Koinoinia. When I chose this year’s theme—A Year of Koinonia—here’s what I imagined. I imagined that we’d all learn about the Koinonia community started by Clarence Jordan in south Georgia and, so inspired by the story of people living Christian community the way they did in the Bible, we’d naturally dive more deeply into doing community here. I imagined we’d recommit ourselves to being a true community of Christ here in this place and start imaging together how we might live out the Gospel even more boldly.
But then I read the history of Koinonia Farm. As committed as Clarence Jordan and the rest of the Koinonians were to living in true community—a community where they made decisions together and worshiped together and lived out the Gospel together—they never really achieved it. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Those Koinonians met…and met and met… They prayed together and made decisions together and tried as best they could to live out the Gospel, but there seemed always to be some kind of dissension in the group, some kind of conflict among the members. The turn-over rate was high.
It’s true that the persecution Koinonia experienced for its views of racial equality put undue stress on the community. But I suspect that the difficulties of living in community are inherent to the beast. Trying to get people on the same page with ideas, with work, with money, with relationships, with theology? That’s not easy. Not even Jesus’ disciples achieved that, and there were only 12 of them…and they were in community with Jesus!
In Acts 2 you read that wonderful passage about the first Christian community—“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:43-46) Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Don’t you want to be part of something like that? Yet, just three chapters later you encounter a couple—Ananias and Saphira—who betray the community. They end up dead on the temple steps. Can you imagine if every person whose commitment to the community waned dropped dead in the narthex? We’d have one full narthex.
Let’s face it, Christian community isn’t easy. In fact, learning about the history of Koinonia, reflecting on the valiant—and failed—attempts of others living in community…I’ve begun to wonder if koinonia is such a good theme for us.
For one thing, we’re not literally living in community. We’ve probably got 5 or 6 counties represented here this morning. We don’t work together. We’re not raising our children together. Except for the occasional potluck and Lunch Bunch gatherings, we don’t share meals together. Except for tithes and offerings, we don’t share a common purse. I mean, really. What does this koinonia idea have to do with us, we who are scattered across the metro area, we who work in different places, we who do well to gather together four hours a month?
UCC pastor Lillian Daniel caused quite a stir a couple of months ago with a piece she wrote about people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I’d like to share it with you. Here is “Spiritual but not Religious? Don’t bore me.”
Rev. Daniel writes: On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
The trouble with UCC ministers is that you never know what they’re really thinking!
I know of at least one person who unsubscribed to the UCC devotions when this devotion was published. She found Rev. Daniel’s tone harsh and unwelcoming and just the slightest bit defensive. At first, I did, too. If we’re out to evangelize the spiritual-but-not-religious folks, that is, if we’re trying to convince them of the benefits of Christian community, I don’t think calling them self-absorbed and boring and sending them to the far side of the plane when the turbulence hits is going to get us very far.
But now that I’ve thought about it some, I kind of get what Rev. Daniel is saying. A faith that is nurtured, tested, and honed in community…that’s a faith that can stand just about any circumstance. Can we encounter God outside of a community of faith? Of course, we can! Happens all the time! But how much deeper and richer and more resilient those encounters with the Holy are when they happen in and are reflected on in community.
One of the things I love—love—about this place, is that there is no such thing as “group think.” Oh, everyone in the group does think, but there’s no telling where people’s thinking will lead them. Some of us have high Christologies, some of us have low Christologies (and some of us are Googling “christology” right now to see what the word means). Some of us can quote the Apostles’ Creed by memory, others of us look at any creed with suspicion, (and some of us wonder why we’re debating over a rock group in church). Some of us worship best with drums and electric guitars, some of us worship best with hymns and piano (and some of us wonder why the preacher doesn’t just preach for the whole hour).
I confess…a little bit of group think on occasion might be nice. When we all come from different places on any given issue, it takes a lot of time to talk things through, to listen things through, to pray things through, and to come to consensus. We’d certainly get things done more quickly and efficiently if we were all on the same page all the time…
…but how would we ever grow? If everyone thinks like you and believes like you and worships like you and votes like you, how are you ever going to test your own thoughts and beliefs and practices? As one person said in Sunday School a couple of weeks ago, “I love engaging someone who’s passionately opposed to me…that’s how I learn! That’s how I grow!”
As I do on occasion, I’m going to invite you all to finish today’s sermon. I’d invite you to respond to this question: How has being part of this community helped your thoughts and beliefs and practices to grow? How has being part of this community helped your faith to deepen? How has being part of this community shaped who you are as a person faith and as a human being? [Responses]
Hmmm…So maybe we should continue with this Koinonia theme, huh?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011