“More Than Coffee Hour: Koinonia Fellowship in Christian Community”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
5 January, 2020
Week 1: Koinonia-Cultivating the Holy Habit of Fellowship
Genesis 18:1-8
Acts 2:42-47

Today’s readings paint somewhat foreign pictures of human life as most of us know it.  In our culture, a “me-first” mentality is promoted – from endless messages urging us to “do what makes you happy”, to the prevalence of selfies, to the ways we’re encouraged to make decisions that reflect our own interests before or above those of others.  Because, you know, they’re probably not going to be thinking of you – or so the impoverished reasoning goes.  The knock-on effects of individualism are being seen and felt in the fact that many of us barely know our neighbors even after we’ve lived in the same neighborhood for years.  There is diminishing confidence in others’ trustworthiness and goodness among people of the same community, even in our churches.  And, feelings of social isolation and loneliness continue to rise, as more and more people are feeling abandoned – both by “the system” as well as by their own families and communities in which they live.

But as our lessons from Genesis and Acts both demonstrate, Biblical teaching – while valuing the individual – consistently urges us to prioritize God and others.  “Me-first” doesn’t reflect Christian values: according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus taught that in God’s realm, many of the first in this world will discover themselves to be last, and the last will be first.[1]  Furthermore, he said, the two greatest commandments are:  1) to love God with every fiber of our being, and 2) to love our neighbor as ourselves.[2]

God did not design humankind to live our lives in isolation or self-dependent exclusivity – this is a message both of our Scripture lessons convey this morning.  We are created for communion, for sacred community.

In our first vignette, we heard about how Abraham responded when he noticed three men standing not far from his home.  The author says that the Patriarch was sitting by an oak tree when he spotted the strangers, and he jumped up to greet them and invite them to share a meal with him.  Given the humility and warmth of his greeting, and how eager he was to serve them, one might suspect that Abraham hadn’t seen another soul for months or years.  But at the time this occurred, Abraham was a prosperous herdsman who had many people working for him.  He also had at least two wives (Sarah and Hagar), and a son (Ishmael).  He was surrounded by people.

As the story unfolds beyond the verses we heard, Abraham learns from the strangers that for he’ll be receiving an astonishing present for his 100th birthday: Sarah, his impossibly old wife, would be giving birth to a son whom they will call Isaac (which means “laughter” because Sarah laughed out loud at the idea that she should have a child at her age).  The elderly couple had been yearning for a child for decades, and now these visitors came to deliver a message that both asked them to believe the impossible (which turned out to be possible, because God was involved), and invited them into a deeper experience of full humanity than they had ever imagined.

What’s important to remember is that Abraham had no inkling about any of this when he greeted the random travelers.  Abraham was just a good, faithful man who was trying his best to live according to God’s desires and intentions, which included looking after the needs and interests of others.  He’d done it when his herdsmen quarreled with his nephew Lot’s herdsmen, and they two men realized they’d need to part ways.  Abraham, rather than taking a me-first attitude, allowed Lot to choose which bit of land he and his workers preferred.  Abraham settled for what appeared to all the world the less-desirable property.  But by doing so, he discovered how God was faithful to provide everything his family needed and more, even in unfavorable circumstances.

He grew in his faith and confidence in the divine covenant he had with God, who had promised he would one day be the father of a great nation.  Though, by the time of today’s scene, much time had passed and it wasn’t clear how that was going to happen.  Abraham was simply open to divine mystery, and open to all the possible ways that God might appear to him and bless him in life, all the ways that he might worship and serve God by serving those who appeared to him as neighbors.  And, as we read – though we may not have heard it or noticed it clearly – “God appeared to Abrahamat the oaks of Mamre” that day.[3]  The story is instructive, especially to the Christian community: the author of Hebrews in the New Testament advises, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[4]

Andrei Rublev, painting in the early 1400s, created his icon called “The Trinity” (also called “The Hospitality of Abraham”) based on this story.  In this depiction, the Holy Trinity represents the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love, and humility.[5]  To Rublev, the three figures in the ancient Abrahamic story prefigured the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  You see, Christian theology is thoroughly rooted in the concept of community, of covenant, of mutuality of love and concern, of humility and servanthood.  Our fundamental Trinitarian concept of God is communal.  Embedded in all of it is the concept of sacred fellowship.

Across the past several months, we’ve examined and begun to work at cultivating the Holy Habits of Prayer, and Worship.  For the next two or three months, we’re going to be learning about, reflecting on, and practicing deeper ways of nurturing the Holy Habit of Fellowship.

When I mentioned that our next Holy Habit study would be on Fellowship, someone responded, “We’re going to be spending months focusing on coffee hour?!”  Fellowship is a word we may use too lightly in churches.

In our New Testament lesson from the Book of Acts, where it says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,”[6] the Greek word used is koinonia.  Fellowship, as we’ve come to understand it, conveys a more surface-level relationship that’s friendly, but doesn’t ask much of oneself or each other.  Like many words from foreign languages, there’s not a single English word that captures everything that the word koinonia does in Greek.  According to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament[7], koinoniaincorporates the concepts of fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, and intimacy.  It’s a sort of unity that’s born of mutuality and intimacy—a sort of community that is rare, but deeply yearned for in our world.  Just as it was in the early days of the church.  It’s the sort of community that creates space for “wonders and signs” to happen among people, strengthening their hope and confidence that God is real, and is active in their midst.  It’s the sort of mutual fellow-ness or fellow-ship that inspires a covenant-based group to do radical things.  Things the world, and certainly a “me-first” culture, would dismiss as foolish . . . but that the earliest Christians recognized as delivering a richness and quality of life they’d never known before.

As we heard, Luke reported that “all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”[8]  It’s hard to imagine such a lifestyle prevailing in most places today, isn’t it?  But that’s what we, the Church, are called and equipped to establish—including right here in Hollis.  A community where we recognize and share generously of our time and energy as well as our material resources, tending with compassion to the needs of everyone we can.   It’s not impossible!  Certainly to me, it seems less outrageous than a 90-year-old giving birth.  After all, I know that most of you here have experienced the joy of generosity.  You’ve discovered how good it feels to make a meaningful difference in someone else’s life, even – sometimes, especially – when your own circumstances are grim.  And especially when your active compassion, your demonstration of kinship with a fellow human being, your genuine fellow-ship with them, is motivated by a desire to worship God by honoring and serving your neighbor.  Even if that neighbor is a complete stranger.  Maybe, even when that neighbor is too well-known or familiar.  Especially if each of us chooses to rise above a natural inclination to withhold from others because we don’t wish to be taken advantage of, or we fear somehow that although we have enough at the moment, we won’t have enough if we share, or we’ll somehow be sacrificing control.

            Koinonia relationship, holy communal fellowship, dares to take that risk because that’s the sort of courageous, selfless love Jesus demonstrated.  If Jesus had adopted a “me-first” attitude, if he had worried about whether others would take advantage of him or take him for granted or keep asking him for more when they didn’t really need it, then we wouldn’t be here this morning, gathering around the communion table.  We wouldn’t be remembering his willingness to sacrifice everything, including pride and ownership of every sort, for the sake of demonstrating divine love, fidelity to covenant promises, holy unity, intimacy with the human experience, and the deepest sort of fellow-ing or fellow-ship.

And here is the mystery that Abraham was open to, and that Jesus perfected: that God appears to us in and through acts of koinonia solidarity and fellowship – if only we’re open to receiving and welcoming the other with the grace and humility with which Christ accepts and welcomes us.

The koinonia community described in Acts Chapter 2 seems to depict a sort of communal living: they shared a common pot.  Clearly, that’s not required in order to practice genuine Christian fellowship, or I suspect the Church would be significantly smaller today.  However, I do suspect that the hesitancy to share (not only financial resources, but also time, and emotion, and deeper personal experiences) is contributing to the lamentable decline of so many churches.  But, while koinonia fellowship doesn’t require everyone to live in a compound and deposit all their resources into a common pot, it’s about much more than chatting over coffee and cookies after worship.

It’s about modeling (or at least practicing, trying to get better ourselves at) the demonstrations of love Jesus extended to those around him, the love he extends to us – and calls us to extend to one another.  According to John’s Gospel, not long before he died, Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet.  And as he did, he said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[9]

In this community across the coming weeks, we’re going to be diving a little deeper into ways we can cultivate the Holy Habit that results in a deeper communion with God, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as well as with one another.  We’re going to be reflecting on the power of covenant, and trust, and vulnerability, especially as Scripture instructs us to understand these things as means to deepen our relationship with God and this world, our neighbors, and even our own personal lives.  We’ll think about how practices like hospitality, identifying and sharing our spiritual gifts, acceptance, encouragement, sharing, and service all contribute to feeding our deepest hungers – and help us to feed others, too.  I’m looking forward to what we’ll discover together!  And, I’m confident that as we cultivate the Holy Habit of Fellowship, as we open ourselves to the mystery of sacred relationship and communion, God will appear to us near the oaks (and maples) of Monument Square.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 19:30

[2] Matthew 22:37-39

[3] Genesis 18:1

[4] Hebrews 13:2

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(Andrei_Rublev)

[6] Acts 2:43

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Henry_Thayer

[8] Acts 2:42-45

[9] John 13:34-35

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC