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Forming a Community of the Spirit: Hospitality, Fellowship, and Nurture, Part 1

In his short story, “The Three Hermits,” Leo Tolstoy tells about a bishop on a pilgrimage on a ship with other pilgrims.13 At one of the ports where they docked on their journey, the bishop overheard some sailors describing three hermits who lived on a deserted island nearby and who were trying to live for God. When the bishop heard this he insisted that the sailors take him there so the bishop could meet them and teach them a little about the faith. When he arrived on the island, the hermits warmly greeted the bishop. They told him of their simple lives of faith and service to each other and recited their simple prayer for the bishop.

The bishop insisted on teaching them more about the faith and also required them to learn the Lord’s Prayer. All day he tried reciting it to them and having them say it back. It was a difficult chore, for all three hermits were uneducated men. Finally, at the end of the day, the bishop thought they had learned to pray and had learned the rudiments of the faith. The sailors then took him back to his ship.

Late that night sailors on the ship in which the bishop and pilgrims were traveling awoke the bishop to tell him of a strange light approaching the ship. The bishop and the pilgrims gathered to watch the light. As it approached it became clear that the light was illuminating the three hermits walking on the water toward the boat. All on the ship were astounded. When they arrived, they shouted to the bishop to teach them again the Lord’s Prayer for they had forgotten it after he had left. Here is what the bishop said: “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” And the bishop bowed low before the old men; and they turned and went back across the sea.14

Spirit-Enabled Fellowship

Gordon Atkinson described his first experience of a Quaker meeting in which worship consisted of sixty minutes of silence, interrupted only by different ones who would rise to speak briefly. He first experienced anxiety when someone would speak, but noticed the Quakers gave each person their attention until he or she was finished; then they would return to thoughtful meditation. He decided at the second meeting he attended that he could relax and participate in the silence and sense of community.

When someone speaks at a Quaker meeting, that person has no power to change the meeting or the rules or the nature of the community. If the gathered people sense the presence of the Spirit in the speaker’s words, there are tried and ancient methods for testing that. But no one feels threatened. Everyone is free to put his or her energy into hearing the person. Quakers are accustomed to seeking the wisdom of God in the words of a brother or sister.15

Such thoughtful and careful attention to each other as all have a chance to speak or participate is at the very heart of Spirit-enabled fellowship.

Testimony time has traditionally been a distinctive of Pentecostal worship. People have been given a chance in worship to share prayer requests, answered prayers, deep hurts and longings, concern for loved ones. During this time in worship the operation of the spiritual gifts would sometimes occur and many would be blessed. All might feel a particular closeness after the experience. Mark J. Cartledge calls testimony “… the integrating center of Pentecostal and charismatic epistemology.”16

It is through finding a connection with both the biblical story and personal stories of faith that members of a believing community become connected with one another. Hearing members relate their experiences with the biblical stories and their own encounters with God can help others in the community to find their own connections with both the Bible and the Spirit. Knowing the stories creates a bond of fellowship with God and with others enabled by the Spirit. Even mainline churches seem to be recognizing the value of testimony.17

In his commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, Walter Brueggemann notes the power of speech in the stories in the Samuel narratives:

People talk to one another, and their talking matters. The playful possibility of speech is at work in the public process of Israel. People listen and are changed by such speech, and God is drawn deeply into the conversation. That is how Israel discerns what has happened in its memory and in its life.18

Pentecostal people can learn to talk to each other, to discern the Spirit’s voice in each other’s stories. They can also learn to appreciate the power of the story to make a difference in their lives.

The Bible is a collection of stories—testimonies—about God’s saving deeds. It is God’s intention that “God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod 9:16) by God’s people through testimony. God’s name is best proclaimed in telling the stories of God’s saving deeds in human history (Ps 78:1–8ff.). The ultimate divine saving deed is that of Jesus Christ as expressed in the gospel story. It is in that story—THE story—that believers can find a reference point for their little lives—THE story becomes MY story. Here is how Jurgen Moltmann put it:

The proclamation of the gospel always belongs within a community, for every language lives in a community or creates one … The fellowship which corresponds to the gospel in its original interpretation is the messianic community … It is a “story-telling fellowship,” which continually wins its own freedom from the stories and myths of the society in which it lives, from the present realization of this story of Christ.19

Many works have been published proving that humans learn in the form of stories. In one such work, the writer makes the point that people understand life events only as they are able to attach those events to a story. He claims that it is the only way people make sense of their world.20 Since a well-told story is powerful and influential, biblical writers used stories to persuade God’s people to be faithful and to obey God. Stories of God’s saving deeds in times of distress for the faith community became important for the faithful person to hear. Hearing these stories made it possible for individual believers to place their lives in God’s hands.21

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2012

About the Author: Steven M. Fettke, M.Div. (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Th.M., D.Min. (Columbia Theological Seminary), is Professor of Religion at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He was awarded the Delta Alpha Distinguished Educator Award by the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education in 2009. He is the author of Messages to a Nation in Crisis: An Introduction to the Prophecy of Jeremiah (1982).

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