Thursday, September 6, 2012

Koinonia, the Eucharist, and Beloved Community

In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England founded a little project in Sumter County, Georgia, that they called a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” Based on New Testament teachings and the mutual submission exhibited by the early Christians in the book of Acts, it became an intentional community based on sustainable agriculture and human fellowship, and eventually gave birth to numerous humanitarian organizations such as the Fuller Center for Housing, The Prison and Jail Project, and most notably, Habitat for Humanity International.

Clarence Jordan, a New Testament Greek scholar, was fully aware of the meaning behind the word chosen to represent their community: Koinonia. This Greek word—koinwniva—appears around 20 times in the New Testament in one form or another, and typically is translated as “fellowship,” “community,” or “sharing.” The core of the word’s meaning implies a deep emotional and spiritual bond, as that of a spouse. Strangely enough, it is this same intimate spousal companionship that Christians are said to share with one another and with the Source of all creation.

Diner en Blanc
Koinonia has an inherently reciprocal nature at its base meaning. It is more than simply showing up to church or doing a good deed for a neighbor. To share in the practice of koinwniva means to share not just an amiable spirit, but also to contribute one’s own material possessions. Because of this, perhaps nowhere is koinwniva more fully realized than at the Eucharistic table.

Today, whole subcultures—both religious and secular—have sprung up around the concept of table fellowship. New publications like Kinfolk Magazine specialize in getting people together for intimate little group meals, and the French concept of diner en blanc, a sort of flash mob in which thousands of people dressed in white share a picnic in a public place, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The ancient Greeks (as well as other Pagan-based cultures) believed that sharing a meal was a sign of complete union, both with the other feasters present at the table and with God. For them, koinwniva symbolized not merely fellowship, but a “consummation” of the total union between the human and the divine. This concept was fully realized in the Dionysian cult of ancient Greece.[1] It is not difficult to see the connections between this belief and the early mystery that surrounded the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

However, though the etymological roots of koinwniva greatly influenced the Christian use of the word in the New Testament, the latter understanding of the word remained distinct from the former in at least one key aspect: rather than union with the deity, Christian koinwniva emphasized communion with God.[2] In the image of the Eucharistic meal, we have the exemplar understanding of what it means to share in the community of God in the here and now. This image of mutuality also fits in well with the gospel narrative of sacrifice—the Last Supper is followed by the climax of the Jesus Story: the cross. Bonded by the initial tragedy of the crucifixion and the sudden hope offered by the resurrection, it is little wonder that from the earliest cultic memory, Christians have continued the Eucharistic practice throughout history. I often repeat the words of a pastor friend of mine, who once told me, “The feet of enemies are rarely seen under the same table.”
Yet koinwniva is more than just passing the potatoes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a world where those who dwelt on commonality rather than difference could openly share in what he referred to as the Beloved Community. His was a vision that was not only part of a future eschaton, but also able to be glimpsed in the here and now.  In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King recounts being stranded in an airport with a diverse group of people following the 1966 march to Montgomery: “As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the [humanity] of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”[3]

Dr. King’s vision of koinwniva clearly involved not just those of the Christian faith, but humanity itself—those of “all walks of life.” It is my sincere hope that we as a species continue to widen the gates of the Kingdom of God until we share in that beloved koinwniva with all creatures great and small.

[1] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Volume 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976. p. 799
[2] Ibid. p. 800
[3] Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Harper & Row, 1967. p. 9. Quoted in Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., “Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community.” Christian Century, April 3, 1974. pp. 361-363.

No comments:

Post a Comment