The Fellowship of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10,11 NIV).
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV).
“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” (I John 1:3 NIV).
The Fellowship of the Cross
With a title like that, there is no way to avoid talking about one of my all-time, favorite films called The Lord of the Rings. Of course, as any aficionado would tell you, The Hobbit has to be included in that trilogy to make it complete. They are classic pieces of literature penned by J.R.R. Tolkein, friend to C.S. Lewis himself.
And, of course, one of the best parts of the trilogy is the section called The Fellowship of the Ring. This is the story of Frodo, the ring-bearer, and his sidekick, Samwise, who set out on the journey to Mordor to destroy the ring of power. They are accompanied by an elf, a dwarf and various representatives of mankind – all of them inhabitants of Middle Earth. It is a motely crew of individuals who learn the power of a common purpose, individual temptation and redemption, and, ultimately, the forging of a bond of friendship in the crucible of an impossible task.
J.R.R. Tolkein knew something about human nature and how true fellowship is forged under difficult circumstances among people dedicated to the same goal. Of course, God knows something about that too.
Ours is not the Fellowship of the Ring but, rather, the Fellowship of the Cross. We, too, have a purpose to work together in this redemptive emergency for the salvation of the world. Yes, there will be individual temptations and trials but, in the context of the relationships forged under trying circumstances, there is also the possibility of redemption and true friendships that will last a lifetime.
Or is that only a fantasy of mine?
It’s easy to write beautiful words to describe the fellowship of the cross, the unity of the church, the friendships forged in this band of brothers and sisters following Jesus on the Road to Jerusalem. But is it true? Not so sure.
My Personal Testimony
My experience of the church has not been so great, whether here in Buenos Aires or in Calgary, Alberta or, even in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I went to Bible School and Seminary years ago. Perhaps I am in the middle of the story when things are tough and the relationships are strained. Maybe I need to be patient enough to see the end of the movie when God finally intervenes and puts everything right again. No doubt. I accept that.
But I still believe that the Fellowship of the Cross is essential to our ministry in this life before the end of the movie, before God sets everything right again. In fact, that fellowship is key to the effectiveness of our mission and a lot depends on it. We need God’s intervention now, in the middle of the movie, in the heat of battle, when it matters most. That is also true.
So what is the problem?
I can say it in a few words, of course, but I’m not sure you will understand what I mean if you haven’t lived through it yourself. I know a lot of people who don’t go to church anymore. Perhaps they were never truly Christians. Perhaps it was their own fault or perhaps they simply misunderstood how things are done in church and took offense too easily. I don’t know. What I do know is that I have felt my deepest pain and rejection in the arms of the church. And it hurts a lot, and still does.
Whatever the particular situation might be, whatever offense or sin that was committed, the truth is that the leaders of the church (and other individuals as well) have the power to deeply hurt others in the church even those who are in love with God and who try to follow Him with all their heart. Mistakes and all.
I know what you are thinking. You have heard me say over and over again that making mistakes and committing sin and falling to temptation over and over again is not the end of the world and that the struggles with ourselves and our wrestling with God is an essential part of our growth in sanctification. You heard me say it but you didn’t believe me. Did you? No. Because you know better. You’ve been in the church long enough to know that things are not that easy.
The culture of Shame
The church has developed a culture of shame instead of a culture of grace in most cases. A ministry that has a leader who is still struggling with sin is not well accepted. In fact, most people would argue that leadership is incompatible with a sinful lifestyle. And they would be right if that was what we were talking about. Not a lifestyle of sin, just sin. Sometimes once, sometimes more than once. Sin being dealt with but still not yet overcome. But No. Not acceptable.
And so we hide our sin from the public eye. It stays hidden away in a dark closet until it screams to be dealt with and tears down the walls of our lives because the church is so woefully ill-prepared to deal with sin in general.
The guilt and shame that defines the repentance of most people in the church is projected on the guilty party and no room is left for the ministry of grace or the discovery of love.
It is sad, isn’t it.
I hear stories of defrocked Pastors who committed some sort of public sin and I wonder what happened to them afterwards, what the end of the story was, how God restored them and changed them (because I know He will). The church will never know, of course. Out of sight. Out of mind. But the best part is what happens after. The healing comes later. True spirituality is found in the lost art of repentance. But there is very little stomach for that kind of ministry in the average church today.
I have personally had the experience of Pastors and elders telling me that they have never heard this stuff before and that they are suspicious of my teaching that relationships are at the heart of the gospel. One Pastor even told me that he was willing to come over and talk about what he might have done wrong to offend me but that our relationship was not the issue, that he was under no obligation to become my friend or restore our fellowship. For him, it was about morality not relationship.
What can you say to that? I think he misses the whole point of the gospel. But he is the Pastor so I have to respect his spiritual authority whether I agree with him or not.
The Culture of Grace
Love covers over a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8), the Bible tells us. Exactly. Love speaks to the relationship. Sins are about morality. We overlook a lot of small offences when there is love between people. Parents do it with their children. Lovers do it for each other all the time. The same is true in church. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be that way.
When the rules are more important than the relationships, something is wrong. When you try to control everyone’s ministry so that “you are the chief and everyone else are the Indians” who do your bidding, something is wrong. When your leadership is about control instead of about purpose, something is wrong.
Ministry is messy. People make mistakes. Sin shows up and temptation takes them down. It’s time to stop and focus on the people. It’s time to minister to them in their weakness and show them the path and the power of repentance. It’s no mystery, after all, since Jesus showed us the way in his own ministry many years ago.
So why is it so hard for our leaders to do?
Why do they kick people when they are down? Why are so many of their decisions political instead of relational? Why do they value keeping the peace more than bringing peace into the storm of difficult situations?
And the strangest things happen when the leaders are so out of touch with the gospel. In the name of peace and order in the church, they are willing to call the police if a poor brother shows up on a Sunday morning asking for a handout (see James 2:1-4). In the name of political expediency, they insist on showing Alpha videos only in English (with Spanish subtitles) when 90% of the audience are Spanish speakers and can’t read the small subtitles from the back of the room. In the interest of protecting assets, people are forbidden to use church equipment for ministry purposes because it hasn’t been sanctioned by the Board (who aren’t due to meet until after the ministry opportunity has passed). I could go on….and on….
It is not a complaint for the purpose of complaining, you understand. It is grief that compels me to speak. A grief that has personally felt the sting of misunderstood motives and the lack of interest in a true fellowship of the cross.
After all, it is the fellowship of the cross, not the fellowship of the saints that we are talking about here. I prefer to call it that way. The fellowship of the saints just doesn’t focus on the right things for me. It’s not just about the saints as the focus of who is having the fellowship. It is about the cross. It’s about the way of the cross. It’s about saints walking in the way of the cross, together.
It’s about a fellowship in confessing our sins one to another. It’s a fellowship of suffering with Christ in the ministry of the gospel rooted in the cross. It’s a fellowship of repentance where we “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is a fellowship where forgiveness is taught and given and where true and full reconciliation is the goal. It is a fellowship where people work and pray together for the kingdom of God using their spiritual gifts without any barriers or issues between them, where there is an awareness that they are dealing with someone who is beloved of God even when they sin, someone for whom God was willing to die, in mockery and injustice, because that person is a burden of glory, beloved by divinity. That is the fellowship of the cross.
The Normal Christian Life
Truthfully, I only experienced a taste of that fellowship when I was in Bible School many years ago. Not in Seminary, mind you, only in Bible School with a group of people who were highly motivated to follow God with their whole hearts. I suppose it was because a Bible School gathers “the best of the best” from all the churches – the ones whom God has called to be Pastors and missionaries and teachers and leaders in the Kingdom of God. Maybe. But for some strange reason, it just seems like that was normal and should be normal for the entire church.
The culture in the school was a culture of grace not of shame. It wasn’t perfect but we loved each other and helped each other in our walk with God. The teachers had the right attitude and the students responded well to their leadership. Prayer. Ministry. Love. It really isn’t that hard, you know.
But for some reason, when I became a Pastor and started working in the local church, everything was different. I was personally involved in Evangelism and the church grew to twice its size in the first three years but I was at odds with the Board. It was a surprise to find that they didn’t have the same value system or wanted to deal with things in the same way that we were taught at school. They even, half-jokingly, said that it was their job to train me, to teach me the realities of church work and to get rid of those pie-in-the-sky notions that I brought with me from Bible College. Wow. I didn’t see that coming.
Politics was the name of the game and I was woefully unprepared. They didn’t have courses on that in Seminary. Strange. Anything I was dealing with in my own process of repentance was immediately relegated to a back room in my mind and told never to show its face again. I learnt very quickly the priority of control and getting permission and keeping the peace and doing what the Board said. Since I was young, they were not interested in following me but, rather, insisted that I had to follow them. After all, they were the ones that hired me, not the other way around.
Paul told his disciple, Timothy, “do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (I Timothy 4:12 NIV). Not so easy to do. Even if you are a good example to others, it doesn’t stop them from looking down on you because of your youth. This is a fortress that is strong and hard in the life of the church.
I didn’t last long, of course, and I ended up leaving the Pastorate disappointed and depressed. It took a toll on my marriage and that ended a few years later making it impossible for me to return to ministry even if I wanted to. Now I am remarried to a wonderful Christian woman and trying to minister online to anyone who wants to listen. But still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things had worked out differently, if the Board had been a Fellowship of the Cross instead of a political hotbed of opinions and egos.
All things work out for our good (Romans 8:28), of course, but the question still stands. God’s will is that we function as a Fellowship of the Cross and that the anointing power of God on our ministry is dependent on it. How many lives could have been saved? How many people developed into Christian leaders? How many ripples in the pond of life could have radiated out into effective ministry from a church leadership team that understood the power of spiritual unity rooted in the cross? They are legitimate questions, but I won’t know the answers until I am in glory. In the meantime, there is work to do.
Yes, I know that there are churches where the leadership team does function as a Fellowship of the Cross. Hillsong Church in Australia. Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. Rey de Reyes in Buenos Aires. Just to name a few. God always has His remnant. But the fact that we can name those churches on our fingers (and maybe toes) tells us that something is wrong.
The Fellowship of the Cross is essential to the ministry of the church. Knowing how to deal with sin and encourage repentance and support spiritual leadership without guilt and shame, is the essential work of the church and a political mentality which prioritizes rules over relationships, assets over ministry and policy over people just doesn’t cut it.
The goal is not to be negative but realistic. Without confession of sins, there is no hope for repentance and corporate repentance by the leadership of the church is essential to developing a Fellowship of the Cross. Without it, the mission is in jeopardy. With it, the anointing power of God is at our disposal for effective ministry.
One final comment I need to make. Some people say that the local church is the hope of the nations. I believe that is true. But it will only happen to the degree that the local church learns to be a Fellowship of the Cross. Leadership is important. But when the leadership has lost their way, God still has His people working away in the background.
After all, the church is the bride of Christ. It is the new Jerusalem that descends from heaven in all her glory. The true church, which is always a fellowship of the cross, is often hidden away in the corners, among the cobwebs, holding on to life even when the leadership is often, sometimes unwittingly, trying to crush the life out of her.
The true church is always the fellowship of the cross but not necessarily the local congregation meeting in the town hall. It may be a small group meeting in someone’s house. It may be a ministry outside of the church trying to feed the homeless. It may exist independently of the leadership of any one church. Look around. Take your time. You will find them.
The Fellowship of the Cross may not be meeting in the Board room. More than likely you will find them in the janitor’s closet or in the dingy basement or Sunday School classroom with the green walls and hard, wooden benches. Wherever you find them, cherish them, for they are the true members of this powerful fellowship of the cross.
They may look and smell like dwarfs. They may have pointy ears like elves. They may seem arrogant but have hearts of gold. They may be leaders in the making, kings traveling incognito, or ring-bearers who are the key to everything. Join them and you will find the spiritual unity that can bring you anointing power for effective ministry.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I pray for the church. I can sometimes be a political animal as well and it scares me a bit. I know that it is selfish and worldly and I pray that you would root it out of me completely. Help me to focus on people and on their relationship with you. That is what matters. From there, ministry can happen. Miracles can happen. Lives can be saved. That is what the gospel is all about. I know. Help me to stay there in that sweet spot and depend on you no matter what. In your name I pray. Amen.