The Case for Fellowship

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH on Sunday, July 12, 2009. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we begin a series of sermons on fellowship. You recall the we define fellowship as living life together in intimate relationships so that Christ can use us to help each other grow to his full stature. So for the next several Sundays we will be looking at reasons why fellowship is so important in our respective faith journeys.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul lays out a winsome and compelling picture of the Gospel, doesn’t he? He tells us that from all eternity, God has had a plan to rescue us from our sin that separates us from him and leads to death. Paul reminds us that God has taken on our flesh, borne the penalty for our sins to satisfy his justice, and until Christ comes again to complete the work he started with his death, resurrection, and ascension, he has given us his Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance in his eternal kingdom. The Gospel that Paul talks about is truly Trinitarian and we gratefully acknowledge the work of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The writer of Revelation reminds us that God’s New Creation, his eternal kingdom, will be a place where there is no more death or suffering or sickness or infirmity or sorrow. All of this is a sheer act of grace on God’s part and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn any of it. As Paul reminds us in the second chapter of this epistle, we are saved by grace through faith alone, lest none of us can boast that we really are good enough to get into God’s kingdom on our own merits. It really is a compelling and humbling picture, and full of Good News, isn’t it?

It is the ultimate prize that in our heart of hearts we know is worth striving for with everything we have. Yet when we strive for the prize we so often fail or we do not invest the time and energy it takes to develop a deep and lasting relationship with the Author of all life. Why is that?  In large part, it is because we are sinful and proud creatures and it makes faithful living a very difficult thing to do because we want to be in charge, we want to play God. Fortunately for us, God has provided everything we need to help us in our faith journey and this morning I want to focus on one aspect of that grace—fellowship.

Where is God’s Grace?

Today’s Gospel lesson provides us with an interesting case study of all that can go wrong in our messy lives and how God can use living life together as faithful Christians to help make us his holy and called-out people. Let’s look at Herod first. Here is a rich and powerful ruler whose personal life has truly gone down the slippery slope. He has entered into an adulterous relationship by marrying his own brother’s wife and is generally perplexed when John the Baptizer condemns this sinful behavior. The Greek word that Mark uses for perplexed, aporeo, means literally to be at a loss mentally or to not know how to decide or what to do, and it is further indication that Herod’s moral compass, if he ever had one to begin with, has gone seriously awry.

To make matters worse, Herod is apparently hanging out with the wrong crowd because no one except John has loved him enough to try to help hold him accountable for his behavior. And just when we think it can’t get worse for Herod, he holds a party and becomes quite enchanted with Herodias’ daughter, Salome. We can only imagine the kind of provocative dancing she did for Herod that night, but whatever she did, he shoots his mouth off and promises the girl anything she wants. This, of course, proves to be fatal for the Baptizer because Herodias uses Herod’s promise to the girl as the means to kill John. Note that like most of us when someone calls us to account for our questionable behavior, Herodias develops an anger toward John for speaking the truth in love to Herod and her. Herod now finds himself backed into a corner and has no choice but to execute the Baptizer.

Now before we are too quick to condemn Herod, let me ask you a question. How many of you have ever backed yourself into a corner by something you have said or done and then discovered you did not have the moral courage to get yourself out of that corner because it would be too painful or embarrassing? I have. Plenty of times. The simple truth is that most of us fall into this same boat when left on our own because we are broken and sinful creatures. We may not be guilty of murder as Herod was, but we are guilty nevertheless.

And so we see in this story a very sad picture; it is the picture of the human race. Herod has no interest in developing a life-giving relationship with God. He has no apparent interest in inviting the Holy Spirit or Christ into his life to help him develop holy habits that will help him put to death his sinful nature so that the Spirit can dwell in him and transform him into the being God created him to be (cf. Colossians 3:3, Galatians 2:20). He makes no apparent attempt to cultivate intimate and real relationships with others who desire to have a relationship with God and who will love him enough to encourage him and hold him accountable for his life and actions. He has none of that. Instead he has his sin, and as Paul reminds us the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). No, this is not a pretty picture of the human condition, especially when we choose to go it alone.

On the other hand, there is John the Baptizer, who dared to speak the truth in love to Herod in the hope that Herod might repent and seek to cultivate a life-giving and changing relationship with God. Everything that Herod did not have, John apparently did. He had the Holy Spirit living in him, to give him a loving heart and the courage, direction, and power to exhort people to develop a relationship with the Living God. John also apparently had an intimate group of followers who doubtless would have helped him in his work and provided him support and encouragement when things got bad. We can deduce this because Mark tells us at the end of the story that his disciples came and asked for John’s body so that they could give it a proper burial. That would have taken some love and courage on their part, because as Jesus reminded his disciples, “If they call the master Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household” (Matthew 10:25)?

John’s love for God and his faithfulness to his call cost him his life. But unlike Herod, John had a future ahead of him because he had a relationship with the Living God and used both the spiritual and human means of grace to help keep him on the narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). As Jesus reminded us, those who seek to save their life will lose it, while those who lose their life for his sake or the sake of the Gospel will gain it (Mark 8:35). Herod had none of that and his sad life is a powerful testimony to what can happen to us if we seek to live life on our own.

Where is the Application?

So what lessons about fellowship can we learn from this story? There are two, I think. First, it is not fellowship in itself that is important in out faith journey, but rather fellowship that is rooted in Christ. And second, when fellowship is Christ-centered, to be effective it must be real, which will never happen without a deep level of mutual trust and intimacy.

Herod enjoyed fellowship, but it was not the kind of fellowship that was rooted in Christ or driven by the Holy Spirit. The folks with whom Herod hung out were apparently no more interested in developing a relationship with God than he was. Neither did they love him enough to hold him accountable for his adulterous behavior. Like many of us they probably thought that they were being good friends to Herod by their tacit approval of all the things that were leading to his death.

No, real fellowship is always grounded in Christ and is real enough and intimate enough to allow the Lord to use it to help us grow to become more like him, and that, of course, takes time and effort to develop. For example, do you find it easier or harder to be more Christlike when you are here on Sunday morning? Now the cynic might answer that this is nothing more than Christians being rank hypocrites on Sundays, and while some of that is doubtless true, I would argue that the reason most of us find it easier to be faithful on Sunday mornings is because we come to worship God and be in his and each other’s presence. It is a healthy and holy dynamic that changes us over time.

But what about the other six days of the week? It is a lot harder to be faithful in our discipleship during the week because we generally do not take the time to cultivate holy habits of daily prayer and Bible study and because we do not have each other watching over us in love. I wonder, for example, about Governor Sanford of South Carolina. I wonder what would have happened if he had Christian friends whom he trusted enough to confide in them about his struggles to stay faithful to his wife, friends who loved Sanford enough to encourage and admonish him to stay faithful and warn him that he was playing with fire in corresponding with his eventual paramour. I wonder if things might have turned out differently. I think they might have. But like many leaders, I suspect the governor did not feel that he could allow himself to develop that kind of intimate friendship with other faithful Christians because he could not bring himself to trust them or their motives, and as a result he was left to deal with his temptations on his own. Does this make Governor Sanford a bad person? No more than any of the rest of us because each one of us has the capacity to do what he did (or worse). The point is that when we try to live out our faith by ourselves without the help of loving and true Christian friends, we will be defeated more often than not.

True, we have the Holy Spirit working in us and transforming us. But we are also creatures of flesh and blood who need the human touch as well as the Spirit’s. God knows this and has given us fellowship as a powerful means of grace to help us in our faith journeys. It has been the consistent testimony over time and across cultures that when Christians allow themselves to get real with each other so that they can hold each other accountable for their behaviors, they grow in grace and in the Spirit. That kind of fellowship is only possible in a small group context and requires that we check our pride at the door when we enter into that fellowship.

The choice is yours. Do you want to live a life like Herod’s or John’s? Life is messy and our Christian journey is difficult. Joining a small group is not some magic elixir that will make our problems disappear or even easier to deal with. But here’s the deal. God has called us into relationship with him and each other and has promised to give us his Holy Spirit to help us live life together so that he can use our fellowship as a means of grace along with the other means of grace to transform us into his image.

What are you struggling with in your life? Whether it’s an addiction or finances or health or relationships, God has promised to never leave or abandon you. He wants you to take advantage of all the means of grace he offers you, and that includes both spiritual resources and human ones. He has promised that wherever two or three of us gather together in his Name, there he will be amongst us. Are you willing to love and trust him enough to enter into real relationships with each other so that we can allow our Lord to work in and through us to build each other up? If you are, you will find that you have resources sufficient to meet any contingency that this messy life throws our way. That’s good news folks, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.