If you are as fond of bad movies, or of people making fun of bad movies, as much as I am, there is a lot to enjoy about the film career of Madonna. Not content with being among the most popular and well-regarded musicians of the later 20th century and early 21st century and a woman who tried to pretend she was young for far too long, she made among the most sustained efforts to be accepted as an actress and even as a director that can be imagined for someone from the music industry. Among the many bad movies she made was called The Next Best Thing, where she and a gay best friend have a drunken night together, she ends up pregnant, and the result is a great deal of unhappy drama as they attempt to parent a child that the gentleman had no reason to expect. As was said by at least one critic: “If that was the next best thing, I would have hated to see the worst thing.” Fortunately for believers, I am not using this movie as a template for our our life as Christians works or should work, but there is a point I would like to draw from this, and that is the fact that when it comes to Christian fellowship, sometimes we rely on the next best thing, and that in light of the alternatives it may not be entirely the worst thing but it is often full of complications and drama.
Hopefully we are all familiar with the advice that the author of Hebrews gives to believers about fellowship in Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This passage is frequently used to discuss our obligation to fellowship with other brethren, something that is a duty and not a pleasure far too often in many situations . What we may not know, if we are in the habit of only quoting these verses, though, is that this fellowship with our brethren is part of a larger context. Let us repeat this citation, only this time let us begin from verse nineteen: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
What does this mean for believers? For one, it connects our drawing together with other believers with our intimacy with God. It is because we are close to God, because we have the confidence to go to Him through the way opened up by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that we then fellowship with our brethren because they are our brethren through the shared indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is God that connects us together, despite our differences in personality and temperament, in background, despite the fact that we often have a lot of drama with our relatives of the faith as well as with our relatives of other kinds. Despite all of our flaws and weaknesses and imperfections, and our struggles with communication, we are brothers and sisters to those whom we go to church with, and sometimes on the Sabbath we would do well to be reminded of this when circumstances make it impossible for us to fellowship together in person.
How do we do this? Let us take yesterday as an example. Having looked at the website on Friday evening to see that, as expected, Hood River had been cancelled due to our experiences with Winter Storm Decimus, I was awake and puttering about reading and writing on the computer when I got the first call from our local elder telling me that services had been cancelled in Hood River but were still on for Portland. A couple of hours or so I got a second phone call from the same fellow saying that services had been cancelled in Portland after all, which I told my roommate and some friends on the computer about who were being informed by official channels just as I was informing them through my customary informal ones. I enjoyed breakfast with my roommate before returning to my room to catch a live broadcasting of services from another place, all the while conversing with other brethren online. Later on I even managed to get a message, albeit indirectly, from an unexpected source who felt unable to send the message to me personally but wanted it to be conveyed nonetheless. And so it went throughout the entire Sabbath, with unexpected moments for fellowship, and opportunities to share our fondness and common spiritual struggles with our brothers and sisters who we were still communing with in spirit if not in physical presence.
The Bible speaks often about the attitude that we are supposed to have about fellowshipping with brethren, and it is worthwhile on a day like today to examine such matters a bit more closely. Let us begin in what may seem like an odd place, with an example of fellowship gone wrong. In Luke 4:16-30, we read the following traumatic Sabbath story about Jesus Christ going back to his hometown of Nazereth: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian .” All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”
What went wrong here? Jesus went to the synagogue as was his habit. He was a Sabbathkeeper, and fellowshipping with other believers is what He did, just like it is something that we should do. Being a Torah-observant Jew in good standing in his local congregation, he went up to read the haftorah scripture for that Sabbath, which was apparently Isaiah 61:1-2, as that is what he quoted, and that is where everything went wrong. Whatever expectations his audience had about pious platitudes concerning the healing of the sick and the freeing off people from prison and debt, he overturned those as surely as he overturned the tables of the corrupt moneychangers in the Temple in another example of fellowship gone wrong. Perceiving what was in the hearts of his brethren, Jesus pointed out that though they did not consider Him to be anything special, He was going to fulfill the purpose He had come on this earth to do, and that included opening up the Family of God to Gentiles as had been implicitly promised through the generous acts prophets past had done for godfearing Gentiles like Naaman. The result was that the congregation tried to kill him, forcing him to supernaturally escape from their wrath.
We can learn from this story that even when it is stressful for us to fellowship with others, and even where we may have difficulties with our brethren and may not always feel their love and fond feelings and outgoing concern for us, that we at least have never been threatened with being thrown off a cliff by our brethren. Even someone as deeply unpopular with my peers as I am has never been threatened with that, at least not yet. Perhaps it would be unwise to give people ideas, though, as they might be tempted to try it out. At any rate, we may see that if Jesus Christ found it stressful at times to fellowship but did it anyway, then He understands better than anyone else how much anxiety and trouble can result when one commits oneself to obeying God’s commandments. To be sure, we do not have any record of Him seeking to visit the same congregation again, which is entirely understandable, but He did fellowship elsewhere as long as He was here on this earth. There are a lot of insights we can take from His example.
We can also learn a great deal about fellowship from the concerns Paul had for it in his letters. Those who are fond of reading letters and trying to understand the mind of the writer of the letter would do well to look not only at the beginnings  but also at the endings of the letters of Paul to see what concerns he had when communicating with the far-flung congregations he cared about and wanted to leave the brethren with. In the case of Philippians, it is clear that among those concerns was a desire for the brethren to fellowship together in love and to overcome their conflicts and divisions. As it is written in Philippians 4:2-3: “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life.” Here we see Paul urging his brethren in Philippi to help two women be of the same mind in the Lord, and even though he was in prison, Paul cared enough for this congregation in Macedonia that he set aside his concern for his own state to wish for unity and harmony among the fellowship of these women in conflict. We do not know what they were in disagreement about, but we do know that Paul thought enough of their reconciliation and harmony that he urged the help of others in the congregation to bring them together. We should all wish for such friends among us.
What encouragement can we gain from what we have looked at today? For one, we can see from a close reading of the Bible that the concerns and struggles we all have with fellowship are not new matters but are problems that we can share with many generations of believers, including Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul themselves. Like us, they dealt with misunderstandings and sought to overcome conflicts and their own experiences with fellowship was not one of unmixed pleasure or ease. To the extent that we struggle to fellowship with others, we can know that Jesus understands our struggles and has shared them, and just as the Apostle Paul cared about the difficulties of distant brethren, the same is true of many of us. May we have the same Spirit within us as they did, and may our commitment to harmony and fellowship build up and edify those around us as we wish to be built up in turn.
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 See, for example: