When the apostle Paul uses the word koinonia, it is sometimes translated as ‘fellowship’ and sometimes as ‘to be in communion’ with others. Where does that leave us? Are these notions uniquely Christian or are they more inclusive than that? Is it something we need and should seek – if so, where? Come to think of it, how do we find it and then keep hold of it?
Fellowship is not necessarily an extension of any particular faith, but is an extension of the human inclination to spend time and share with others, not just in mundane normality, but an exploration of our dreams, hopes, beliefs and ultimately our religion. Friendship and fellowship go hand-in-hand, a little like salt and pepper; without one, the other generally a lot less effective, bordering on useless. Fellowship is more than just the act of spending time with other people; that is where it starts, but not where it ends. It involves talking, listening, sharing, praying, hoping, and thinking; planning, working together and caring.
It is fellowship, as well as faith, which can guide us through difficulties and successes; when we feel anger, disgust, fear, grief, shock and sadness or surprise, happiness, hope, promise and understanding. Human beings are social creatures, by default, so it is hardly surprising that many aspects of our lives depend so intensely on others. Through our time, energy, experience, wisdom, knowledge, love and understanding, we enable others to grow with, and because of, us, but while still developing ourselves. Fellowship is not akin to sacrifice, because we give so very little in return for so very much. It does not occur only at certain times; it doesn’t need to be saved for special occasions! It occurs every day of the week, through the year, and throughout our lives.
Does this all sound a little far-fetched and unobtainable? I sincerely hope not, because it is something that is accessible, far-reaching and complete. It is not based on age, gender, race, religion, politics or experience. Fellowship is definitely something we need and should seek, because it is so worthwhile, valuable and meaningful, despite the fact that it is inclusive, not exclusive. It doesn’t matter who you are, or who they are. It represents support and relationships with others, beyond the usual connections of friends and family.
So where to find it? You can’t buy it in a shop, and it is not possible to physically hold or feel it. By sharing with others, fellowship grows and develops, and friendship often tags alongside it, like an awestruck and enthusiastic younger sibling. Kind-heartedness and compassion – visiting someone in hospital, sending letters, or ringing them for a chat, both listening and talking a bunch of flowers, food, a bed for the night, asking after someone or remembering their birthday – all nurture fellowship. Then, you begin to increase other aspects of friendship, discussing hopes, dreams, beliefs and faith with these people too, which is when fellowship truly flourishes. You can discuss rights and wrongs, opinions and beliefs, and by trusting another with your heart and mind, you may find they let you hold theirs too. Although this can all sound terribly serious, one of the most important parts of fellowship is laughter; sharing with someone makes it a lot more rewarding!
Fellowship for Christians specifically is supported and upheld by the ‘Fruits of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; qualities open to everyone, not just Christians reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Anyone can share in these virtues, so anyone can share in fellowship. The Holy Spirit is the supporting mechanism for Christians; it is not the case that other people cannot share in fellowship, they just don’t have the same associations between fellowship and the Holy Spirit. Christian fellowship provides the people with whom to pray and discuss God’s word, but that is not integral; more of an optional extra for fellowship between groups of Christians. If we wish to walk our path with Christ, it makes sense to invite others to join us. However, it is a mistake to think that simply sharing friendship amongst Christians is enough to constitute fellowship; more important is the bond, trust and union through the Holy Spirit.
For non-Christians, removing the Holy Spirit does not remove the promise of fellowship; it just provides a different type of fellowship between people. It is not the Holy Spirit that produces the special bond of fellowship, but it is what helps to support Christians in their fellowship. For Christianity as a whole, faith without fellowship is possible, but is not as effective; it is disjointed and disorganised. Fellowship is a necessary by-product of communal Christian faith, because it is so necessary to share with others and it provides us with people who will help to carry us through the trying periods, and who will help to share the burden, and for Christians they are strengthened both by their ‘fellows’ and by the Holy Spirit. Of course, they are with us when there are good times; but we often find we truly appreciate people when they were around during the trying and testing.
Once found, it is important to hold onto fellowship. Like friendship, it can wither and die through spite, discontent or just plain neglect. It is not something that should be taken for granted; like with so many things, it is important that we appreciate what we have while we have it, rather than waiting until we lose it. Realising the importance and need for fellowship is one of life’s key lessons. If this was a Marks and Spencer’s advert, they’d probably say, “Fellowship. This is not just friendship; this is heart-warming, deep and meaningful fellowship…” Whenever we learn the lesson, fellowship allows us to explore more of life’s emotional undulations, trials and tribulations, and helps us to grow in ourselves and in our faith.
Whether we realise what we have found, however, is a completely different issue.