Fellowship the supreme spiritual gift

Fellowship the supreme spiritual gift

 

Rom. 1

 

In Paul’s letter to the Roman’s He opens the letter with both a heartfelt and somewhat peculiar manner.  He states to this church, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.  For God as my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.  For I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to you-“

Let me stop there for a moment and ask the question, if Paul were writing to us what would we expect him to say next?  We believe in spiritual gifts so what would we anticipate this gift to be? 

            We first have to acknowledge that Paul is obviously psyched about this church.  Some years ago I was at a conference where it was announced that there was going to be a new church plant in New York City, in Manhattan.  The response of the crowd was electric.  And why not?   New York is a happening town.  Well take that kind of excitement and multiply it times ten and you may get close to Paul’s reaction to this church.  Rome was it.  All roads led to Rome. (Literally)  Rome was the seat of power, influence, culture, and knowledge for the known world.  Imagine hearing that there was a new church in that kind of a place.  I can imagine that this letter was written not long after hearing this news.  You hear Paul’s desire in the statements, “I thank God… for all of you… without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers… I long to see you…”   We can also see Paul’s heart in the content of this letter.  This is the longest and most theological of all his epistles. 

            But we come back to the question, what is this spiritual gift?  What would Paul desire to give this young and promisingly influential church?  Let’s start by asking what would we expect?  What if this were addressed to us?  Obviously teaching leaps to mind.  “Week long conference!”  Take time off, in fact if your job doesn’t allow you to take time off, quit your job.  We’re providing childcare, making tapes, in fact we’re not even breaking for lunch and dinner, we will have food catered in!  This is Q&A with Paul people!  But He doesn’t specifically say that.  How about evangelism?  We know that Paul has a heart for evangelism. Let’s reach Rome for Christ!  We’ll do debates at the Forum, skits at the Coliseum…  Or what about miracles?  What would strengthen this young church more that to see the power of God visible in their midst.  Or even leadership?  Having Paul recognize and train worthy men to continue the building and edification of the church.  Rome Theological Seminary!  Talk about strategic placement to influence the world!

            But Paul doesn’t say any of these things.  This is what He says, “… that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”  The NAS puts it this way, “that is that I may receive from you and you might receive from me our mutual faith one to another.”   What?  This is the spiritual gift that you so long to give Paul?  I mean compared to the list above this sounds like, “ that is,  that we might… I don’t know… hang out… maybe grab a pizza, you guys know some great Italian restaurants right?”  Paul, you want to come and, share your faith?!? That’s your strengthening spiritual gift?  Fellowship?!?!?  I think if we consider closer what Paul is saying we may not only see what Paul means, but what fellowship really is.

            “That I might receive from you”  Regardless of the translation the language suggests that Paul sees the Romans as having something to offer him.  Essentially “You have something to give to me.”   Again this is Paul, not young new in the faith Paul, but established affirmed apostle Paul.  Yet he still sees the Romans as having something he lacks.  What does Paul see that we so often don’t?  I think that this is one of those things that because it simply is a fact of life, we don’t see it as extraordinary.  Let me try to elaborate:  Years ago I toured a factory that rebuilt Chevy 350 engines.  Now the tour itself was forgettable, but I will never forget one person we met on the tour.  This was the guy who put lifters on the cam shaft of the engine.  He had a small cubicle and we were shown how the cam shafts came in on one conveyer belt, he put on the lifters, and when he had filled another box he sent the box onward.  What struck me as I left the factory was this, “There is NO WAY I could do that job.”  Putting the same part on the same part for eight hours a day, five days a week, would drive me nuts within two hours.  But that folks is a picture of efficiency.  That is really how an assembly line works, you get enough people doing the same jobs, in the same way, and you end up with the same result.  How in the world does this apply to what I’m saying?  Simply this, God isn’t efficient.  If God wanted to, we would all have the same expeiereince of Him at the same time.   But that isn’t the case is it?  We all know that if we stood up and simply told our own stories we’d be here forever. Why?  Because we all have a different story.  Not only our conversion, but even what God has revealed to us in the last six months would vastly vary.  (and how long have we been going through Numbers?)   But God doesn’t do things in the same way, at the same time.  He isn’t efficient like that.  Instead He is extravagant in His grace. 

What’s the difference between a Timex and a Rolex?  Both will tell you the time, but one is mass produced in China, and the other is crafted in Switzerland.  One comes off a factory, and the other is hand crafted by a master watchmaker.  One contains generic parts, while the other has individual jeweled mechanics.  One was inspected by number 523, the other has the makers mark etched into the casing.  One might last for six months to a year, while the other is guaranteed to NEVER fail to do what it was created to do.  We all know that the most valuable things aren’t necessarily the things that are made in the most in efficient manner.  This is what Paul sees when he looks at the Romans.  Individuals crafted by a master artist.  He sees an extravagant God that pours out His grace in individual lives.  And because the Master leaves His mark, they have something to offer Paul.  Paul is aware that, regardless of his own experience, God is bigger than his experience.  There is something of God that these new believers have seen, that they have experienced, that he hasn’t experienced.  And therefore Paul is eager to come to them. 

How does this apply to us?  When we look at those around us as being recipients of an extravagant God, we desire to know them.  We come to church and care group, eager, longing to be reminded that God is bigger that our experience.  If we congregate, for no other reason, than to discover and be reminded that God is bigger than our own personal experience than it is time well spent. 

And I believe there is even more: Note Paul’s language, “That I may give some spiritual gift to you- that is that I might receive from you…”  ‘I want to come to YOU that I might give YOU a gift to strengthen YOU- that is that I might RECEIVE from YOU.’   In essence, “I want to come to you, to strengthen you, that is that you would give to ME.”  How does this work?  Paul is aware that putting himself in a position to be encouraged and strengthened actually strengthens and encourages those he is receiving from.  Another scripture puts it this way, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  This does not work without an extravagant God.  The fact is that this isn’t a zero sum game.  It’s not like there’s only so much grace to go around.  Instead it’s like a catalyst. One person humbles themselves to receive, than another exercises their faith to give and an explosion of grace ensues.  If you’ve ever encouraged someone, or prayed for someone, or counseled someone you know what Paul is getting at.  I know in my own life I’ve had times that I’ve walked away from an encounter saying, “I don’t know if that helped, but I sure feel better.”  If this really is the most effective way we can strengthen those around us, why wouldn’t we do this?  May we never look forward to care group or church the same way!  Because this is how great meetings happen: One person humbles themselves and shares that they are struggling.  Then another offers an experience of how God met them in a similar instance.  Then another person gives an encouragement as to how they see God working in this situation.  Then someone suggests that everyone pray. (All the while the leader is praising God that he doesn’t have to ask a question and endure five minutes of awkward silence)  And people start praying.  And someone has a word from scripture.  And another steps forward and prophesies.  And then someone starts praising God.  And everyone joins in.  And people end up driving home saying to each other. “Why can’t care group be like that every time?”

Next we see Paul’s view of himself in this “transaction”.  “and you might receive from me,”  Paul knows that he has something to offer to this church.  Of course he has, he’s Paul, but I believe his confidence is not ultimately in his being an apostle.  We see where his confidence lies in verse 11. “that by God’s will I may come to you”  What gives Paul his confidence that he would have something to impart to the Romans is his awareness that the only reason he would be among them is that God had put him there.  Again this is something we too often forget.  We fail to acknowledge that the only reason we are where we are, with the people we are surrounded by, is for one ultimate reason: God has put us there.  Seeing ourselves as not having something to give isn’t humility, it isn’t a low view of ourselves, it’s a low view of God.  Has God done anything in your life?  Have you experienced His grace in any way?  Has He directed your life to this place?  Then you have something to give!  God means for us to be something to those He has put around us.  And He calls us to offer not just our interests but ourselves.  Our problem is that we too often see the church as just a community.    A community really is just a gathering of people with similar interests.  As long as the church caters to and meets our interests (worship, speaking style, friends, etc)  we’re there.  When our interests change, or are not met, we look elseware.  But Paul over and over again describes the church as a body, as an organism.  You can’t become part of an organism without giving something to that organism.  (actually you can, from a medical standpoint something that only consumes from a body is called a parasite)  Paul’s confidence is that he knows that if God sovereignly places him in a body of believers there is no way he can join that body and not give to that body.  C.S. Lewis describes what this “organic” relationship is like.  Lamenting the loss of a friend he consoled himself with the thought that he would now get more out of another friend.  Surprisingly Lewis found that without “JR” he experienced less of this other friend not more.  He found that there were things “JR” brought out of both Lewis and this other friend that only “JR” could bring out.  We all have seen this in our own lives, we’ve all hung out with a person only to later see them around a very old friend or spouse and said to ourselves, “I didn’t know they were like that.”  This is the kind of giving Paul is talking about.  The kind of giving that affects those around us to the effect that without us there is discernable lack.  Paul knows that he is going to challenge, encourage, affect, and provoke this church in a way that no one else can.  In the same way that he knows that this church will affect, challenge, provoke and encourage him in a way he has not experienced.  To hopefully finally drive this point home let me tell you about a friend of mine Jose’.  I had already been a member of Sovereign Grace Chesapeake for several years when Jose’ started attending.  Jose’ was… well… a unique individual.  He was “special”.  The consensus (although we never actually had it confirmed) was that Jose’ was mildly retarded.  Nevertheless Jose’ became a fixture at church and eventually at my care group.  In fact I ended up driving him to and from care group.  Now I could relate how this affected me personally but I think it more profitable to tell you how this affected the group.  Jose’ became a part of the group and it was noticeable when he wasn’t there.  We might have had a more serious discussion, but we didn’t laugh as much. (because Jose’ laughed at everything weather it was funny or not which actually made everything funny) I’m sure you could go up to almost anyone who was at that church at that time and simply say, “You remember Jose’?”  and they would respond, “Oh, Pleeezzzeee…”  (which was Jose’s response to everything)  Jose lived for church and care group.  We had care group every Wednesday and without fail I would get a call in the afternoon, “You coming to pick me up?”  “Yes Jose, I’ll be there just like last week…”  And if I was five minutes late, my cell would go off.  “Jose I’m outside your house right now.”  Jose couldn’t tell you who the president was but he knew the names of every single person in his care group.  And their birthdays, because he had decided that it was his job to make sure everyone got a birthday card on their birthday. (and sometimes even if it wasn’t their birthday)   He would also make sure that everyone he knew signed that card. (sometimes twice and sometimes you ended up signing your own card)  Eventually Jose’ expressed a desire to join the church and there was real discussion as to weather or not Jose’ was a believer.  He was given membership and one of the biggest reasons was as one pastor put it, “I just don’t think he would have stuck around for this long, and affected so many people in the way he has without the grace of God in his life.”  Even as I relate this I’m convicted in my own life.  If Jose’ can have that kind of an impact, (without even knowing what he was doing) what impact am I making?   When I think back I realize that Jose’ had it right, and I so often have it wrong.  I am reminded of Paul’s charge to Timothy, “Let no one despise you because of your youth but set an example…”  Our modern English doesn’t convey the power of what Paul was charging Timothy with.  The term “set an example” literally translated means “be a die.”  (a die was a tool pressed into wax to make an impression, most often a seal or signet.  Think ‘die cast’)  What Paul is saying literally is “Timothy be something that so affects those around you that they are shaped by you.”

Ultimately this is about God.  This is about a people being built together, receiving and giving to one another, and growing into a likeness of the one who saved us.  This is where we use the gifts that we are given to strengthen the body. (see 1 Cor. 12)  This is the vehicle that God has chosen to display to the universe the greatness of His grace and goodness.  This is where we come together and see a God that is bigger than our own experience.  This is fellowship, and make no mistake, it is a spiritual gift given by the Holy Spirit.  Without the Spirit we continue to put up a false façade of  individual independence.  Without the Spirit we hesitate to commit because we fear the future unaware of a sovereign, good, loving God who has us where we are for a reason.  The question is ultimately what do we believe about God and what do we believe about those He has placed us with?  And are we willing to act in faith?

 

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