The Fellowship and the Gospel

Phil. 1:3-5.---' I thank my God . . . with joy, for your fellowship in furtherance of the gospel' [R.V.].

Our watchwords for furthering any cause are 'enthusiasm and 'organization'; St. Paul's are 'joy' and 'fellowship.' In this difference lies the secret of his own amazing devotion to the gospel and of his faith in these poor, ignorant, imperfect fellow-workers of his as the adequate means for furthering it. To the great organized religions around, religions sanctioned by immemorial custom, housed in vast temples, and embodied in impressive rites, with the power of a State behind them which was universal, strong and ruthless, these Christian fellowships were foolish, weak, despised. Yet Paul believed them able to bring to naught even those things which so confidently and mightily were. Such confidence was possible only because he trusted a quite different order of power. Christianity was of less account than any other religion of the time either for stirring up enthusiasm to a passion or for showing an imposing front. But its followers had in them the breath of life, without which the mightiest institutions decay.

St. Paul was confident that the common possession of the gospel, with its gift of peace and hope, and its promise of a new humanity in a new earth, and a new heaven in the years to come, was itself sufficient to give these Christians the closest unity, which he calls fellowship. Not is anything in his life more deserving of note than the absence of every effort to promote cooperation except by awaking this sense of joy in possessing a common good.

The very idea of fellowship is an inward spiritual relation: and with this meaning the word is used in the New Testament with a frequency and a precision which the English translation only imperfectly conveys. Partly, the word 'fellowship' has come in our language to mean little more than association; and partly, the translators, influenced by this fact, substituted the word 'communion' in what they regarded as more solemn connections. But fellowship in the Early church was always in the most solemn connection. It expresses the essential Christian relation to each other. To continue in the fellowship was the mark of a true believer, and the chief rite, the breaking of bread, was also the essential relation of God's children to Himself, the 'fellowship of the Spirit' being their central religious experience. On this relation, which had been produced and maintained by the gospel, Paul placed all his hopes for furthering the gospel.

When you believe yourself well and vigorous by reason of your own constitution, you do not seek the same result by medicine; when you believe that the rain will abundantly water your field, you do not build irrigation dams; when you think a truth is abundantly proved by reason, you do not enforce it by law and penalties; when you believe men are taught of God, you do not wish to regulate their faith and actions by what you think proper. After this fashion Paul proved his faith in the Christian fellowship. He committed his trust to it so utterly that he took no account of the usual safeguards of organized societies.

The Apostle's first conviction concerned fellowship in all truth. All he said and did, and, still more, all he left said and undone, in his relations with these humble believers, shows how sure was his conviction that they had each of them seen for themselves the same truth, and must, therefore, be in one faith. Though he had no illusions about either their ignorance or their weakness, nothing they ever thought or did shook his confidence of something in their hearts, of joyful possession of God's truth and of power by which the victory which alone is truly moral, the triumph of one's own soul over evil, could be won.

Converts from heathenism in Paul's time were just like converts from heathenism in our time. They only imperfectly cast off their old views, and the deepest things of the Christian faith they only imperfectly understood. The Gentile believers had no sacred writing. The Hebrews had the Old Testament, but they had been trained to read it with Rabbinical spectacles. Of the New Testament only a few of the Epistles had been written, and they were still read merely as private letters. The only source of instruction was the preaching and conversation of occasional itinerant teachers, which could not have been systematic. There was no form of creed. But we see from the Apostle's writing what he did rely on. His whole appeal was to a truth his readers had seen in Jesus Christ for themselves. This was very far from assuring the absence of all difference of view. There were differences which even threatened division, and which grieved him to the heart. But he never sought to overcome them by laying down forms upon which to agree. Even on a vital issue of what might seem plain ethical moment he is prepared to wait for agreement till it come of God's own revealing. Upon this truth of God's own revealing and man's own seeing he placed all his faith for the furthering of the gospel.

If unity in truth is the tap-root of fellowship which gives it strength and stability, the fibers which nourish it and keep it ever green are the loyalties and sympathies and forbearances which come from what the Apostle describes as having the same love, and being of united soul. He finds no figure interdependent enough to express the closeness of this relation except the members of one body: nor is any figure living and close enough for what maintains it except that the head of every one is Christ. When we are tempted to think his language too exalted for human nature, we should recall how this spirit manifested itself in the days before Christ's revelation of the Father had been enfeebled by admixture with the spirit of the world. For a time it obliterated all sense of private property, and later Paul was able to speak of the help given to the poorer brethren at Jerusalem, not as 'liberality,' as it is translated, but as 'the expression of fellowship.' A power which could break down the alienation between Jew and Greek might justify the utmost exaltation of language. But still greater was the transformation of human relations by the gospel which made Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene sisters, Simon the zealot and Matthew the publican fellow-apostles, Paul the learned Jewish Rabbi and Onesimus the runaway gentile slave father and son.

The first lesson of Christianity was love, a love that was to join in one body those whom suspicion and prejudice and pride of race had before kept apart. Thus there was formed by the new religion a community of the faithful, a Holy Empire, designed to gather all men into its bosom, and standing opposed to the manifold polytheisms of the older world, exactly as the universal sway of the Caesars was contrasted with the innumerable kingdoms and city republics that had gone before it.

Occasional grave failures the Apostle makes no attempt to conceal. More especially it appeared in misuse of the ordinance which was the very symbol and bond of brotherhood. Through the essence of the Lord's Supper was to be one bread, one body, it was made the occasion for displaying abundance and forgetting need. Nothing could have been easier than to lay down a form of observance which would at once have removed all unseemliness. But the Apostle knew that the only real hindrance to the gospel was the absence of the spirit of the gospel, and, therefore, he gave all his strength to awaking it. In one word, his faith was in fellowship, not upon visible uniformities, but upon a spirit of understanding, sympathy, patience and personal affection, in which men are not alienated because they differ.

Something more is necessary for growth than tap-root and fibers. They produce nothing without the coming of the Spring. And the gospel was for the Apostle just the call of the Spring, the rising of the sun above the storms and clouds of earth, which makes each one who lives under its influence put forth the special vital forces which God has implanted in him, so that the earth clothes itself in venture and becomes a harmony of varied and abundant promise.

The gospel concerned nothing less than the coming of Christ's Kingdom, ruled by His method and for the ends He manifested. The gospel to be furthered was this good news of the Kingdom: and the fellowship did this by being a colony, an outpost, of it in the world. All its members were one by being, in the inmost loyalty of their hearts, citizens of it.

Let us remember that furthering the good news means actually getting people to live in the joy and emancipation and freedom of God's own presence, and that it is not furthered at all by merely imposing upon others statements about it which alter nothing either in themselves or in their world. Acquiescence is nothing; discovery is everything. Pressure is vain; fear is folly; anathema brutality: for good news, by its very nature, cannot be forced upon the mind, but must sing its way into the heart.

Does the world see in us today a great joy springing from a reality which unites us spontaneously in conviction, esteem, and service? Or does it see us concerning ourselves anxiously about the body of our fellowship, and not the creative power of its spirit? Is the only practical outcome of our religion, as the world says, routine services, merely negative moralities which challenge none to consider or to imitate, and under the influence of which our churches become dull clubs, not inspired brotherhoods? Or is it the good-news of Jesus Christ, with His fellowship with the Father and, through it, with His children, an reality? Or is it only because, as a matter of fact, we have had, even in religion, our trust in man's devices, and have not yet, in spite of our long, sorrowful experience, learned that we cannot build any better society upon a less enduring foundation than a fellowship which we enter as we live in God's truth, are one in His spirit, and serve in His Kingdom?

In Christ, timothy. maranatha