As I slip into the folding chair, the front leg drops into a hole under the canvas floor. The chair tips forward throwing me face forward into the center aisle. I lie, sprawled, Mennonite World Conference bag, note pad and all.
Last to enter, I found the workshop tent full, the presentation begun, French translation following the speaker sentence by sentence. Hearing issues drew me toward the front to the third row where there was an empty chair. I gratefully pulled it forward, sat, and then my back-wrenching descent. I catch my breath, slowly pull up on bruised knees, flex the vertebrae pinching a sciatic nerve, then painfully reclaim my chair.
“Koinonea is defined as sharing in mutual concern for the other in Christian community,” I am hearing said in English and repeated in French.
I stifle a chuckle. A white haired man in his seventies flat out in the center aisle—not a pretty sight. Yet no one in the chairs around or across the aisle offered a hand, no one noticed. No blood, so no bother. As the workshop ends, and we chit-chat our way out, it is clear that I have no need to be embarrassed, so my blunder was invisible. Over dinner I recall the fall and tell Leann who suggests:
“You might have jumped up and said, this is a test, only a test of the Koinonea alert system.” (Nothing makes us wittier than a painful pratfall—not our own, of course, but another’s.)
The workshop, in spite of my bad back, was truly good. Tom Yoder Neufeld was inspiring. What I heard most clearly was the contrast between the New Testament root word koinoo meaning “common, dirty, unclean,” and its opposite, koinonea, meaning “common life, communion, community.” Rejected rubbish vs welcoming relationship.
Critical differences become compost to nurture community. For example, Jesus said about putting pure/impure labels on stuff, “not what goes into the mouth defiles (koinoo) but what comes out defiles (koinoo) a person.” Old laws about purity and sanctity that defined what objects are clean or which persons are unclean are replaced by an ethic of loving relationship (Mt 15:11); or then there’s the vision of Peter where God’s grace accepting the marginal, the outcast, the excluded challenges all kinds of entitlements and special interest groups. God accepts folks we do not, loves those we find annoying, includes those we exclude. “What God has called clean do not call unclean,” the voice says. (Acts 10:11-18). Who are we to reject any one whom God accepts? Can we improve on God’s taste in people?
Let me see if I got it. In true koinonea, the stranger is welcome, the odd are not out but in, the “ick factor” no longer works, community is not a matter of being comfortable. If there is room for us there is room for anybody.
A moment of koinonea-vertigo—(like a tipping chair) up is down, down is up, out is in, taste is not how we choose our mates, ick is no way to do ethics, dirty is a misnomer, unclean may be a matter of tradition and/or opinion. Not purity but charity should serve as greeter at the door. Love of others, love of strangers, love of the least of these should open the margins of community, that is what koinonea is about.
Common things and common people when seen on common turf and common ground can share communion in community. The word comes to designate participation, partnership.
Did I get it? Yes, I think so.
Is there more? Yes. L Harold de Wolf, theologian and biblical scholar suggested something that was overlooked in the workshop. “The highest form of love in the New Testament, the highest word for love, is not agape, it is koinonea.” Of the Greek words for love, eros (erotic love), not used, phillea (brotherly sisterly love),often used, sorge (to care), frequently used, agape (equal regard) very often employed, but the last word is koinonea (mutual, reciprocal, communal love in the community of the Spirit in the circle around Jesus). Isn’t that what we are confessing when we join St Paul in praying “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the koinonea of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2Cor 13:14)
Perhaps this word, koinonea, sums up best the central commandment of Jesus teaching—“Love of neighbor is the way we practice the love of God.”
This is a test, only a test of the Koinonea Alert System.”