The Fellowship of Sinners: Finding Community in Christ
Whenever I stop to think about Christian community, I often find myself thinking about vomit.
The Wanawong Bug and the Camping Trip from Hell
Working at a youth ministry training college, each year we take our students away on a two-week spiritual reflection tour. July is in the winter down here in the southern hemisphere, so we travel north to the sun. (And by the way, no, our toilets don’t swirl in the opposite direction when they flush!)
One year we went to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef—the trouble was, we also took with us a sickness bug that would strike randomly among the group, causing a few people to lose the contents of their stomach from both ends of the system for 24 hours at a time. (Because the college campus is in a place called wanawong, aboriginal for “on the side of a hill,” the term wanawong bug was born.) One night one of the guys vomited four times, and only made it out of the dorm room once. There was tension, there was conflict, and there were tears.
Another year we took the group to Fraser Island. This is a World Heritage listed site and the world’s largest sand island. The problem was that someone forgot to book the campground (okay, it was me), and someone also forgot to check the size of the tents that we hired (no prizes for guessing who). So instead of getting to a nice campground in time to set up camp before lunch, we had to drive for another couple of hours, we get bogged in the sand on the beach as the tide came in, and we opened the tents to discover 4 eight-person tents instead of 16 eight-person tents. There was tension, there was conflict, and there were tears.
But you know what—they were two of the best weeks of community life and spiritual growth we’ve had. And it wasn’t just “adversity brings us together” or a case of “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” It was much more profound than that—at our point of common need I believe we were released to see our common resource: the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Under pressure it was clear that we were all sinners. And if we were going to stay together in community, it would only be because Jesus had brought us together in the grace of forgiveness.
We’d discovered the fellowship of sinners.
When Acts 2:42 describes the first Christians, we get the first use of the word koinania in the New Testament. Even for those of us without much knowledge of Greek, this is one word that most of us have heard—it’s the word for fellowship, for sharing, it’s a word about community.
But we’ve got to see that “devoting themselves to the fellowship” doesn’t mean the first Christians spent a lot of time organizing social events and playing getting-to-know-you-games. (“Hi I’m Peter, and I love fishing and outdoor sports…your turn James.”) In the New Testament fellowship,koinania, isn’t something that Christians do; it’s something they have.
Koinania wasn’t a special religious word in the first century; it was the common garden word for sharing something in common with someone else. Luke 5:10 uses a related word to describe James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as “partners” (koinonoi) with Simon—that is, they were business partners; they had “fellowship” in their fishing business. To have fellowship means to share something in common, and that’s something Christians don’t need to manufacture.
What We Already Have
Unlike the early church, I see us thinking that good fellowship is something we have to create. We come up with new ways of being welcoming, new activities to do together—try out an online community forum, buy matching t-shirts. Some of us do it well, others find it more of a struggle, but all of us are trying to make something that God has already made for us.
In Ephesians 4:3 we’re instructed to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That is, keep the unity of the Spirit—maintain it, protect it, grow it. It does not say “create the unity of the spirit—make it, strive for it, or develop fancy programs to discover it.” God has already given us unity. As Christians we already are a community. We already have the best fellowship there is—we share together in the living presence of the Holy Spirit of God that unites us with the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s only when we recognize what a rich, generous, and glorious gift God has already given us that we’ll be able to do what we’re asked to do—to maintain this unity through the bond of peace.
The Right Place to Begin
My Dad used to delight in this old joke: whenever I asked for directions to a certain place, he’d say, “if you want to get there, it’s best not to start from here!” In pursuing community, it’s vital that we find the right place to begin, and that place is the realization that we already have true community in Christ.
This after all is the gospel of grace—that our life doesn’t begin in our efforts, our ideas, our work, our community; but in God’s efforts, God’s ideas, God’s work, God’s community. The only hope we have to even get to the starting blocks of life depends entirely on God’s generous kindness before it depends on our response to God.
From this starting point we’re able to see that our fellowship is a fellowship of sinners rather than the results of our own righteousness. Our fellowship is the result of Jesus and his faithfulness not of us and our own achievement.
The Fellowship of Sinners
Perhaps you heard about the great women’s rowing scandal of the 2004 Olympic Games. The Australian team is in the Olympic final, with 500 meters to go, when all of a sudden one member of the team stops rowing. The photos were all over the newspapers, seven women rowing, one collapsed with exhaustion. Despite the attempts by team officials to make it look like everything was okay and the team was understanding, it was clear that things were not so sweet and pleasant behind the scenes.
What a precarious unity there must exist in elite sporting teams—if your performance is up to scratch, you’re in; if your form is in a bit of a slump, you’re out and someone else who’s at the top of her game has taken your place.
There can be no sense of precarious unity in the community of Christ. When we are held by God’s grace in Christ, when Jesus himself has promised never to let us go, then the community of God’s people ought to be the safest place for underperformers to find rest. This is the fellowship of sinners. Well before we’ve learned each others’ names, before we’ve played get-to-know-you games or shared in mission activities, before we’ve made any attempts to express Christ-like love and service, we were bound together as brothers and sisters, sharing together in the gift of the Spirit of God.
So I wonder how different our community life would be if we were to realize that our unity is about who we are before it’s about what we do. And I wonder if having realized that we’d then be better able to understand the place of sin and conflict in the life of the community of God’s people. And with that perspective, will we be able to make better plans for strengthening the community with which we’ve been blessed?
Conflict as a Tool
For most of us, I’d imagine our church communities aren’t simply blissful oases of peace, harmony, and good will. Not that we’re unusual—a quick glance at church history reminds us that Christians have often been fighting against each other in big and little ways. And not only is it true of church history, but it’s true of the Bible as well.
Before we get carried away with thinking that the early Christians in Acts were nothing but a bundle of sweetness and light, it’s worth remembering (as Luke seems to want us to remember) that the community that shared all their goods in common was also the community that carried Ananias and Saphira out of the room dead after they lied to the apostles (and to the Holy Spirit) about how generous they really were (Acts 5:1-11). This is the same community that argued about what seemed to some like a biased policy in distributing food to needy widows (Acts 6:1-7).
Far from hiding the conflict in the back cupboard, the first Christians were happy to let it all hang out. When you stop to think about it, we realize that if it weren’t for fights and disagreements among Christians, the New Testament would be a lot thinner than it actually is! What if the Corinthians weren’t fighting among their internal factions, or if they all agreed on how to use spiritual gifts? There would’ve been no need for Paul to write a letter to them—so no chapter 13 about love, no chapter 15 about the resurrection, not to mention the rest of First Corinthians. What if the Jews and Gentiles in Galatia had no problem being one family together in Christ? No letter to the Galatians. If Euodia and Syntyche had never had a fight, we’d probably never have had the opportunity to hear Paul’s great description of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ Jesus in Philippians 2:6-11—it’s only there as a means to get these two women to stop fighting and start expressing real community.
The first Christians didn’t need to hide their conflicts and problems because they knew that it was within their problems that they were called to Christ. And because of their unity in Christ, they could work through their problems in the sure knowledge that they belonged to one another.
Community isn’t something that’ll come as a result of sorting out all our problems. It’s actually just the opposite—our real community in Christ is the only basis on which we can ever hope to sort out any of our problems.
One of the requirements of the retreat time we take our College students on is to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic little book on Christian community, Life Together. It’s a deceptive little book—at first glance, a mere 96 pages doesn’t seem like it’ll be too difficult at all! But when every second sentence makes you stop, think, repent, and pray, it soon becomes heavy going.
Bonhoeffer’s first chapter is on community. In my view it ought to be required reading for anyone in Christian ministry. Bonhoeffer reminds us that our fellowship is a fellowship in the Lord Jesus: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.” Don’t go searching for some extraordinary social experience, we’re told; instead, we’re reminded to open our eyes to see what God is already doing by the Spirit among God’s people—that is, drawing sinners together at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The Good Fortune of Disillusionment
Bonhoeffer has some strangely encouraging words to the disillusioned: “You’re blessed by God!” If God has been kind to you, God will allow you to be overwhelmed with a general disillusionment with others. If God has been really kind to you, God will also let you be disillusioned with Christian people in particular. And if God has been extra-specially-double kind to you, you’ll also be given the privilege of being disillusioned with yourself as well! What?
Bonhoeffer explains: “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.”
Of course, disillusionment in ministry is more of a case of when rather thanif. But what a freedom comes from Bonhoeffer’s insight: It’s a great moment when we realize that the youth group doesn’t love each other the way we wish they would. It’s a moment of God’s blessing when we face up to the tension that exists among the leadership team. We can be thankful to God when the pastoral care and support system we set up fails miserably. All of these things can be a blessing from God because whenever things like this happen, we realize again that our only hope it to go back to Jesus together, to repent together, and to receive God’s forgiveness together and start again living together as the community we were made to be—the fellowship of sinners, forgiven and set free. We’re ready and enabled to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Strengthening what We’ve Been Given
For me, there’s a great sense of comfort from the realization that the fellowship given to us in Christ is profound and deep. Yet at the same time it evokes an even greater sense of longing to actually experience this deep, intimate fellowship that the Scriptures say is truly ours. How can our condition match our position? Once we’ve realized that we’re the community of sinners, what are some disciplines to help us strengthen and deepen our experience of that community?
The community of sinners needs opportunities to be honest and open with each other. We might decide to organize structured activities to ask deep and penetrating questions of each other. We might spend time in ministry projects together to give us the chance to open up to one another. We might plan to spend a weekend away together, seeing each other at our worst as well as at our best. Whatever strategy we choose, if we’re really looking for honest and open communication, it’ll call for commitment to the long-term work of building real relationships of love and trust. Youth ministry can’t just be about doing stuff together but about doing stuff together that will intentionally give opportunity to develop honest and open relationships based on the Gospel.
Then in those open and honest relationships, the community of sinners needs to learn how to say sorry. We all know how often we need to saysorry, but more often than not, we don’t actually get around to doing it. I wonder what holds us back. Are we afraid of being found out—afraid of being identified as a sinner? Perhaps we really do believe that membership in this community is as precarious as membership in an elite sporting team. Some training in confession, repentance, and forgiveness will go a long way to drawing us closer to each other.
And if the community of sinners is going to say sorry then we as leaders have to take the lead. As a leader I’m very aware that there are so many times my sinfulness rises up and affects the people for whom I’m responsible. Yet I catch myself saying, “But if I apologize, they’ll know I’m not as competent as I want them to think I am. If I apologize, they’ll know I’m not as perfect as I want to be. If I apologize, they’ll know I’m a sinner just like them.” But instead of being afraid of that, what a wonderful opportunity there is to realize again the richness of God’s mercy in Christ.
Finding true community isn’t about abolishing sin, and true community isn’t the goal that waits just around the corner following the success of our latest ministry plans. True community exists in sharing a relationship of forgiveness and new life in Jesus.
I’ve been reminded that this simple truth is both the place to start and where I want to finish on the last day. That doesn’t mean there will be no more struggles in living out the true community Jesus has won for us. But it does mean that whenever I feel disappointed with how little progress we seem to make and whenever I feel overwhelmed by how far we still have to go, I’m encouraged by the promise that in Christ we have true community. And with that encouragement, I’m strengthened for the ongoing challenge to express that community, to express our fellowship by limping together, as forgiven sinners, pointing each other to the grace of Jesus, and rejoicing in the privilege of doing it together.