↓Audio link to the sermon:
Good morning brothers and sisters in Christ. It has been almost a year now since the pandemic struck. This pandemic has taken a toll not only economically but also on mental health. More people have reported feeling lonely, depressed, and suicidal. The pandemic has shown that when isolated and disconnected from others, we suffer. Connection with others is crucial for our health.
In the Bible, this idea of connection is best captured in the word “fellowship”. This theme of fellowship is a huge topic, I would like to spend two sermons on it. Today, I would like to focus on fellowship as “relationship”. The next time I preach, I will talk about fellowship as “partnership” and “supporting each other materially”.
My 3 points for this day are:
1) fellowship is a vertical and horizontal relationship,
2) we should nurture our relationship with God and other believers,
3) how to fellowship in a pandemic.
Fellowship is a vertical and horizontal relationship
First, fellowship involves relationship. In the words of a Bible scholar named J. Hampton Keathley III, “Fellowship is, first, the sharing together in a common life with other believers through relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”
This idea can be found in 1 John 1:3, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Here we see both the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship with other believers.
When Jesus was asked which of all the Old Testament commandments were the greatest, he said in Matthew 22:37-39, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” We were made to have a relationship with God and with one another.
However, this relationship of love with God and one another was broken because of human sin. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God, our human race has been plagued with dysfunctional relationships ever since—with rivalry, hatred, and bloodshed.
Only Jesus could restore our relationship with God. In 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”. Jesus restored our vertical relationship with God. Now we are called God’s children. As God’s children we are called to be reconciled with one another too and to be brothers and sisters in one family under Christ.
Now, even if we have these relationships we can choose whether or not to cultivate them. You can be living with someone in your house, seeing them every day. But if you don’t cultivate that relationship—making time to talk and listen—then the relationship remains superficial.
This brings me to my second point: we need to nurture our relationship with God and with other believers.
In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him, and unless we do so, our spiritual lives will not be fruitful. “Abide” means “to remain” or to “to live in”. What does it mean to abide in Christ? Looking at John 15, in which Jesus uses the metaphor of vine, branches, and fruit, abiding in Christ means to be connected to him, dependent on him, and remaining in him.
How can we do it exactly? We can nurture this connection with Jesus by reading his Word regularly, talking with him daily, hiding no part of our life from him, depending on him increasingly for help, and obeying him.
Likewise, our relationship with fellow believers is meant to grow too. In Acts 2:42, we read that the early Christians, led by Peter and the other apostles, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Fellowship was an important practice of the early church. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Paul urges the church in Thessalonica, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up”. To cultivate fellowship, the early Christians made time to meet, eat, worship, and pray together.
For some of us, coming to church on Sunday may feel like a big sacrifice already. Perhaps you had to say no to your boss who asked you to work on Sunday. You may wonder, “Do I really need to spend more time with other Christians? I don’t have much free time.”
We may not be able to set aside time weekly. But if not weekly, then perhaps monthly? Generally, our spiritual health depends on relationship with other believers. I’m convinced of this because of my own experiences. And I’ve seen how fellowship with other believers has helped me as a Christian.
When I first came to Japan, my church in Malaysia suggested I get to know some missionaries in from an organization called OMF. OMF invited me to visit a monthly prayer meeting in Ichikawa.
One of the missionaries I met there was a man about my age from the UK. Levi became one of my senpai. When I shared my challenges with him, I was comforted to learn that he experienced similar challenges in his life in Japan too. But also, his more mature thinking showed me that I had to adjust my perspective as a foreigner.
It took time for my friendship with Levi to grow beyond a superficial relationship. First, I went to a party at his house. Later I invited him to stay at my house. Since he lived in Yokohama, we could only spend time like this 2 or 3 times a year. But it was still a fun time to share our hobbies and also talk about spiritual matters. Recently he moved to Kinshicho, so we have been hanging out every month by eating, jogging, and playing video games together. As usual, we talk about things like TV shows on Netflix, and also about the challenges of mission work in Japan. We usually end by praying for each other.
My prayer is that these kinds of relationships can grow within our church community. In which we can support each other as Christians and widen our spiritual perspective.
Fellowship in a pandemic
But how can we spend time together now with the dangers of coronavirus? That brings me to my last point: a few suggestions on how to have fellowship during a pandemic.
First, we could use our phones. How about sending a text message to ask each other, “How are you? I was thinking about you.” Or arranging to have a phone call? Let’s not be shy to ask each other, “What can I pray for you?”
Second, if it’s safe enough, you could spend time face-to-face. If the number of people is few and safety protocols are followed, fellowship can still be done physically. If you live nearby, how about just talking at the doorstep for 10 minutes? Perhaps eating together indoors isn’t possible, but how about eating together outdoors?
Recently, our Singaporean member Amy hosted an outdoor lunch for us and several other believers who have been meeting on Zoom. For the longest time, she wanted to host us but she also didn’t want to take any risks. So she had the creative idea of doing lunch on her front porch. Those who wanted to be safe could eat separately at a distance, and then come together to talk with masks on. Those who wanted to use the toilet walked to a nearby Hard-Off shop to use the toilet there. In this way, we enjoyed spending 4 hours together.
My third and last suggestion is: How about meeting together online? For example, the group who went to Amy’s house has been meeting online for 6 months. I host this group on Zoom every Sunday morning at 9:30am. At first it was meant for IBF members who speak English, but half the members are Christians without a physical church. In this group, one person will share a 5 to 15 minute message, usually ending with a question for reflection. Then the group members will share their thoughts. Finally, we exchange prayer requests and pray.
A few weeks ago, I invited Atsuko-san to visit this online group. I had asked Elena’s mother to come as a guest speaker and share the short message. After the meeting Atsuko-san said, “I was encouraged because Kun Han-san spoke about John 15, which is my favorite passage in the Bible. I was reminded of how important it is to be connected to Jesus. Kun Han showed us a picture of many ripe grapes connected to the vine, which helped me to visualize how the Lord wanted me to be connected to him. I was so impressed by the technology that allows us to be connected with others even if they live abroad. We also had a ‘breakout session’ where we were divided into smaller groups. In these groups of 4 people, we could share and pray for one another. It was the first time for me to experience an online Christian fellowship, and it made me feel excited and impressed.”
It only takes a few seconds to join a meeting like this on your phone or your iPad. I’ve taught my 70- and 80-year-old students how to use Zoom on their phones so we can have English class. With apps like Zoom, we can now easily meet online. You don’t need any special training or knowledge to have fellowship like this.
You could just chat casually and pray together, without any program or preparation. Or, you can read the Bible together. Every 1st and 3rd Friday night, I host an English Bible study on Zoom. We just started studying the book of James, following a discussion guide. Most of the people who join are from IBF—such as Franz, Nagisa, and Taiga-san. Even Joy Anne has joined us from Ireland when she’s not busy.
If you’re curious to see what an online group is like, feel free to visit my Zoom groups. If you want help with how to start a Zoom group, I can guide you with instructions in Japanese.
Our efforts to support each other doesn’t have to stop because of a pandemic. In these difficult times, we need each other more than ever.
To sum up, fellowship is first and foremost a relationship with our Creator God through Jesus. From this flows our desire to be in relationship with fellow believers. Like in any friendship or romantic relationship, it requires concern for each other, conversation, and transparency. But it takes time and commitment to nurture these relationships. Praise God that this can still be done even in the midst of a pandemic. Let’s pray.