children. None is any better a person in Christ than any other. If we say we have no sin, any of us, we’re lying - that’s what the Bible says.

However, being “plain, ordinary folks” doesn’t mean that we are mediocre, drab, or colorless. Our common-ness is found not in our lowest common denominator, but in our highest calling. Our common-ality is in Jesus Christ, who has pulled us together and called us his own. In a sense, we are a fellowship, a Koinonia, not because we hold anything in common, but because we are held in common by Christ.

The word koinonia is also translated as “communion,” which is something more than just a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. Communion is an act of sharing. It is intimate “commun”-ication. In communion we are not just passive receivers but active participants. The bread and cup are not a means of grace. They are a recognition of it. The elements themselves are not sacred, we Brethren believe. What is sacred, what is holy, is the common life we share together in Jesus Christ.

Koinonia, or Fellowship, is our common walk along the way of Jesus Christ. Along this way, we have an extraordinarily common unity in Christ, a com-unity. We are his “community” which, by the way, is another translation of the word “koinonia.” So, Fellowship is our life together in Christ, but that was never intended to be something we work at just on the inside, behind closed doors. It is not “in-house” behavior only. That’s why we intentionally work at making sure every activity we plan here involves an open door. We must never plan solely “in-house” stuff. Every element of our life together needs an evangelistic thrust.

There’s that other word, “evangelism.” For some people, evangelism is a negative term. They may associate it with pushy people imposing their beliefs on others, preaching without listening. I must confess, I’ve encountered such evangelists along my journey, persons who seem to believe that “righteousness” involves them being right and everyone else as being wrong, that sharing “good news” means spewing “bad news” first and foremost, that walking in the light means pointing a spotlight on everyone else’s sin. Such is not evangelism.

Evangelism is simply sharing the good news, which is first and foremost good news, of Jesus Christ. He came to show how to really live. He came to bring us into a right relationship with God, something his death accomplished. He came not merely to expose our darkness, but to help us shine amid that darkness like a thousand points of light. He proclaimed the good news of God’s coming kingdom, but his preaching involved more than words. He became God’s good news.

For us to share such good news likewise involves more than words, though (make no mistake) words are important. Sometimes we err in failing to speak the words people need to hear. Preaching good news, however, means living good news as we speak. It involves listening amid telling, actually loving amid the talk of God’s love, helping another’s light to shine instead of seeking to blow it out.

Evangelism and fellowship walk hand in hand. They are, in some ways, nearly synonymous. “Fellowship” happens because we share good news. “Evangelism” happens because of the good news that people see in us. They both take place on the inside of the church, as well as on the outside. They both involve something that we share.

John’s letter, which pulls these two concepts together, puts it this way: “what we have heard, what we have seen, what we have touched - this is what we share with you ... so that you may have fellowship with us, so that our joy may be complete.”  It would seem that a clear result of both evangelism (that is, sharing good news) and fellowship (that is, sharing a common bond) is “joy” - a “joy” that becomes complete only in the sharing. Joy on the inside. Joy on the outside.

Bob Neff, former general secretary of our denomination (among other things), wrote the following,  

“One Sunday morning I was in First Church in Chicago, and it was one of those mornings when the tenor didn’t get out of bed on the right side. It was one of those mornings when you hear someone beginning to sing and you want to put your head between your knees. You’d like to duck away, you’d like to forget the whole incident. As I listened to this faltering voice, I looked around. People were pulling out hymnals to locate the hymn being sung by the soloist. By the second verse the congregation had joined the soloist in the hymn. And by the third verse, the tenor was beginning to find the range. And by the fourth verse it was beautiful. And on the fifth verse the congregation was absolutely silent, and the tenor sang the most beautiful solo of his life. That,” Bob went on to say, “is life in the body of Christ, enabling one another to sing the tune Christ has given us. It is also the voice of evangelism which sings the gentle tune of invitation to life in a whole community under Christ.”        (from Witnesses of a Third Way: A Fresh Look at Evangelism, Henry Schmidt, ed.; Brethren Press, Elgin IL, 1986, pp. 40-41)

Well, our final hymn doesn’t involve a soloist, but it does reveal the Easter message which needs to be shared in order for it to be complete - shared in both word and deed, both “in-house” and “out-house,” whether we call it fellowship or evangelism. Let’s share the sheer joy of it all. Please stand and sing. (#282, "Proclaim the tidings near and far")

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2012, 2000  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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