Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Koinona Christ

Talking about the early church after the harvest on the Day of Pentecost, St. Luke writes:

 "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV)

A rather beautiful summary of the practices of the early church. After baptism, the newly minted believes shared life together, shared blessings and needs, shared the table, prayers and the Apostle's teaching.

The theological word used to describe the foundation of the early church's actions is the Greek word, Koinonia (κοινωνία) -- the shared life. The word itself has a depth of meanings that ask us to think through the ideas surrounding a partnership, a united, joined-together, sharing community. In fact,  Koinonia takes us into the movement of an intimacy with each one who claims residence within the church, an intimacy that goes beyond friendship toward a familial type of sharing.

Said another way, one gets the idea that, in the ancient world anyway, the radical move of accepting the Gospel proclamation of the Christ caused one's allegiance and location of concern to shift to a total reorganization of one's life. New ways captured them now, new friends, new daily activities and a new autobiography was conceived -- "my life before Christians" and "my life now with other Christians. That is, back then to accept the Jesus-way was to change the course of your life forever. [Such seems far from the case today when we change world views as easily as we change toothpaste.]

But, of course, there is a deeper Koinonia at work here, a Koinonia that moves the intimacy between fellow Christian believers beyond the natural realm -- shared food and shared time and shared teaching -- to a shared life between the called out assembly and the living, risen Christ himself.

Perhaps the easiest way to enter into this idea is to think about the conversion of St. Paul.  When, as Saul the Rabbi, the persecutor of those on the Jesus-way, he is struck down by the powerful presence of the Christ, Saul asks, "Who are you, LORD?" A natural enough question. The answer he received, however, was shocking and provocative. Saul hears a disembodied voice,  saying, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."

Well, on the face of it such a statement is nonsense. First, Saul was not persecuting Jesus of Nazareth, for he had already been killed -- a failed Messiah. But, what St. Luke wants us to understand (and what Saul soon discovers) is that the Messiah Jesus was not failed at all, that he is alive and well and at work in the world, which meant that Saul was actually opposing the work and word of GOD!

But there is more. How was Saul persecuting Jesus himself when he carried off believers to prison? You see, what Saul also learned that day is there is such and intimacy -- such a Koinonia --  between the risen Christ and His people that to touch the hair on the head of a person on the Jesus-way, is to actually touch the Christ. I suspect that this is the origin of St. Paul's small but pungent phrase, "in Christ." (e.g Gal. 2:20)

What follows then is the important question for us. Namely, just how we -- the discipleship community, the Body of Christ -- are to find this intimacy with the living, risen Christ at this late date? I think an excellent case can be made that we meet the Christ when we practice those things that make us an actual called-out assembly. That is, in the waters of baptism, in the meal of bread and wine, in the hearing and preaching of the word, in the prayers and the sharing that meets needs, we "behold the face of the Christ" (Gordon Lathrop).

Said another way, when the assembly actually assembles and attends to the expressions of  what makes us Christian, Christ is somehow, realized, present and mediated through such expressions. Which means the lack of church attendance, and the somewhat anemic presentation of those historic and canonical practices may be regarded as the greatest threat to the resilience of the church in the West.