The Right Hand of Fellowship

August 27, 2023

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Passage: Galatians 2:1-10
Service Type:

The flag of my home state, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, features a blue field with a circle in the center. In that circle, two men are seen standing and shaking hands. Around the circumference of that circle are the words of the state motto, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

A close inspection of those two men reveals something of significance about the Commonwealth. One is dressed in frontier buckskin, the other in sophisticated coattails. One is straight out of the mountains, a Daniel Boone character; the other is on his way to a ball, a courthouse, or even the Kentucky Derby. These two represent separate population groups that have shaped the community and culture of the state.

Today, we might say they represent the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and the Bluegrass of central Kentucky. They were chosen because they come from different places, engage in different business pursuits, and express different convictions about life and community. They find their place on the flag precisely because they are very different.

But there they are: shaking hands in a sign of common covenant. They agree to work together toward common ends. They are the symbol of unity when it would be so easy to be divided.

This is the image we have of the two great influential leaders of early Christianity, Simon Peter the companion of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus the convert to Jesus. Our text describes the day they also shook hands, not just as a common greeting but with a commitment to stand together for the same thing: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and all that flows from that seminal event.

They also were forging a commonwealth of faith and practice. They were saying to each other: I greet you. I welcome you. I honor you. I recognize Christ in you. I support you. I forgive you. I affirm you. I learn from you. I walk with you.

This is what we need today. I speak today about the ninth practice of a gospel people, the right hand of fellowship. It is the first and the last of Christian gestures, the alpha and the omega of Christian rituals, the beginning and the end of Christian community, the message from God’s people to the rest of the world.

It is the right hand of fellowship.


This Letter to the Galatians was written by Paul the Apostle to the churches in Galatia, in what today we call Turkey. Paul had started many of these churches, demonstrating his skill as a grass roots organizer. He wrote this letter to defend himself against his critics and to explain himself to his supporters.

Paul’s critics charged that he had changed the gospel, had forgotten the essence of the gospel, had fashioned a new message other than the one described by the Hebrew Bible and embodied by the life of Jesus.

At its core, the issue was how a person lives as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, as a person of the kingdom of God. The initial wing of the Jesus movement was all Jewish. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jews. His holy book was Jewish. His language was Jewish (either Hebrew or Aramaic). His frame of reference, we say today, was Jewish. And his call went out to other Jews, “Follow me.”

So far, so good. But when other people wanted to join up with Jesus, there was a dilemma. Could a non-Jew be a Jewish follower? Some said, Yes: but first they must become a Jew. This meant, circumcision for the men and, for everyone, embracing the many laws of Judaism: when to rest and what to eat, what to wear and where to go, what to believe and how to act. You must become a few, first, before becoming a Christian.

Others (like Paul) said: No, you don’t have to become a Jew, or keep the law, or keep a kosher kitchen, or circumcise your men, or attend the synagogue. If you have Christ, you have all you need. You can remain a Gentile, a Greek, a Roman, even a barbarian and still be a believer.

This was the prime disagreement of the first century Christians. This was the first great controversy of the Christian movement. This was a crisis of faith and practice.

Today, it sounds almost silly, and this has been true of many controversies of the church. Here is one of my own memory. I was raised in a devout Baptist home, among many other Baptist people. All around us there were other Christians, especially Churches of Christ, mostly non-instrumental. On the fringe of our town was a small Catholic church.

As a teenager, full of religious fervor, I spent many hours disputing with Church of Christ kids on the great issue of baptism. They quoted Acts 2:38 and insisted that baptism by immersion was essential to salvation. I quoted Ephesians 2:8-9 and insisted with equal fervor neither baptism nor any other religious ritual was necessary to salvation. Later, of course, I came to understand that Baptist people and Church of Christ people came out of the same protestant, revivalistic womb, that indeed we are cousins in the household of God, and fellow pilgrims on the gospel way. Instead of criticizing and condemning each other, we should have learned a lesson from our state flag; we should have extended the right hand of fellowship as an act of recognition, hospitality, and endorsement.

That is what Paul and Simon Peter did, as described in both Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 and here in Galatians chapter 2. They recognized in each other the love of God and the grace of Jesus and the fruit of the Spirit. They exercised that most basic of all Christian practices, the right hand of fellowship: I see you, I honor you, I welcome you, I endorse you, I hear you, I learn from you, I see in you the spirit and way of Jesus.


Two things happened yesterday that I hope caught your attention. They remind of us our need to be a church of the open hand, a congregation of gospel handshake, a people of welcome and hospitality.

In Washington DC, thousands of people gathered on the national mall to remember the famous March of Washington, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As far as the eye could see that day in 1963, August 28, on both sides of the famous reflecting pool, stretching out from the Lincoln Memorial, people gathered to sing, pray, eat, listen, and agitate for the basic freedoms promised by our national ideals.

Later, we learned something that happened on the podium. Mahalia Jackson, after singing a song requested by King (“I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned”), said to King as he stood to speak, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” He did, and forever and a day, Americans will consider that speech one of the greatest in the national history.

Yesterday, national leaders gathered to remember that great day, sixty years after it happened.

But 700 miles down the coast, another drama was playing out. A young white man, living with his parents, took a pistol and an assault rifle into a Dollar General store. It was shortly after noon. He picked out three black people and shot them dead. Then he shot himself. It had all the earmarks that have become so common. Guns. Racial hatred. Youth. Isolation. Social media rants. In all these ways, it reminds us of the prayer meeting attack in Mother Immanuel AME Church in Charleston SC eight years ago.

These two events represent the best and the worst of the United States. They illustrate how we can come together and how we can fall apart. They remind us of our longing for the healing power of justice and peace, and also the sickness unto death that percolates through our culture.

We are living in a time of great stress. Trauma is the dominant word of the day. Violence, especially gun violence, still shocks us all. Animosity towards particular groups of people pervades our society: against racial groups, immigrant groups, religious groups, ideological groups, gender groups. I am astounded at the vicious attacks on transgender people. This is but the latest group to become the target of the hatred that rests in the human soul.

To everyone of these groups of people, Jesus says, “Come unto me and I will give you rest. Come unto me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Coe unto me, all you refugees, and I will receive you, I will extend the right hand of fellowship, and I will give you rest.  Come unto me, all you transgender people and I will give you rest. Come unto me, all you homeless or addicted or hungry people I will receive you, embrace you, welcome you, and honor you. Come unto me, all you liberals and conservatives, all you Democrats and Republicans, all you Catholics and Baptists, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.

We live in troubled times. Politics divides us. Religion disgusts us. Economics disenfranchises us. We need something to pull us together. We need a place of safety and welcome. We need something to make us one nation under God. We need this right hand of fellowship. We need to extend our hands, our heads, and our hearts and say, I see you. I honor you. I welcome you. I celebrate you. I receive you into my church, my family, my circle of friends. I see in you the face of Jesus. You are my brother, my sister. You are, like me, standing in the need of prayer, in the need of grace, and friendship, and welcome.

A few weeks ago, I put out a call for front porch greeters for our church. You may think this is a small thing, a mundane thing, an inconsequential thing. Francisco volunteered to organize and lead this effort. We need people to stand on our porch and welcome all who come. The first act of Christian discipleship is the righthand of fellowship. It is not baptism or the supper or the invitation. It is this: I see you. I recognize in you the love of God. God loves you and so do I.

Some of you have volunteered to take your turn on the front porch. More of you need to do this. Take a Sunday or two. Greet everyone with a smile and the righthand of fellowship.

When you extend your hand you say, this is your place, this is a safe place, this is a gospel place. This is a place where I can be myself, and you can be yourself, and together, we can be the people God’s wants us to be.




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