Summary: What is Christian fellowship? why is it important? How do we do it?
I’ve never run a marathon, which probably doesn’t surprise most of you. Nor have I ever competed in a triathlon (although I do own an Ironman Triathlon wristwatch, which is almost the same thing). But what you may not know is that in high school, I was a runner. I lettered in cross-country, and my senior year I was captain of the cross-country team. In fact, but as recently as three years ago, I was regularly competing in 5K and even 10K races, and two years ago in 1999 I ran the Celebrate Westlake five-mile race, without stopping or walking. I’ll admit, I wasn’t putting a lot of pressure on the leaders, but still, I ran the whole race. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll do it again this year. The race is Sept. 8th, so if I do, you may need to start looking for another pastor on Sept. 9th.
Why do I tell you all this? Just so you’ll understand that I know a little bit about long-distance running. Not how to do it well, necessarily, but what it feels like. How important it is to pace yourself, and not get overconfident. What it’s like to be running through the woods on a crisp, clear Fall day, feeling strong and healthy and glad to be alive and everything so beautiful. And how it feels when it’s cold and windy, and your legs get rubbery and your stomach starts to cramp, and your lungs feel like they’re on fire, and your feet hurt, and you can’t remember why you ever wanted to do this in the first place, and wouldn’t it feel good just to stop. When you’re so drained and exhausted, that the urge to quit, or even just rest, becomes overwhelming, and the only thing keeping you going is just pure gut-determination and the anticipation of how it’s going to feel to cross the finish line. Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about.
I find it interesting that when the New Testament chooses a physical activity to use as a metaphor for the Christian life, it’s usually running. Here are just a few examples:
"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace." – Acts 20:24 (NIV)
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." – Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
– 2 Timothy 4:7 (NIV)
Why is running such a powerful picture of the Christian life? Several reasons come to mind. First of all, it emphasizes the continuous, lifelong nature of discipleship. When Paul wrote about "finishing the race" in Second Timothy, he was near the end of his life and he knew it. He had been following Christ, and laboring for the gospel, for over thirty years. Ever since his conversion on the road to Damascus, he had been teaching, and preaching, and praying, and writing, and suffering. Many times he was imprisoned; he was beaten, whipped, starved, exposed to the elements, even stoned. He traveled all over the ancient world planting and building churches, at a time when travel was both difficult and dangerous. He experienced great joys and also devastating disappointments. But he kept going, because he expected nothing else. He know that this was no jog in the park. This was no hundred-yard dash. This was a marathon with no finish line.
I think the Bible also uses running as a metaphor for the Christian life because it’s such a solitary activity. No one else can run the race for you. When that gun goes off, it’s just you and the road. In the same way, no one else can trust God for you. No one else can believe for you. No one else can follow Christ for you. Every person has to do it themselves. Each one of us is responsible; each one of us is accountable to God for our own faith; for our own faithfulness, and obedience, and devotion. Just like a runner has to choose to take each step, so we have to choose every day if we’re going to follow Christ or not. No one else can make that choice for us.
What does all this have to do with fellowship? Just this: Christian fellowship is how we equip, and strengthen, and encourage each other so that we can run well and finish the race. Fellowship is all the things we do and say to assist one another in living for Christ. Think about the Boston and New York Marathons. You’ve watched those on television. What do you see besides runners and race officials? You see aid stations where volunteers pass out cups of cold water. You see emergency medical technicians ready to give assistance to those overcome by heat or exhaustion. But most of all, you see hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the route. They’re waving, and cheering, and shouting out encouragement. "You can make it!" "Don’t give up!" "Keep going!" "You’re almost there!"