I’m going to describe for you an organization - your job will be to figure out what group I’m describing:
Service organization - I was specifically thinking of the Rotary Club - which is actually a bit stricter in its requirements - there are annual dues that are expected of every member, members are required to attend 50% of meetings, and if they miss one, they have to make it within 14 days; people have to be sponsored for membership and there are requirements about who can and cannot join.
There are a whole bunch of service clubs that function similarly - like Kiwanis, or the Lions Club or the Exchange Club.
But what’s the difference between a Service Club and the Church? [get responses]
(because a lot of these service clubs do great work, people give selflessly to the organization and in their community, relationships are formed where people genuinely care about one another, they want to make the world a better place and to make a difference, etc)
In the church, we try our best to live with God at the center of all we do. We’re not here to try and make a difference in the world - but to live as if a different world were not only possible, but already here. We live in a new kind of community - seeking to be a people where God is at home. And that means we are invited to live differently with our neighbors and with those we are trying to be in community with.
This is where Fellowship comes in. If community is the what we’re trying to make with one another - fellowship is the how.
One place where we see this different way of being with one another is in the book of James. I like the book of James because of its clear practicality - and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, considered this letter to be central to the Christian faith and life. I think we could do well to read the entire book of James, but instead, we’ll focus on hearing these words from Chapter 5, verses 13 from 20, read for us this morning from The Message.
Scripture James 5:13-20
James 5:13-20 - The Message
13-15 Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.
16-18 Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t—not a drop for three and a half years. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.
19-20 My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.
Growing up, there were two places I heard this word on a consistent basis, and both were related to church.
I had never heard that word used outside of a church setting until I encountered a book that changed my life.
Incidentally, that book wasn’t the Bible.
It was J.R.R. Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring.
It’s a story where nine unlikely companions agree to go on a quest together with the aim of destroying the One Ring of Power - a ring that if the dark Lord Sauron gets his hands on it, he’ll use it to destroy the lands and peoples of Middle Earth. And so this fellowship is formed around Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who agrees to bear this ring into the fires of Mount Doom in the black lands of Mordor. These eight other individuals - hobbits, humans, a wizard, a dwarf, and an elf - band together to help him fulfill this purpose. Everything they do - every decision they make is aimed at fulfilling this quest - this mission that they have been given.
So when I think about fellowship, it’s not just about that casual connection formed around coffee or about the joy we derive from being in one another’s company, or even the bonding that happens when people work on a project together, like in a service club -- though those things are important. When I think about fellowship, I think about mission and purpose together - about relating to one another in a way that builds community - a place where God is at home - about making God the center of our relationships, our time, and our work.
For James, that happens through prayer, through care of one another, and through confession. It all happens in and through community - while personal prayer and individual confession is important, fellowship doesn’t arise from each of us praying by ourselves in our homes. James writes to encourage Christians to cultivate corporate faith, steadfast living, recovery and renewal among the body, passionate prayer, and congregational care - signs of a spiritually healthy community - but it starts with mutual prayer and confession.
Or, another way of putting it -- the community that prays together, stays together.
There’s an element of vulnerability here, though, that should not be overlooked. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, talks about vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. The times when we are suffering, the times when we are joyful, the times when we are sick, the times when we are carrying the guilt over mistakes we’ve made -- these are all tender, vulnerable moments of the human condition. These are the times when we face uncertainty, when there is an element of risk, when our emotions run high. We have this idea that vulnerability is a bad thing - a sign of weakness or that we aren’t good enough -- but for Brene Brown - and I would argue that for James as well - vulnerability is not about these things - about fear or disappointment or weakness. Brown argues that vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for. It is the birthplace of love, belonging, of innovation and creativity and change - it is about truth and courage...and truth and courage may be uncomfortable, but they are definitely not weakness.
Fellowship, then, is about bearing witness in each other’s vulnerability - from those times of great joy to those of deep pain, standing with and for one another in these moments, trusting that as we see and be present to and sit with each other in all that life brings, it is God who sees, and is present to, and sits with us as well. It’s our willingness to be vulnerable with one another - to share these moments of our lives in the presence of God and one another - it’s this vulnerable transparency of fellowship that God uses to build us into a community.
As we think about our church here….our community...when was the last time you were vulnerable - took a risk - went out on a spiritual limb?
Can you imagine what that kind of fellowship would look like in action? If - when someone was sick - they offered themselves for healing and we gathered around to lay on hands and anoint with oil? What would it look like if we took the time outside of Sunday morning to pray with and for one another? Or if - when someone had messed up during the week - they took the time to confess that sin to another person, or even shared it in worship to ask forgiveness -- or even took the initiative to offer forgiveness to the one they had wronged?
These actions that James listed - prayer for and with one another, confession of sin to one another, accountability to one another - these are the kind of actions that demonstrate that God is at the center of who we are - that it is God doing the work of building this community - that shows that it is possible to live differently with one another.
Any group of people can do good things, can take care of one another, can celebrate when life goes well and support one another when life gets tough...but church only happens when we bring our whole selves to one another in fellowship - church only happens when we take that risk together - church only happens when we see one another and in doing so are seen by the one who created us all.
Our core value reads that: We enjoy being together. Whenever we gather, we do so in a spirit of friendship and love, as we share stories of the journeys God has called us on. We eat, pray, study, sing, and worship in ways that draw us closer together for the nourishment of our bodies and souls.
I pray that this week, we may find opportunities to be vulnerable with one another - that we may find times -- beyond this gathering -- to pray, sing, heal, confess, share, wrestle, and walk together -- so that God may continue building this church into the community we are called to be -- so that others may know that we are a people where God is at home -- so that others might know of God’s love and presence in our lives - and in their own. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.