Did you hear? Back in May, 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. His winning word? Koinonia! Koinonia wins!
Initially, I thought I’d share with you some of the other words spelled and missed in the final rounds of the spelling bee. Wouldn’t that be great in an intro? Unfortunately, the only word from the list I can pronounce is koinonia. So, there you go. Koinonia wins!
Koinonia. It’s a Greek word that means “community.” It’s the word used in Acts 2 that describes the church at its inception, the passage the children and I just looked at.
I find the description of intentional community fascinating. All those people living together, getting along, staying in a general state of awe because of all the wonders and signs being birthed out of their togetherness? It sounds like magic, doesn’t it?
Maybe it was growing up as an only child. Large groups of people living together did seem magical to me. I loved all those TV shows with lots of children in them….The Brady Bunch, Eight Is Enough, The Facts of Life, The Waltons. So much love and togetherness. The adults were always so wise. And all conflicts were resolved in under an hour! Magical.
It was in talking with one of my Catholic friends–the oldest of ten children–that I began to understand just how complicated having all those children in one family could be. Binge-watching the Waltons a few years back, I noticed that in the first season, the children didn’t yet have strongly-defined individual characters. In fact, for most of the season, they all kind of ran around in a pack.
That’s how I envisioned large families…as a pack of people running around, everyone having a similar personality.
Talking with my friend, though, hearing about her relationship with each of her siblings, of just how different from each other they were, it hit me. They’re, like, individual, complete, autonomous human beings, each with his or her unique personality! And all those diverse people were trying to live together under one roof.
Which begged the question: How did such a large number of completely unique people live together? And more important, How did they not kill each other in the process?
Those questions become even more pointed when considering communities of people who aren’t related. With family, at least you have that blood-relation thing going on. But in church? Yikes. How do we as a group of completely unique individuals live together? And how do we not kill each other in the process?
Living in community is hard. And with the advent of all things personal–i-thises and i-thats…I don’t see it getting easier. Back in the day, people had to figure out how to live together in communities. It was a matter of survival. These days? We can get by just fine without anyone’s help, especially those of us living in the middle class. If we can meet all our own needs, why bother with trying to live in community with others?
The hardest part of community, I think, is compromise. If we live in community, we have to give up some of our autonomy. If we don’t do that, we’re just a bunch of individuals, each clamoring to get our own way. Of course, wanting to get our own way is human nature. And it’s certainly part of our current American cultural ethos.
Living in community is counter-cultural. What we do here each week is counter-cultural. Choosing to live in community, to work together for the common good, to act each other into wellbeing…That happens in very few other places in our culture these days. Maybe 12 steps groups.
So why do it? Why choose to be part of a community? Why choose to rein in some of our autonomy for the sake of a larger group of people, some of whom–let me just say it–we don’t really like? The rate at which people are opting out of organized religion continues to skyrocket. We don’t have to do this. We can get by just fine without doing this. So why do it?
We do it because, as it’s described in the Acts 2 passage, something wondrous and awe-inspiring happens when we are together. There’s something about choosing to live our lives together, there’s something about intentionally working at being community, there’s something about koinonia, k-o-i-n-o-n-i-a, koinonia that helps us encounter the divine.
As wondrous and awe-inspiring as the passage in Acts 2 sounds, that era of good feeling didn’t last long. Later in Acts, sharp tensions between Paul and Peter lead to a heated church business meeting. Of course. And in nearly every one of Paul’s letters included in the New Testament, we see over and over just how conflicted the new church communities were. The honeymoon was great while it lasted.
But honeymoons don’t last forever. At some point, you have to consciously decide to commit to the marriage…even after you’ve seen what each other looks like in the morning. Yeah…relationships that work when things are all sweetness and light…that feels really good. But the real joy comes when we’re able to love each other and help each other and be together in covenant relationship even after we’ve seen each other’s less-than-pretty sides.
But sometimes, when we show our less-than-pretty-sides, we need help working things through. Which is where passages like Paul’s words from Ephesians come in.
I have—maybe you can relate—I’ve spent a lot of my life being mad at the Apostle Paul. Theologically, he and I often are in different places. And all those statements about women? Yeah. I boycotted Paul’s epistles for the better part of a decade after seminary.
The longer I pastor, though, the more I’m drawn to Paul. You read through many of his letters and you see that most of them can be boiled down to this: “Be nice to each other!” Twenty years into my own work of ministry, I hear in Paul’s letters frustration, yes, but a frustration born out of a pastor’s deep love for his people.
Our theme this summer is radical hospitality. We’ve talked about extending hospitality to others outside this community. Last week in Sunday School we talked about extending hospitality to ourselves.
Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus serve as a primer on how to extend hospitality to each other within the community. Good words to guide us as we get me installed this afternoon.
As our honeymoon is winding down here at FCUCC, as we begin settling into the hard–and joyous–everyday work of being community, as we seek to extend hospitality to each other, hear again these words of Paul:
Let us then be children no longer, tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine, or by human trickery or crafty, deceitful schemes. Rather, let us speak the truth in love, and grow to the full maturity of Christ, the head. Through Christ, the whole body grows. With the proper functioning of each member, firmly joined together by each supporting ligament, the body builds itself up in love.
Therefore, let’s have no more lies. Speak truthfully to each other, for we are all members of one body. When you get angry, don’t let it become a sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger, or you will give an opening to evil.
You who have been stealing, stop stealing. Go to work. Do something useful with your hands, so you can have something to share with the needy. Be on your guard against foul talk. Say only what will build others up at that moment. Say only what will give grace to your listeners. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Get rid of all bitterness, all rage and anger, all harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. Try, then, to imitate God as beloved children. Walk in love as Christ loved us, and offered himself in sacrifice to God for us, a gift of pleasing fragrance.
So, here’s my erudite commentary on the passage: Yeah. Do that.
Or do what Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber suggests to new members when they join the church she pastors in Colorado. She assures them that the church “community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I [as pastor] will say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.”
Oh yes. Honeymoons are euphoric…and oh so much fun. It is wonderful to bask in that euphoria for a time. And parties like the one this afternoon are important, and necessary. But what happens AFTER the party, after the bags from the honeymoon trip have been unpacked is even more crucial and, in the end, more rewarding.
If we continue extending hospitality to each other, if we continue to working hard at building this community, if we continue acting each other into wellbeing and—together—acting the world into wellbeing…If we do these things, I feel certain that, once again, here at First Congregational, koinonia, k-o-i-n-o-n-i-a, koinonia will win. Koinonia wins!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018