My wife and I hadn’t seen our son and two grandsons for a while, so we arranged to meet at a children’s playground traffic park over a picnic basket for some togetherness. In this way we’d get to inter-act with dad while the two boys learned the traffic rules and had fun on their bikes. At the centre of the little traffic park there was a concrete, hexagonal seat, which served as a little table for our picnic lunch. It worked while we were lunching together but not so well (my feeling) when we were watching the boys while trying to engage each other in meaningful conversation – I think the reason was that we adults weren’t facing each other, in fact we were facing away from each other.
The hexagonal table/seat experience illustrates what often happens not only in families but in church ‘families.’ There is extremely little face to face connection, which, if neglected, works against true fellowship. As a family we made up for it the following weekend when we chatted and played mini-cricket in our back-garden while preparing a lamb-and-veggie ‘potjie,’ a low-heat, slow-cook of many hours in a cast-iron pot over an open fire. ‘Face to face!’
FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD DOES HAPPEN, DOESN’T IT?
- Take the man and the woman in Eden and their face to face fellowship with the Creator and each other ‘when the cool evening breezes were blowing’ (Gen. 1ff). [Treat yourself to Cheryl McGrath’s latest blog, The Magnificent Pursuit, especially the two paragraphs commencing with words from Amos. cf. Bread for the Bride]
- Moses, a fragile saint in some ways, regularly engaged with God in the ‘Tent of Meeting.’ On other occasions he spoke with him ‘face to face, as a man speaks with a friend’ (Ex. 33:11, NLT).
- The apostle Paul has provided us with the basis for such face-to-face fellowship: “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made us understand that this light is the brightness of the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ… this light and power that now shine within us – is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies. So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own.'” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, NLT). Keeping our eyes on Jesus produces the purest faith and fellowship!
FACE TO FACE IN GOD’S COMMUNITY ON EARTH?
- Paul, in his unusually personal Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul, defends his apostleship in the face of some false apostles among them: “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when away! I beg you that when I come I may have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world…” (2 Cor. 10:1-2, NIV)
- The Apostle John, especially in his letters, loves to be face to face: “The elder, to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. v. 1, 12). “The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 Jn. v. 1, 14).
- Check out the face to face stuff in the early Church. The believers meet largely ‘from house to house’ around the meal table (Acts 2:42ff) – the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70 re-inforced this intimacy. According to v. 42 the believers “committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, MSG). I love Peterson’s paraphrase of koinonia as ‘the life together,’ i.e. the very life of Jesus, indwelling his followers, producing a ‘common life’ of intimate sharing. ‘Sell your shirt’ and purchase Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem, ‘The Life Together,’ to get an insight into the fellowship of the true Church! I have a good friend in Hong Kong who travels once a month across the border on a Sunday to teach a group of about thirty plus believers in a house church, officially prohibited from accommodating more than six – those believers look for any excuse to fellowship the whole Sunday, every Sunday, around the Word, coming back for more the following week! Try that in the West…
IT’S A FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WHICH LEADS SOMEWHERE!
I’ve been reading the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer (?) calls his persecuted readers (Jewish Christian house churches in Rome?) to persevere in the faith: “Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming (there are many days of reckoning, including Christ’s return) is drawing near” (10:23-25, NLT). This text is not a ‘freeby’ for preachers to beat over the heads those present in their Sunday ‘services!’ Rather it is an encouragement, arising out of our hope in Christ, to give expression to fellowship and service under the headship of Christ. In 1982 already Dr. Raymond Brown of Spurgeon’s College stated, “Since in the teaching of this letter Christians are brothers in the same family (3:1; 13:1,22), partners in the same enterprise (3:14) and members of the same household (3:6; 10:21), they have a responsibility not only to ‘hold fast’ themselves, but also to encourage their fellow believers to do the same… the exhortation is not simply to the exercise of fellowship, but also to the stimulation of compassionate activity in the work of Christ…’ He then asked, ‘is this an impossible ideal in the twentieth century? Aware 0f the selfish and materialistic pressures of contemporary society, and convinced of the needs of a more distinctively Christian lifestyle, some believers have turned from the institutional churches to communities…” He cites the ‘Jesus People’ of the late 1960’s, house churches around the world, etc. For what it’s worth, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches as well as a ‘a cell church’ for 38 years in all, I believe the Acts and Hebrews kind of body life is a virtually ‘impossible ideal,’ given all our institutional red tape, machinery, hierarchies, structures and programs. I mean, how do you ‘fellowship’ week after week while staring at the back of someone’s head, unless you deliberately want to hide and remain unchanged? Or following the senior pastor’s meticulously planned cell group agenda Wednesday by Wednesday? [On a lighter note… In my last denominational congregation we replaced our pews, cracked and broken, with chairs, in an effort to promote a little more face to face inter-action. I asked the stewards repeatedly to put out the chairs in a half-moon around the ground-level lectern – on each occasion it lasted about two weeks before they were back in perfectly straight lines, facing the ‘performers’ up front!]
FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP: WHERE DO I FIND IT??
- Many believers, especially in the West, with church buildings around every corner, long for this, look for this, without finding it.
- At the same time there are pockets of believers around the world, finding it and being ‘wrecked’ for good.
- For some in the First World the only way they can experience something of this ‘fellowship’ is on the internet, inter-acting with their unseen family across the globe who share the same heart.
- For some it may entail sharing a monthly coffee with a kindred mind just to chew the fat together.
- It may include just you and your family at this stage. That’s a highly biblical and good start! Prayerfully consider opening your home to others. Let it be a Spirit-led, bottom-up, serving one another thing. Often your best results will come through serving poor and broken communities, working with children and teens yearning for a spiritual father/mother, working with ‘fringe people’ just like Jesus did. Yes, it’s possible! ‘If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers in my name, I am there among them.’ (Mt. 18:19-20, NLT)