Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 1st February 2009/Sacrament of Holy Communion
"Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories." It's at the heart of what we do. It's so simple; yet so radical and life-changing. Gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories. We know this how earliest Christians worshipped and what they did when they gathered. One of the most concise descriptions of what happened when believers met together is found here in Acts 2, in the picture Luke paints of believers in Jerusalem on Pentecost.
It's quite simple: "All who believed were together (v.44)." Believers gathered. Not separated, not apart, with no fear of "organized religion," to worry about, and no desire to be spiritual alone, but to be faithful together. From the very beginning, believers in Jesus gathered together in small groups, in what we could call "circles of trust." Because the level of trust was high, they "had all things in common." Buried behind the English word "common" is the Greek word, koina, common. It's derived from one of the most beautiful and profound Greek words in the New Testament, koinonia, a word rich in meaning. Koinonia pulls this text together, pulls the disciples together and, by God's grace, pulls us all of us together with them.
Koinonia is just under the surface shaping most of what happens throughout the New Testament, and it emerges in English in many places, whenever we read words like: fellowship, sharing, participation, contribution, community, and communion. Behind these words is the Greek koinonia. It has many meanings; no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It's difficult finding the words to capture what this word means; maybe because koinonia isn't a concept to be understood, but an experience to be encountered. Or, better, koinonia is a description of what it looks like and feels like when believers of Jesus Christ gather together, break bread, tell their stories of how Jesus changed and continues to change their lives, share their lives and resources, their gladness and generosity, determined to live not apart but together.
Determined to live and believe together not apart, that is not because of any sense of "ought," but because believers are drawn together, drawn to the presence of Christ who meets us here and "shows up" when his people gather, break bread, and tell the stories of his love. What this text points to (and many like it in scripture) and reminds us is that from the beginning Christ was worshipped and experienced and served in and through community (koinonia), when believers shared (koinonia) their joys and their sorrows, when they contributed generously to the community and then share (koinonia)with those in need, and through the rich, intimate fellowship (koinonia) that occurs when believers break bread in Jesus' name and see his face imprinted in the members of the community. When all of this happens, we can say Jesus "shows up." The early church knew, as we know, we are participating (koinonia) – right now, right here, gathering, breaking, telling, sharing – in the very life of Christ!
This becomes the basis for our understanding of breaking bread and sharing a cup, of Communion (koinonia). It's why this is more than just a "memorial meal," and why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted Communion served on every Lord's Day. It's a participation in the very life of Christ found here in this community. Holy Communion is communion – co-union, a communing with Jesus; it is the mystical joining of Jesus Christ with the community of the faithful. That's how the early church saw it. That's why it's holy. Listen to Paul. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (koinonia) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). The NRSV translates this "communion" as "sharing." All these words point to this one experience.
This link with Jesus, this bond of affection and love with Jesus through the meal was lived out on a daily basis in the links and bonds formed in community among believers. Whenever they ate a meal, they were reminded of this bond. This is why Christians love to eat together, because when we do something happens when we share a meal. We find Jesus in the lives of fellow-believers who also are linked with Jesus.
Believers gathered yields a new kind of community of trust, of sharing, of mutual care and concern. If I can see Jesus in the lives of fellow-believers who are also linked with Jesus, then that means when fellow-believers gather, then it could be said Jesus shows up, too. When this happens we find we're in a different kind of community, maybe a little odd (Christians are supposed to be odd in the eyes of the world, at odds with the rest of the world. It's a community that welcomes all who bear the image of Christ, where resources are generously shared, where people know they're not alone, where needs are met, where people put their own desires aside and seek the best for the others in community, where people feel safe and secure, a kind of community where lives are shared in a circle of trust, where people suffer with those who are suffering, sharing sorrows, carrying each other's burdens and worries, even as we rejoice with those who are rejoicing, sharing hopes, carrying each other's joy, aspirations, dreams.
Now you might think what I'm describing the church here. But I'm not. The New Testament is full of examples of churches lacking trust, full of division and dysfunction, wavering in conviction, and bordering on apostasy. This is why Paul had to write all of his letters. I've been around the church long enough, and so have you, and have seen things and heard things occurring in congregations that break God's heart. There's no such thing as a perfect church, even as there's no such thing as a perfect Christian – so we should just set those expectations aside and be done with them. Perfection always sets us up for disappointment.
I'm not talking about the church, but about something that happens and does happen – by the grace of God – in the midst of congregations, something that happens which, in many ways, ensures the vitality of that congregation and moves the church of Jesus Christ from one generation to the next; it's when koinonia, true community occurs, true fellowship, true communion with Christ and among Christ's people takes place; when a congregation is renewed and transformed into a community, a koinonia. If there was more of this in our churches, I wonder if so many would be suspicious of organized religion.
I grew up in a strong, healthy church home, in a thriving church, with a marvelous youth program, where I learned about Jesus and met Jesus in people who really cared about me and loved me. But I never experienced koinonia until I went to seminary and lived on the fourth floor of Alexander Hall. Fourth Alex was probably the closest thing to a frat house we had on the Princeton Seminary campus. We were often playing games, being loud and boisterous, pulling pranks (include me), having water-balloon fights (indoors), staying up far too late, blowing the large Jewish shofar or ram's horn (which we owned). One time, we blew the shofar during lunchtime in the dining hall. We were promoting a fundraiser-dance on our floor. What we didn't know was that in the next room there was a Jewish-Christian conference going on. Now, the shofar is only blown on high holy days or to announce the coming of the Messiah. So when the Jewish guests heard the horn blew, knowing it wasn't a holy day, were shocked to think that the Messiah has come – and on the campus of Princeton Seminary! We got in trouble for this one. We liked to blow the shofar at 2 a.m., waking up the dorm and the campus. But on Wednesday evenings at 10 p.m. there was our floor meeting. Everyone was expected to be there – fellowship always trumped study (even of Calvin). And it was fellowship, true koinonia: we sang and prayed, we gathered together, broke bread (well, often nachos and beer), and told our stories of how Jesus touched our lives, of how Jesus was working in our lives, struggling with Jesus' call in our lives. We learned to care for each other, and love each other (even folks it might be difficult to love), to cry and laugh together, to be honest and real without the fear of being judged, to pray with and for each other in a circle of trust, eventually forming in time a community and a bond with people to this day I call, literally call, my brothers, part of a family of Christ. When it happens, it's pure grace, pure gift – but it's rare.
I've found it now and again in the church, now and again in this church, and even beyond the church. But it doesn't have to be rare. It just doesn't magically happen, either. You have to search for it, want it, make it a priority, set aside time for it, really hunger for it. In fact, I think every one of us hungers for it (at times more than we would like to admit), especially people who have given up on the church, or Christianity for that matter. I know what's possible when believers gather, break bread, and tell their stories. We all do. Sadly, Jesus might not always be found in a church, but he's always found in koinonia – in the community of believers who know Christ within themselves and serve him by loving the Christ in each other and sharing their lives together.
So let us break this bread believers and let us share this cup knowing we participate in the presence of Christ alive within us and among us here – and then watch how Christ is formed in us and among us and through us, a congregation of widely diverse people gathered together in communion, in koinonia, and formed into a community that embodies the presence of Christ. Pure grace. Pure gift.
Cited by Larry Rasmussen, "Shaping Communities," in Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 119. He calls it "the perennial strategy."
This is a term central to the thought of Parker J. Palmer, Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 25ff.