READ : Acts 2:42-47
The Apostles’ Creed describes the church as a fellowship, the living community of all those who have heard God’s call to belong to him and to each other through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the Apostles’ Creed, immediately after we confess our faith in the church, we add another phrase: “I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” Christians believe that the true church of Jesus Christ, that is, the whole invisible company stretching from the beginning to the end of time of all those known to God and chosen by God for salvation. We believe that this church is one, holy and catholic (universal). And now we add that the church can also be described as the communion, or fellowship, of the saints.
In confessing our faith this way we are saying something, first of all, about the nature of the church. The church is a fellowship, a communion. It’s not primarily an institution, or a building, or a fund-raising organization, or even a missionary task force. It is in its innermost nature the fellowship of the saints, that is, the living community of all those who have heard and responded to God’s call to belong to him and to each other through faith in Jesus Christ.
Listen to this description of the life of the new community of faith that was the church in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Christian movement.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . . All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47, niv
Did you notice how often the word together appeared in that little passage? The believers were together. They had everything in common, Luke says. They met together. They ate together. They shared the fellowship of the saints.
The single most important word Luke uses here to describe the life of the early church, the word translated fellowship in Acts 2:42, is the Greek word koinonia. Koinonia means “that which is held in common.” Scholars call the language in which the New Testament was written Koine Greek, because it was the common speech of ordinary, everyday discourse rather than the more formal Greek of classical philosophy and poetry. When the word koinonia appears in the New Testament it’s usually translated either “fellowship” or “communion.” Think of some other English words related to this same root: words like common, communion, community. It’s a word that suggests mutual giving and receiving, joint participation, oneness, relationship, togetherness, sharing.
This is what the church of Jesus Christ is meant to be. It is the fellowship, the koinonia, of the saints, the people of Christ. A healthy church is an accepting and a helping church, a church where relationships are central, where people care about and for one another because they understand that they have been accepted by God for Jesus’ sake. Luke says of the early Christians that they devoted themselves “to the fellowship,” the koinonia, “the communion of the saints.” The followers of Jesus lived a shared life together. They shared everything they had. They held their possessions in common, and used them to meet each other’s needs. Their fellowship was lived out in practice. They didn’t just talk about having a common life together and helping one another when they were in trouble. They did it.
This passage is always a little embarrassing for modern Christians, especially for wealthy Christians from western societies. We know, most of us, that we don’t share as much as we could or should with our brothers and sisters around the world. I know I don’t. Luke’s report frankly makes me feel guilty. Now, I recognize that no church is perfect. There never has been a community that lived out completely the life of communion in Christ – not even the earliest church in Jerusalem. As we see all too soon in the book of Acts, this church too had its problems. The idyllic early days didn’t last. Nor was the sharing of possessions in the Jerusalem church absolute or required. Luke makes it clear that practicing a communal way of life as a church was voluntary, done to meet the immediate needs of that situation.
But having said all that, I still wonder . . . am I sensitive enough to the suffering of my fellow Christians? Am I sacrificing any luxuries or comforts in order to help feed and clothe those without the barest essentials? Am I really committed to life in community with others, or am I trying to go it alone? Is my confession that I believe in the fellowship of the saints genuine, or is it just pious talk?
When the Apostles’ Creed talks about the church, it does so in the context of belief in the Holy Spirit. The holy catholic church is the creation of the Holy Spirit of God. The kind of church the Spirit creates is an accepting, growing, loving, worshiping, witnessing, serving congregation.
Made for Community
So when I confess my faith “in the communion of the saints,” I am first of all saying something about the nature of the church and about what each congregation of Jesus Christ ought to look like in its common life. But I’m also saying something significant about myself. For that matter, I am making a claim about all human beings. There has been a sort of theological renaissance in recent years centering on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Far from being an esoteric exercise in abstract thinking, the Trinity, the three-in-one nature of God, has a crucially important practical meaning for every one of us. The most basic message conveyed by the truth that God, in his deepest being, exists as an eternal trinity of persons is the message that we were made for community, for we were made in the image of God. And God, in himself, is an everlasting fellowship of love.
That’s why “it is not good that the man should be alone,” as our Creator said so long ago about our first father Adam in the Garden (Genesis 2:18). That is why today each of us longs, deep down, for love and acceptance, to know others and be known by them, to belong, to be part of the group, to be on the inside, to have, as someone has put it, at least one other person who truly understands me. People today are hungry for this kind of community. They want to belong somewhere. They want to be included in something that’s real and important. They want to be able to experience love that is available, genuine, non-exploitive, caring, accepting, and inviting.
That’s what lies behind the desperate search for community that marks so many things in our society, a search that often looks for love and acceptance and security in all the wrong places. Sexual promiscuity, false pride in race or nation or class, the snob appeal of elite circles or institutions — all these are counterfeit attempts. But they are counterfeit attempts to satisfy a genuine need. People are looking for love and community, true; but too often it’s love without faithfulness, fellowship without giving, community without commitment or outreach. Is it any wonder they fail to find what they so desperately want? I believe that the only real satisfaction of our inborn need for community is to be found in being restored to loving fellowship with the Triune God, the God who made us and redeemed us in Christ. He invites us to find our true life in communion with him and with Christ’s body, the church.
Let’s be honest. The obstacles that keep us from enjoying the community we hunger for are not all “out there.” It isn’t just that churches are often cold and uncaring, or that families can be dysfunctional, or that people we care about sometimes let us down or turn their backs on us. Our failure to find the love and acceptance we crave is due just as much to the junk we carry around inside us as it is to the sins of others. How can I experience true fellowship, authentic communion, when I am so filled with anger, pride, indifference, selfishness, lust, bitterness?
Someone has remarked that if we knew everything people said about us, there wouldn’t be two friends left in the world. In a similar way, I have often thought that if people knew all the secrets we keep buried deep in our psyches, there wouldn’t be two relationships left in the world. If you really knew me, would you be able to stand me? The biggest problem to authentic human community is the corruption of the human heart; of my heart, of every heart. Perhaps that’s why when we confess our faith in the communion of the saints, with our very next breath we say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
Just one thing more: There is One who does know me, inside and out. He knows everything there is to know about me, far more than I even realize myself. And still he loves me. God loves me. He loves me even when I find it hard to love myself. If he can love me the way I am, can’t I love you the way you are? That’s the secret to the fellowship of the saints.