Welcome to part 2 of my reflections on our visit from Arne Skagen. I will follow on from some of the things we talked about in part 1, so I’d recommend reading that beforehand. In my last post, I was reflecting on Arne’s encouragement to sow opportunities to the Holy Spirit; to give him something to work with so that he might do something wonderful in the life of someone else. His encouragement was to start where you are, with the resources you have today. If you have a smile for your neighbour, smile. If you have an encouragement for a friend who is having a hard time, give it. If you have a good deed you’d like to do for someone else, just do it! We can dismiss these things because they seem so small. But the way to live in God’s Kingdom is to behave as if every seed is significant, because it is. Arne used the example of Jesus talking to the Samaritan lady in John 4. By the end of the chapter a whole town has been reached with the Gospel, but the seed sown at the start of this amazing story was Jesus asking for a cup of water. So a really simple way for us to pray and follow in the way of Jesus is to ask the Holy Spirit, “what can I do today that gives you something to work with?”
Which leads me on to the next part of my reflection and the word that the Scriptures use to describe this kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit that Arne spoke about – “fellowship.”
I am not sure whether you have words that you see in this way, words that you hear on a regular basis, that sound familiar and yet somehow, they remain strange, and if asked you probably couldn’t give a succinct definition. For me, “fellowship” has been one of those words. I suspect it is because I grew up going to church in the 90s. Back then, the Sunday morning gathering was a sea of socks and sandals, which is bizarrely back in fashion as a legitimate style choice! C.S. Lewis was the king of Christian literature and, at least in my friendship group, people were suspicious of how genuine your faith was if you hadn’t read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Doug Horley, known by his stage name, “Douggie Doug Doug”, was at the peak of his powers as a children’s worship leader (I would fully recommend the album “Fandabidozzieee” to all of you). And one of the buzzwords, at least in my church, that I grew up around but never really understood was “fellowship”.
The church I grew up in was incredibly local to us; it met next to the community centre for the housing estate where we lived. There were so many wonderful people in that church, and I remain grateful for the impact that they had on my life, especially as it was in the children’s ministry of this church that I gave my life to Jesus. Now, we had a custom, common to many churches, that we would do at the end of every meeting, called “the Grace”. Whoever had been preaching would end the meeting by encouraging all present to turn to the people next to them, hold hands and say together the last verse of 2 Corinthians: “Now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore, amen.”
As young kids, my sister and I found this whole scenario hilarious. Suddenly we would have to hold hands with our parents and whoever they were sat next to, possibly Aunty Marion or Uncle Barry (everyone was an aunty and uncle back then), and say “the Grace” to each other in the strange rhythmic way that comes over a crowd or congregation when they are all trying to say the same thing at exactly the same time. We found it so funny that we would reenact it at home. On Sunday afternoons we would sing the songs from that morning, I might try an impression of someone in the church (for those of you that know me – yes my love of mimicry started young), and then we would try to keep a straight face as we held hands and said the grace in the appropriately sober and rhythmic tone that would come over everyone in our church at 12noon every Sunday.
Looking back, whilst we were just kids having fun, what we were really trying to do was understand the customs of our community. Though we found some things strange and funny, we genuinely loved the music and the traditions we were learning. My children are the same now. And it’s probably watching them dance around, pretending to hold a microphone, singing songs from Sunday that has got me thinking about my own experience at their age and this word, “fellowship”. Because, if I’m honest, it’s taken me a long time to shake off the context of my childhood experience from this precious word.
I wonder what your context for “fellowship” is. Many of us Christians will most likely associate it with tea and coffee after the church gathering – “we stayed after the gathering and had good fellowship.” If you are a fan of “The Lord of the Rings”, you will have a very different, if not more accurate picture of what fellowship means. But for me it had always been tainted by this formal, corporate custom.
Then Arne visited a few weeks ago…
He came to speak with the All Nations Church student group that my wife and I lead, and several people were asking questions about how they felt pressure to reach out with the Gospel. Here was his response: “God is more interested in having fellowship with you than what you can do for him. As a Christian, your body is now a temple of the Holy Spirit, and your primary design is to enjoy the grace of Jesus, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
Just take a moment to let that sink in. I know I had to! “God is more interested in having fellowship with you than what you can do for him.”
I think that if Arne had used the word relationship instead of fellowship, I would not still be thinking about this interaction a month later. I am sure many of us have heard the former used to explain the latter. Relationship is a common word, unremarkable, even when used in a life-changing truth, such as this – that the God desires a relationship with humanity. But God is very deliberate with his words and so there must be a reason that he inspired Paul to write of “fellowship”; it must mean something more than “relationship”.
So I have been diving into this word, reflecting on it and especially in the context of 2 Corinthians 13, and it turns out that there is something special about this word. “Fellowship” implies more than just spending time with or having a relationship with someone, but it is a deep bond that is formed through shared experiences, especially those that we go through in the pursuit of a common goal. The book and the subsequent TV series, Band of Brothers, follows a company of American paratroopers from their formation, through D-Day, and to the end of the Second World War. It includes interviews with the veterans themselves. On several occasions the veterans talk about the depth of the friendships they formed whilst in the army. One talks of how when they were dropped behind enemy lines on the early hours of D-Day, though it was pitch-black, he could tell apart his friends based on their silhouettes, the sound of their breathing, and the rhythm of their boots crunching the gravel roads. Others talked about how they could look at a friend and know exactly what he was thinking though he said nothing. Others still talked about the enduring strength of their friendship, that lasted over decades and across continents. None of the veterans used the word, but what they had was fellowship. God wants more for us than a good small group night or prayer over a coffee after the Sunday gathering, but he has for us a deep knowledge and love of the Holy Spirit that he will form through experience, a knowledge and love that will last for eternity.
This has led me to realise something. Whilst Arne is right to say that God wants fellowship with us more than he desires our works, the way that fellowship is forged is through work or experience. In other words, when the Lord tells you TO DO something, he is simultaneously calling you TO DEEPER relationship with him. For as we follow the Holy Spirit, ask him questions, rely on him, and seek God’s Word, we will discover his power, grow in understanding of his ways, and feel the thrill of the adventure that is the Christian life. The scripture that comes to mind is John 15:15-17 – “If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit.” Our love for Jesus can be expressed, will grow and will endure through obedience.
So, it is no surprise to say that the scripture from 2 Corinthians 13, formally known to me as “the Grace”, has been opened to me in an entirely new way. That phrase, “fellowship of the Holy Spirit”, which had always been connected to a formal gathering for me, something of a custom, something that was only possible in a gathering of the Church, has come to mean something far more dynamic – a depth of relationship that God invites us to and is actively seeking with us, that is available everyday.
So, if you have made it to the end of this second reflection on our time with Arne, don’t delay going on in your fellowship with the Holy Spirit. I would encourage you to just sit with the Lord where you are right now. Or make a moment today when you can do this. Just acknowledge his presence in your life, that he is Emmanuel, God with us, dwelling in you by the person of the Holy Spirit. And just let his steadfast love fill you. Acknowledge that there is nothing you could do to earn more of his love. Give him thanks that he is not interested in you for what you can do for him. And whenever you are ready, let him know how much you love him. Then ask him what good works he has planned ahead for you that will not only achieve great things through your life but lead you into greater fellowship with him. May this be our daily prayer.