Text: Philippians 2:1c-2c; Psalm 51:10-12; John 17:20-23
We are continuing in a series called “Full Alignment,” in which we are talking about what it means to line up our mind, heart, and actions with those of Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2, Paul writes that we are to “have the same attitude” that was in Christ Jesus. In the first week I talked about how ‘attitude’ is not only an emotional state, but is used in aviation to describe pitch, yaw, and roll – what it means to align a plane on every axis so that it’s flight will be true. The dangers of a misaligned attitude are certainly at the forefront of the news right now with the 737 Max planes being grounded. It sounds like a faulty sensor fed false information into the plane’s computer. What a tragic parable for us as we think about the information we take into our lives as we try to maintain a Christ-like course, a Christ-like attitude.
Today we will be looking at the third of four attitudes or readings in the alignment of the Christian life. To plug those into the full verse Paul writes, we read:
If there is any… fellowship of the Spirit… make my joy complete by being… united in spirit. (vv. 1c,2c)
Today we’ll try to understand the fellowship and unity of the Spirit and why those things are important for being in “full alignment” with Christ.
Fellowship of the Spirit
I want to talk first about ‘fellowship’ and what it means. It’s something we enjoy in a number of settings, a kind of camaraderie or enjoyable connection, like on a team or among a group of friends. For church people it can describe social gatherings like a potluck dinner or the close-knit connections in a small group or prayer gathering. In fact, sometimes the whole community of a church is referred to as “a fellowship.” But those are all examples of what I would call fellowship with a lower-case ‘f’.
The greater fellowship is with God and when God is present. And the Holy Spirit is what enables us to experience God’s presence with us and among us. Consider the language in Psalm 51, David’s prayer of confession after Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. David prays for a clean heart and a renewed spirit, then prays:
Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (v.11)
In Hebrew form, he is essentially saying the same thing twice: God’s presence is the presence of the Holy Spirit with David, and with us. The fellowship of the Spirit is the reality and experience of God with us through the Holy Spirit. And out of that fellowship with God overflows the human inter-connection that is human fellowship. In fact, it is a reflection of humanity created in God’s image that has gifted us with capacity and desire for fellowship.
So yes, while we can experience soccer fellowship around a shared interest, or dinner-club fellowship around a love for food, it is Spirit-fellowship that those point toward and for which God created us. And that is, like the Great Commandment, fellowship with God and with neighbor. That’s the fellowship of the Spirit, upward and outward.
United in Spirit
That fellowship of the Spirit is also unifying because it is God’s unchanging Spirit at the heart of it. Team allegiances may change; dinner tastes may vary; but God’s Spirit is eternal and unchanging.
We did not look at it today, but most of the book of Ephesians is given to the topic of unity and the Holy Spirit. Writing to a diverse group of new believers, to Jews and Greeks, to different cultures, Paul exhorts the early church in Ephesus and surrounding areas, as he does here in Philippians, to seek unity in the Spirit. Unity does mean we all think alike or parrot the same sets of words and phrases. In fact, God’s Kingdom is characterized by a stunning array of gifts, personalities, races, languages, and expressions. But they are nonetheless united in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
What does that look like practically here at Good Shepherd? Well, we exhibit a range of tastes and preferences. We vote differently. We come from different backgrounds and parts of the country. We are different ages and stages. Some like more traditional instruments and harmony; some like more modern instrumentation and rhythm. But we worship the same Christ. We read the same Scriptures and seek to follow them. We don’t set our earthly allegiances and preferences above obedience to Christ or above the bonds of love within the community. We bear with one another in love. We seek forgiveness when wronged. We comfort when afflicted. We sharpen one another where there is space for trust and questions and conversation.
In fact, I experienced the unity and fellowship of the Spirit with a fellow pastor. That person had posted an article on Facebook that was typical enough, expressing disagreement over something they had read online. Well that happens every moment of every day, right. But the way the comments were framed, all the friends of one theological/political persuasion jumped on board for what is, these days, a pretty typical stereotyping and condemnation of folks who are on “the other side.” Since this was a friend and colleague I reached out privately and shared that her comments, directed at a group “out there” actually might as well be directed against me. And I just encouraged her to recognize that, like many of us do often, she might have crossed a line into tearing down the relationships she values. Well, she pulled it down and wrote something in its place, holding up the value of unity and fellowship of the Spirit, even in disagreement over particulars. In it she was able to make the same point about her own beliefs and values, but crossed the line into BUILDING UP relationships she values. What a difference, and what a demonstration of the fellowship and unity of the Spirit in the Body of Christ. And, interestingly enough, some 10x the number of people responded compared to the first piece, thanking her for the positive tone and active interest in building up rather than tearing down.
What does it look like for our pitch, yaw, or roll to get out of alignment? It could be our political preferences becoming our first uniting priority or shutting others out. It could be our personal style preferences getting in the way of experiencing the presence of God in our worship. It could be making church about what I get more than whom I serve and whom I do it with.
Having said all that makes me recognize that fellowship and unity of the Spirit is not easy or automatic. There is no auto-pilot for being Church together. It takes attention, renewal, and a constant calibration to that upward and outward focus, which is fellowship and which is love. But it’s worth it! It’s not just something God asks of us, but something that blesses us.
It also blesses the world around us.
That the World May Know (John 17:23)
I’d also like to say a word about the reason for desiring this fellowship and unity of the Spirit. Paul tells us in Philippians that it is to emulate Jesus, to calibrate our lives to his. I’ve also shared that though it takes effort to experience, it also brings blessing to us. But I’d also like to direct you to Jesus’ prayer for you.
In John 17 Jesus is praying just before his arrest and crucifixion. He prays first for himself and what he is about to face. Then he prays for his disciples and what they will face because of association with him. Finally he prays for “those also who believe in me through their word.” (v.20) That’s you and me; we are the ones that have believed in Jesus because of the testimony of the disciples, written in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament that we read. And what did Jesus pray for you and me?
He prayed that we “may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” (v.21) Jesus prayed for unity, based on the unity of the Godhead. He wants us to experience the fellowship that he experiences with God the Father (and the Spirit). But he goes on! He prays for us to experience that unity so that the world may believe that You sent me… and loved them. (v.21b,23b)
Our fellowship and our unity not only keeps us focused on Christ and blesses us; it bears witness to the world. It doesn’t bear witness about how great we are, but about how great Jesus is, that he is the one sent by God because of God’s love. Let me say that more directly: our fellowship and unity in Christ communicates to the people around us that God loves them!
What a multitude of reasons, then, for you and me to regularly pay attention to our pitch, yaw, and roll, to ensure that we are fixed first on Christ, and living out loud the fellowship of Christ, united through the Holy Spirit. Amen.