Over the next several months, I will focus this space on exploring our identity as NWYM Friends. A clear message communicated throughout the vision and long-range planning process emphasized our need to relearn and reclaim our identity as Christ-centered Friends. Together, we believe we have something significant to offer the world as we are faithful to our particular calling as Jesus’ people.
A few weeks ago, I spent most of a weekend in Sprague River, OR. It was the first time since I became superintendent that I got to visit that community. Over the last 2+ years, I’ve had many phone conversations and visits with their pastor, Bob Adams, and contact with other people in the Meeting, but there is nothing like sitting down together with Friends, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, and joining them in prayer and worship. Somehow in actually being together, the bond of community becomes more real and lasting.
“Community” is something many of us talk a great deal about these days. We do this in part, I think, because so few of us experience it—at least in the ways we imagine it could be in the context of the church.
Actually, I prefer the word “fellowship” over “community” because the latter has become too much of a buzz word. More importantly, the notion of fellowship is rooted in scripture and communicates a richness and depth that community does not.
But even the word “fellowship” loses some of its fullness in comparison to the Greek word “koinonia.” And so along with fellowship, we try translating it as “communion,” or “participation,” or “common life,” or “partnership.” The root meaning of koinonia is “common” or “shared” as opposed to “one’s own.” Hellenistic literature used “koinonia” to describe partners in business, joint owners of a piece of property, or shareholders in a common enterprise.
The New Testament use of “koinonia” refers to Christians who share a common faith (Philemon 6), who share possessions (Acts 2:44; 4:30), or who are partners in the gospel (Philippians 1:5). Koinonia occurs over 60 times in reference to the supernatural life that Christians share—a life that is revealed in the example of Jesus and made possible in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the company of disciples, it is this Presence that is our bond of peace and the power that can create a unity of faith in which our diversity is transcended and transformed by our common allegiance to Christ. In the koinonia of Jesus, we learn to love one another as we have come to experience love in Him, and in doing so demonstrate to the world we belong to God.
Over the years, Friends have rightly valued the direct leading of the Holy Spirit in individuals. We would argue, correctly I believe, that every person must come to faith and experience Christ on his/her own. We must each act in harmony with our convictions and sense of spiritual call. There is no value in a second-hand religion.
The corresponding weakness of this position arises, however, when we buy into the radical individualism of our day and especially in our culture. Faith never intends to destroy individuality—that is, our unique personalities, call or responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. Christian fellowship does, however, call us away from the kind of privatized faith that makes us the center of all things and single interpreter of God’s will. We are intended to be individuals-in-community…part of a living, interconnected organism or Body that finds its common identity and mission under the leadership of Christ the Head.
Unfortunately, as one critic of American Christianity has penned, “The group has become for us a collection of individuals created by individuals for their own advantage. Rather than seeing the church as a community that offers an alternative culture, its function is often seen as only offering care for individual souls.” For too many of us, the individual stands above community…not within it.
When Friends have understood community well, I think we have remembered that we are called to sharing on every essential level. This means caring for each other in economic, social, physical, emotional and spiritual terms. It necessitates a level of knowing each other, learning to depend on and be accountable to one another. It requires a common purpose, expressed in Christian terms, through a spirit of unity in and fidelity to the life of Christ.
Quoting George Fox during our Yearly Meeting sessions a few years ago, I reminded us that we are to “mind that which is eternal, which gathers our hearts together up to the Lord and lets us see that we are written in one another’s hearts.”
Friends, we are written on and in one another’s hearts. This is true, of course, throughout the whole Body of Christ. But it is within your local church and our Yearly Meeting that we are called to flesh out the practical implications of being in this kind of shared life. On a local level, fellowship is embodied in our corporate worship, through our mutual support in learning to be disciples, as we help each other discern and act on our missional call to service, as we forgive each other, pray for each other, and meet one another’s needs. In the local fellowship, we have the opportunity and responsibility to walk with one another, in the love of Christ, from the cradle to the grave.
On the Yearly Meeting level, our fellowship is embodied as we join together in mission, as we work in harmony in discerning and acting on God’s leading, as we are faithful to the vision of Friends’ faith and practice, and as we create the kind of spiritual environment where all of us grow up into the image of Christ together. As we ready ourselves to gather again this year in Newberg, will you join me in praying that we might really be Jesus’ people in what we say and do together?