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Occasional Letters: There's No Place Like Home

D Newell, Glasgow

Some years ago, when I was staying with friends, the dinner table conversation turned to the subject of old age. I think I must have been speculating about my earthly future, because a younger member of the family suddenly piped up, "Don't worry about getting old, Uncle David – you can come and live with us. You won't have to move into an Old Fools' Home." The offer was well meant, even if the implication was unflattering. But, whatever lies ahead, all believers right now need a secure spiritual home where they can be encouraged, educated and exercised in the things of God. And that spiritual home is the local assembly. Scripture knows nothing else. Home, of course, is the environment where we feel most relaxed, and yet, at the same time, fully responsible to work for the mutual good. There's always plenty of work to be done in a home. A Bible word combining these ideas is "fellowship" (Acts 2.42).

Fellowship is sometimes misunderstood. To many it means enjoying social intercourse with other believers, and Christian companionship should indeed lift the spirits. The word, however, carries the idea of 'having in common', or 'sharing'. Those with a common Saviour will naturally relish one another's company, but they will also want to labour together for His glory. Fellowship is active. Luke described a day in the life of Peter, James and John, who ran a fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. When the Saviour's great miracle filled Peter's net to bursting, he instinctively signalled to his colleagues for help: "They beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink" (Lk 5.7). "Partners" translates a word related to "fellowship", suggesting that Christian fellowship, like a business partnership, involves hard work and mutual aid. Let's tease out some of the parallels.

Like the partnership of those Jewish fishermen, assembly fellowship requires a clear, united aim. It was no use Peter and John turning up determined to catch fish if all James wanted to do was sunbathe on the boat deck. When Paul wrote to an assembly where, beneath the surface calm, there were disturbing signs of division, he particularly emphasised the importance of unity: "Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Phil 2.2). The early disciples gathered "with one accord" (Acts 1.14; 2.1, 46; 5.12), consciously united in submission to the Lordship of Christ. A local church is not controlled by the strongest personality, or the rule of the majority, but by the Saviour Himself. It is as we bow to His Word – the only way we can know His will – that we walk in step with Him, and with one another, in joyfully productive harmony. After all, it is in His name that we gather (Mt 18.20). The things of God therefore must have first place in the assembly of God. We should go to the prayer meeting to pray (not to engage in gossip), and to the Bible teaching meeting with an appetite to learn from the Word.

Second, a partnership involves regular meeting together. How could James and John conduct the business if Peter insisted on staying at home? Because every believer in the local assembly is responsible to attend all the gatherings (Heb 10.25), the timetable of our lives has to be so organised that we keep ourselves free to meet with the saints. Further, punctuality is important. It has been said that a spiritual atmosphere is the hardest thing in the world to create, and the easiest to destroy. One sure way of destroying it is to arrive at the gatherings late and noisily. Since we shall all be caught up in the air on time at the Lord's return (1 Thess 4.13-18), it is proper that we make the effort to meet on time down here. When you think about it, it is only basic courtesy.

Then there is mutual concern. If James fell ill, Peter and John would be deeply troubled, knowing that the absence of one partner compromised the whole enterprise. In a local church, which is body-like in its character (1 Cor 12.27), each member has a necessary place, and each is organically joined to the others. Thus, "whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it" (v 26), for we are to be "kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love" (Rom 12.10). Paul's letter to the Philippians reveals how grieved that assembly was to hear their dear brother Epaphroditus had been seriously ill (Phil 2.26). When the Lord's people are persecuted or distressed, they instinctively rally together for mutual support and encouragement (Acts 4.23). Each assembly should be a home where heavenly tenderness is manifested on earth.

Of course, any business demands hard work, and the fishing trade is no exception. There are nets to mend, boats to repair, long nights at sea, muscular effort hauling in those loaded nets. A fishing boat has no room for passengers. Similarly, in the local assembly all are to be involved in the work of God. Stephanas and his family provide a good model, for they conspicuously "addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints" (1 Cor 16.15). Mind you, not all have the same function, for God sovereignly equips His people in different ways. The Bible makes clear, for instance, that public testimony (vocal prayer and preaching) is entrusted to the men, not to the women; nonetheless, everyone can engage in silent prayer. There's always something you can do. If you can't preach, you can give out tracts, and if you can't give out tracts you can pray for those who do. Perhaps even more vital than ability is reliability. The Hebrew writer praises some of the early believers for their "work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints [in the past], and do minister [in the present]" (Heb 6.10). What they had started, they were faithfully continuing. It's a good test to ask ourselves what we bring to our assembly gatherings. Am I a help to the other believers, or am I a hindrance? One of the loveliest commendations spoken by the Lord Jesus on earth was about a woman who "hath done what she could" (Mk 14.8). May that be true of each of us in our local church.

A business also calls for sacrificial investment. If a new fishing boat was needed, then Peter, James and John would have to bear the expense. Membership of a local assembly includes, for example, an obligation to share in the running costs of the building where the saints meet. Should a believer fall into poverty, the others might well feel a responsibility to provide material aid. In the New Testament we read about an emergency which stimulated remarkable sacrificial giving, so that Christians living in Greece saved up to send help to poor saints in Judaea (1 Cor 16.1-2; Acts 11.29). How wonderfully the love of Christ breaks down national barriers!

Finally, Peter, James and John would enjoy the profits of their work. After the toil came a share in the reward. Assembly fellowship brings countless blessings down here, and promises more in the future. The joy the Psalmist felt when in Jerusalem, God's dwelling place (Ps 48.1-2), illustrates the New Testament believer's delight in recognising that each assembly, however feeble, is God's house (1 Tim 3.15), where He condescends to make His home. Can there be any greater privilege? A tiny company of saints may not mean much in the eyes of the world, but it is precious in the sight of Heaven. If we remember how much God has blessed us, we shall seek to continue steadfastly (Acts 2.42), in fellowship with the local assembly where He has placed us. It is, we must not forget, our spiritual home – and there's no place like home.

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