Congregationalism Part 3: Fellowship

Seth Patterson February 18, 2018

Scripture: Mark 12:28–31

Before we go any further, please join me in prayer for our neighbors in Parkland, Florida. Let us pray:

God of all people, the hurt that we do to each other is tremendous and baffling and terrifying. We hope that your presence may allow for some sort of peace as the families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School travel the bumpy and treacherous path of grieving. Help the communities of Southeast Florida to be agents of present healing in this time of sustained fear. Be with us, those of us here that may feel so very detached and far away and helpless, as we work to be the hands and voices of you in this world of violence and anger in whatever way you call us to do this work. While this prayer is brief, our sorrow is deep. May your eternal love and hope be visible in the lives we live together. Amen.

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Not only is today the first Sunday in Lent, but here we are also at the caboose of this sermon series. Paula started us off with faith, Beth last week with freedom, and I am bringing in the final F with fellowship. These are three aspects that define the foundation of Plymouth’s worship and organizational life. If you haven’t heard or read Paula’s and Beth’s sermons, please do—they are excellent. Check the website or the literature racks. It is important for a church, from time to time, to remember and recollect/re-collect who we are as a unified body. If we don’t know who we are, then how will we ever figure out who we want to become . . . who we are called to be in this world now and today?

To begin, I am going to reiterate some things that Paula and Beth have already said in order to reconvene the discussion. Congregationalism, as we know it, comes from the Pilgrims and Puritans leaving the Church of England (and therefore England) and arriving on the shores of our present country. Congregationalists are Protestants from the reformed tradition (following in John Calvin’s footsteps), known uniquely for the fact that each congregation is independent and autonomous in the running of its own affairs. The break from the Church of England was not theological but practical. The Pilgrims were not fundamentally different in faith from their Church of England forefathers but rather were not interested in participating in the hierarchical system that, from the top down, told each church, and therefore each person, how to believe. In fact, in 1648 a group of Congregationalists in New England wholeheartedly endorsed the Westminster Confession of the Church of England, differing only in the concept that the individual church is the highest form of ecclesiastical authority. And out of this 1648 meeting came the Cambridge Platform, a very small section of which is the reading that I skipped over a few minutes ago. Here is it now:

Although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confused one with another: and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another: yet all churches ought to preserve Church-communion one with another, because they are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head: when is derived a communion suitable thereunto.

This platform’s intention was to help these individual and unique congregations find communion, or togetherness, so that each did not remain an island, but instead found ways to love and support each other. This was an early attempt to define the fellowship that these churches wished to have with their neighbors. And this, in summary, is what they decided: each church may be unique and differ from the others, and that is okay; no church may try and force another church to its be like itself; each church should find ways to be in fellowship with the others; and a following of Jesus is the link that unifies all the churches. And this is how Congregationalism, in its best of circumstances, still operates and understands itself. Each church is unique and allowed to be so, and the common thread that connects the churches is the following of Jesus Christ. This is how our denominations, both the National Association of Christian Congregationalist Churches and the United Church of Christ, attempt to work.

It is also, I will argue, how each individual church works as well. This definition of congregational polity is mirrored in the way that we work together here. Instead of a collection of unique churches, we here are a collection of unique people: each may not be confused with another, and not one individual should have dominion over another individual. The thing that unifies us all is a following of Jesus, each in our own ways with our own gifts, hands and voices. We gather together in communion (literally today and metaphorically other times) in order to foster fellowship, friendship, love, support and conversation. Participating in Plymouth, in Congregationalism, doesn’t detract from our God-given uniqueness but rather gives us a place to join ourselves in life-giving fellowship with others. And we do this, as a church, in the following of Jesus.

But here a difficult question must be asked: Which Jesus do we follow together? How does each of our unique theologies, formed over a lifetime of loves and pains, commune together behind a figure as complex as Jesus? This is oftentimes where a hierarchical system, like the one the pilgrims were fleeing from, can be useful, because it helps narrow down and define which Jesus we are all following together. But without that denominational hierarchy in place here, which Jesus do we all get united with? The miraculous healing Jesus? The politically defiant Jesus who was killed by the imperialist state? The Jewish teacher? The prophet? The Jesus that washes away all of our sins or the Jesus that is liberation for the poor and marginalized? The nation-builder, the mystic, the son of God or the Son of Man, the Jesus as interpreted by the writer of Mark or Matthew or Luke or John? Or the Church-building Jesus utilized by Paul and those writing in Paul’s name? When the Cambridge Platform says we are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head, where do we ground ourselves?

All of these conceptions of Jesus are biblically valid, and each may be useful in helping us make meaning out of God’s charge to live justly, love kindly and walk humbly. But in order to grow individually and in fellowship, we need a place to root ourselves. Here I would like to propose that we may find an initial place of unification in this tiny section of Mark, also written in Matthew and Luke and both drawn from Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

“The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.

There is no other commandment greater than these. Simple, clear, concise, drawn from two different strands of the Hebrew Torah. When Jesus said this, it was both ancient and revolutionary. It is part of the foundation of all Judeo-Christian ethics. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then love the person or people near you (your neighbors) as you would love yourself.

The Jesus who said this is the head of our church. This Jesus is the one who binds us together in fellowship. We together, as a church, are called to love God with all of our being. We are unified in this unbelievably difficult task. The commandment is simple and direct, yet the totality of it, the all-encompassing nature of it, is beyond what any human is quite capable of doing. And it is both an individual and collective task. We are each asked to do this, but we are also asked to do this together.

The Jesus who said this is the head of our church, and we are also called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This applies among congregations (be in fellowship with other congregations because we are called to love them as we love our own) as well as within a congregation (be in fellowship with each other because we are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves). We are unified as a congregation because we are each called to love the person near us as much as we love ourselves.

When I was a kid, I went to a church that was very good at fellowship. From when I was 6 months old until I was almost 5 my family lived in a tiny town in western Maine called East Sumner. My father was the minister of the Congregational Church of East Sumner, organized in 1802. We lived in the century-old parsonage across the street. This town of a few hundred people did fellowship very well. The tiny church was the center of the tiny town’s life—and not just those that attended the church regularly. It was the kind of place where Sonny Russell did not give money to the church but made sure that our wood stove was stocked with wood year-round. It was the kind of place where my parents would discover food left inside the never-locked front door. It was the kind of place where one time that food was bear meat. It was the kind of place where I, as a small child, was valued as a full and valid member of the community. It was idyllic and neighborly and full of fellowship in the way of small towns everywhere. The fellowship that the people felt, the very foundation of their congregational existence was in part because they loved each other. They tried to follow Jesus’s commandment to love their neighbor as themselves.

And in the ways of families and people who have lived their entire lives in close proximity, they certainly didn’t always like each other. For example, Velma Keene’s family had been in the town since the American Revolution, and when we knew her she was in her 80s. Velma carried herself as if she were the matriarch, the Royal Mother if you will, of the town. It was annoying or it rubbed people the wrong way when Velma got up on her high horse, as it would be said, but they never stopped being in fellowship with her. She never stopped being loved. They knew that even with love and even with great fellowship, they would not always get along.

They lived with that push and pull that comes with trying to love in fellowship, with trying to love while not necessarily always liking. They lived in that tension that could, at times, be uncomfortable. They seemed not to be afraid of that discomfort. They knew well that living in community, in deep fellowship was sometimes uncomfortable. They knew that discomfort is not the same thing as pain. They may have known from experience that discomfort may somehow be essential to fellowship, to growing together.

As if loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength is hard enough, we also have to love our neighbor as ourselves? We have to embrace discomfort? When I fail at loving God, only God and I know that I failed. The relationship is not even and not reciprocal—I get eternal love and hope from God and God gets my best (and worst) attempts. But with my neighbor, with you, it is even and it is reciprocal. Not only do I have to love her and him and you and you and you, but I also have to love myself, which is never an easy task either. If I don’t always love myself, how am I supposed to know how to love you? If you don’t especially like me, how do you overcome that and love me? What if I love you and you don’t love me back? What if you love me and I don’t particularly love me? What if, what if, what if? That is uncomfortable. Fellowship can be terribly uncomfortable. Now that we get down to it, Jesus’s commandment is uncomfortable.

So, why should we willingly do something that could be uncomfortable? Most of the time, fellowship with others, in communities and congregations, feels wonderful and life-giving. Sometimes it feels awkward and weird and we hide in the ways that make us feel easily safe. So, why should we risk it? Why do we attempt to bind ourselves in fellowship? Why do we do this?

I’m not sure I know.

And that is the wisdom of Congregationalism, I think. It is not for me to know. It is not for you to know why. It is not for any of us to know exactly why, just that it is essential and that God asks us to do it. That discomfort is not pain, even if we don’t like it. And we know this, not because another person in a position of power told us, but because Jesus tells us that this is what God wants from us. The wisdom of Congregationalism is that we are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head. We are not united under a bishop or a pope or a regulated structure, but under God through Jesus.

And this can be scary, but the hope of Congregationalism is that we take the risk together. We try it together. We come together for and in communion, united in the following of God through Jesus. We take the risk because we take the risk together. We bind ourselves together in fellowship because the discomfort may yield unexpected and exciting results. Because occasional discomfort is essential to fellowship. We live into the occasional awkwardness and dislike because we desire to be loved and desire to love back. We do this because we do it together.

May it be so. Amen.