Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Did you ever have an ant farm when you were a kid? I did. It was about eight inches by ten inches and had clear plastic on both sides. I put dirt inside it, and then I gathered a couple of ants and put them in. But when I did that, I was shocked at what took place. I happened to find a red ant and a black ant to put in my ant farm. When I placed them in there, I figured they would work together and build all kinds of wonderful tunnels and passages. As it turned out, they did build a rather impressive arrangement of tunnels—but not together—but by themselves. The red ant dug his own set of tunnels and the black ant was busy digging his own set of passages in the dirt.
After a while, I decided it was time to feed the ants. So, with my parents’ help, we followed the ant farm directions and mixed up some kind of sugar water solution that ants are supposed to like to eat, and I dropped the mixture into the ant farm. But even though there was more than enough food there for both of those ants, the black ant bullied the red one and made him stay down in his hole, while he carried all the food away into his hole.
As a five-year-old-kid, I was shocked that those two ants didn’t know how to share. Feeling sorry for the red ant, I dumped some more food into the ant farm. Right away, though, the black ant was there, carrying the food off to his tunnel and intimidating the red ant to stay over in his own place. As I remember back to how those two ants behaved, it makes me wonder if that isn’t the way that many people behave as well. We go our own separates ways, we take care of ourselves, and for the most part when others come around, we tell them to bug off.
We could certainly see this happening in grocery stores when people started hording Toilet Paper. In fact, some of this very ant like behavior happened again and again as the whole world locked down to avoid the virus. However, the sad fact is that this is exact thinking that caused shortages. The very reason that social media was full of people fighting over toilet paper and cleaning supplies.
A few years ago, they discovered a super huge colony of ants in Europe. Apparently, the colony of Argentine ants extended for over a thousand miles from the Mediterranean coast of Italy, across part of France, and all the way to the northwest corner of Spain. Bug experts believe the colony was made up of millions of different nests. But instead of treating each other as strangers and enemies, they cooperated and shared with each other. They found that if they took ants from Italy and dropped them off in Spain, the ants there would immediately accept them and welcome them, because they saw themselves as all being part of the same huge super colony.
That is what the church is supposed to be like. Instead of looking at each other as strangers, the church is to be a place where we discover that no mater where we’ve come from, no matter how different we might appear to be from each other, we belong.
Often we speak of how we “belong” to various groups or how we’re a “member” of various organizations. Yet today those words—belonging and membership—have practically lost their meaning. Think about how many different groups you technically belong to. I belong to the AAA—the American Automobile Association. Lots of people belong to the AAA. But when was the last time you had a group of fellow AAA members over to your house and did some bonding? No, the AAA is something you pay dues to, and if your car breaks down, they come and help you. That is what it means to be a member of the AAA. Likewise, I am a member at a fitness center. Yet all that means is that I’m expected to pay my dues, and in return when I walk through the doors of the fitness center an attendant hand me a couple of towels to sweat on.
When we think about what it means to be a member of the church, often we equate membership in the church with what it means to be a member of all those other groups. But here in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that that’s not even close to what being a member of the church is supposed to mean.
The word that the Bible uses is a Greek work, koinonia. If we’re really members of the church, then a spirit of koinonia is something that we should have. Basically, koinonia can be translated as “a deep fellowship” or “a deep sharing with one another.” Unfortunately, though, much of the time what you find in a lot of churches is much shallower than that.
For instance, go into just about any church and ask, “Are you a friendly congregation?” In response, 99.9% of all churches are going to answer, “Sure we are!” As evidence of that fact, they will point to the way they slap people on the back and smile and at each other. Slapping people on the back and smiling at each other can be good things. But the truth of the matter is that if that’s all you want, you can find that sort of thing at a bowling alley or a country club.
The kind of fellowship, the kind of concern, that Christians are expected to have for each other is supposed to run much deeper than that. To be a Christian and to have that koinonia means to share with each other. That means not just sharing a hearty handshake, not just sharing a warm “hello.” According to the Bible, it also means being willing to share our money. As it says in Acts, whatever the people owned, they took it and sold it. Then they put their money together so that if there was a need in the church, the money was there.
When we hear what those first Christians did, many of us are tempted to wonder of they were a bunch of lunatics. Didn’t they realize that you must be careful about who you share with, because there are always people who are just waiting to take advantage of you? As H. L. Mencken once said, “Believing the worst about another person may be a sin, but it is seldom a mistake.”
A guy walked into a London pub a few years ago and yelled, “The drinks are on me!” It was his friend’s birthday, and he wanted everyone to share in the celebration. But the people in that establishment did not just accept his generosity and order small ginger ales. Among the various drink orders, 49 people ordered bottles of Cristal Rose champagne at a cost of nearly $500 a bottle, and another 20 ordered bottles of Dom Perignon at over $300 per bottle. In all, the fellow ended up getting handed a bill for $59,000.
The problem, of course, is that it is easy for strangers to mistreat each other and take advantage of one another. That is why the early church’s sharing was based on the principle of koinonia. That deep sharing that took place in that community was made possible because the members of that faith community knew each other intimately and cared about one another sincerely.
What would it take for our churches to move in that direction? First, we need to learn the names of our fellow church members. In many congregations, people worship together in the same sanctuary for decades but do not know each other’s names. It’s rather difficult to care for someone when you don’t even know the person’s name. Second, we need to spend time eating with each other. That is what those first disciples did. When we sit down and eat with someone, we have the opportunity to move beyond that superficial smiling and chit-chat that so often passes as “fellowship” in our congregations. Third, we need to give. Instead of looking at our contributions to our church as “dues,” we need to come to see our giving as an act that shows our heartfelt commitment to the community that we are a part of.
In the eyes of many people, we live in a world where there are only three people that matter: me, myself, and I. We live in a world where we often treat those around us as nothing more than mere strangers. But Jesus invites us to step out of that world and to step into a new world—a world of caring, a world of fellowship, a world of koinonia. The whole idea of doing that may very well be Greek to us. But that’s the deep, rich kind of life that Jesus wants us to enjoy.
In this section we discover one of Peter’s typical rhetorical strategies. He starts briefly with a specific situation—in this case that of suffering slaves—and then quickly moves to draw out some general lessons for Christian life. He does so partly because he believes that life cannot or must not be divided into niches, which have their own, at times incompatible, principles. It is not that he leaves the specific situation of the slaves behind after verse 18, but he ensures that their situation becomes an example for Christian existence in general (nota bene: “someone” in v. 19).
Peter’s strategy here is also reminiscent of other so-called household codes in the New Testament (Col. 3:22–4:1 and Eph. 6:5–9). Despite the order of Peter’s argument (slaves first, then Christians in general), the underlying logic of such passages is not that we can draw general moral lessons from specific situations, although there might be examples of this elsewhere, but rather that the general principles inform the specific situation. Where possible, the household codes base such general principles in Christ’s example and sacrificial death. In the present text the move from slaves (v. 18), via general Christian principle (vv. 19–20), to Christ’s example (vv. 21–23) and a theological interpretation thereof (v. 24a–d), eventually leads to a reminder that the reality of faith in Christ must be reflected in their behavior (vv. 24c–25). The principle that true grace is embodied in the willingness to respond to injustice with perseverance is an obvious interpretation of Jesus’ own teaching in Luke 6:27–35 (cf. 1 Pet. 2:20). “Grace” here is shorthand for the “credibility of faith.” Where in a situation of crisis or persecution Christians act in nondistinctive ways, their faith credibility is undermined. Jesus talked of rewards, Peter of its flip side, which is punishment. The principle at stake is precisely the same.
Interestingly the account of Jesus’ way to the cross (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21–25) is couched in language indebted to one of the Servant passages in Isaiah, here chapter 53. This is significant because of the role of that text in pre-Christian Judaism and early Christianity. In modern times (and, in fact, well before that) Christian believers have often pointed to Isaiah 53 as a clear reference to Christ in the Old Testament. This is not wrong, but the conclusion sometimes drawn that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries had no excuse for not recognizing Jesus as the Savior is precipitate. In the various Isaianic servant songs the “Servant” is often code for Israel’s remnant. In light of this it would have been reasonable, indeed expected, to interpret Isaiah 53 in the same vein. This means that the application of the Servant imagery and texts to Jesus in the Gospels had a particular theological implication: Jesus assumed the role of the righteous remnant, and so did those who grouped themselves around him, starting with the Twelve. Israel’s future therefore lies in the renewed Christ-centered remnant. Some have suggested that Peter follows in verses 21–25 not the text of Isaiah 53, but an early Christian hymn based upon it. That may be so, but it changes little in terms of the implied theology. If anything, it would add to the evidence that early Christianity had indeed understood the point about Christ’s relationship to the righteous remnant of the Old Testament: the raison d’être of the remnant depends on Christ’s willingness to suffer on its behalf. What is the practical relevance of this Christ/remnant theology? For Peter it is evident: if Christians are serious about belonging to the righteous remnant, their lives must be distinguishable, just as Jesus’ attitude on the way to the cross was decidedly different from what most expected (including his own disciples!—cf. Mark 8–10) from a messianic pretender. The implied remnant theology therefore explains why Christ should function as an example to be followed (1 Pet. 2:21). It is worth emphasizing that this kind of theological reasoning is prevalent throughout early Christianity. Because it usually works by intertextuality with the Old Testament rather than being made explicit, it is not always obvious to modern readers. It is worth remembering, however, that to read epistles like those by Peter is like listening to one part of a phone conversation while guessing what is being said and assumed at the other end. Fortunately the frequent use of Old Testament quotations and allusions provides us with significant pointers in the right direction. With this general background in mind, a few more specific features of the text call for attention.
The reference to “masters” in verse 18 is carefully distinguished in the Greek from references to the “Lord” (kyrios). The other household codes achieve that by qualifying the word “Lord” or “Lords” with a phrase like “according to the flesh.” Peter achieves much the same thing by simply using a different word for the masters (despotēs). Importantly, Peter is not suggesting (as might be thought from the word order) that Christian slaves should “fear” their masters. Instead they should submit to these masters as a reflection of their fear of God. Submission under human masters yes; fear no. Reverent fear (phobos) is due only to God (2:17). In this regard Peter’s household section is no different from those in Colossians and Ephesians. Where it does differ is here: the latter consistently deal with pairs of relationships (such as masters and slaves), but Peter does not address masters. Given the normally fixed form of household codes, this appears to be deliberate and ought to be explained on the basis of his assumptions that there were no Christian masters among his recipients. Whether or not he thought there should not be Christian slave masters by definition is unclear. Possibly he left any Christian masters out because his spotlight was firmly on the Christian call to be ready to suffer, something that would have been difficult to illustrate by addressing Christian masters.
The term “grace” does not here (v. 19) refer to that free gift from God (as elsewhere—1:10, 13; 3:7; 4:10; 5:5, 10, 12), although that is not totally out of the picture. Peter has in mind the lifestyle or attitude which is the appropriate response to that grace. Put differently, he encourages the sort of radical behavior (vv. 19–20!) which serves to authenticate any claims to having received God’s grace. The question must be asked how radical the behavior demanded by Peter really is. By modern Western standards it seems almost unacceptably subservient and out of touch with reality. In ancient Greco-Roman times the contrast between demand and reality would have been somewhat softer because that culture demanded that people live in line with their inherited status. To want to be “upwardly mobile” was viewed with suspicion, because it indicated an arrogance of betrayal toward others in the community who shared the same inherited status. Even within Judaism it was proper to live according to one’s inherited position in the community, though this did not apply nationally. It was not seen to be a good for God’s people to have to be subservient to overlords such as the Romans, but within the community acceptance of one’s inherited standing was seen as the proper attitude to adopt. Needless to say, in today’s Western world such thinking tends to be met with derision. But Peter is actually asking for more than the ancient Jewish ideal of living within one’s inherited status: he demands subservience even where the master’s behavior is unjust. From a modern perspective his requirement is astonishingly radical, but importantly it is backed up by Jesus’ own behavior. The radical nature of this call to emulate Jesus must not be watered down. The clash of cultures needs to be acknowledged, and the question must be raised what kind of Christian behavior would achieve in today’s world what Peter expected from his readers at the time, namely, to demonstrate what is possible in terms of relationships where a person is at ease with his or her true Lord (v. 24).
There is some discussion among scholars about the best translation of the word syneidēsis (conscience) in verse 19. Is Peter thinking of a gift or of God-pleasing behavior? There is much to be said for the translation “for God’s sake.” The action to be taken as a result of this attitude is not resistance, but passive endurance. Christ’s example consists of his willingness to suffer. It is that which is meant to be emulated, not his death as such. And even then the enduring suffering only makes theological sense in the context of “doing good” (cf. Eph. 2:10). This must refer to what is good in God’s eyes (in contrast to what the human masters want); why else would the masters wish to punish their Christian slaves? In other words, Peter has in mind situations where a conflict arises between the wishes of one’s earthly masters and one’s divine Lord—in such cases the latter takes priority! This puts a new complexion on the earlier advice in verses 13–17, which appeared to be based on a naively optimistic view of human rulers. Now it is clear—even if only by implication—that there are limits to one’s obedience toward human masters. The underlying principle of Peter’s advice is this: in principle submission under one’s human masters is godly, fear of them and blind obedience to them is certainly not. Peter resolves the seeming tension by implying that submissive endurance of human punishment, which results from acting in godly ways, achieves a threefold aim: (1) It shows that God’s will is privileged over that of human masters—it is God who deserves reverent fear, not the human masters. (2) At the same time it demonstrates something of God’s grace in the lives of those who are prepared to submit to human masters in the sense of enduring unjust suffering. (3) Most importantly it serves as a pointer to Christ’s radical self-giving, an act which, in a paradoxical fashion, itself combines (1) and (2). Like wives who seek to win over their husbands for Christ (3:1), a slave might turn his master to the true Shepherd. Not surprisingly, that last point is again made with the help of a well-known text from Isaiah (cf. the Greek translation of Isa. 6:10). True healing occurs where people turn to Christ. One’s human masters are no exception. Where slaves (or Christians in general for that matter) are discouraged by the paradox of serving God and submitting under one’s human masters, Peter responds by reminding them that that was the very paradox endured by Jesus himself! (Moritz, T. with R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), he Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Volume Two (pp. 557–558)
Years ago, at the height of a snowstorm, our house, and two nearby villages as well, were without electric power for fourteen hours. Our heating system is controlled by electricity, so the house became very cold. We could burn logs in a stove, but though that could keep us warm it wouldn’t be easy to cook on it. The telephones didn’t work. The computers, of course, didn’t work either. It reminded me once more not only what it’s like for many people today in parts of the world where electric power is only intermittent, but what it was like for everyone until extremely recently within human history.
Now imagine, as well, that there was a fuel shortage, so that nobody could use their cars. No trains running, either; no planes flying. Suddenly life is a lot more basic. And a lot more time-consuming. I doubt if I’d be sitting here writing a book if I lived in a world without electric power or motorized transport. I’d probably be out chopping wood or walking to the nearest town to pick up vegetables. And if I wanted to make the time to do anything more creative, I would have to find someone to do all those things for me. In a world of scarce resources, there might be plenty of people willing to work in return for their keep.
In the ancient world, more or less everything that today is done by electricity, gas and motorized engines was done by slaves. That is not, of course, a defense of the system of slavery. Slavery was a form of systematic, legalized dehumanization. A slave was the ‘property’ of his or her owner, who would provide enough board and lodging to enable the slave to work the next day, and the one after that. But, as ‘property’, the slave could be ill-treated, physically and sexually abused, exploited in a thousand different ways.
We look down our noses at such a world—without realizing that in many parts of today’s supposedly ‘free’ Western society there are many people in virtually the same position. Often hidden from view, they work long hours for minimal wages. They cannot take time off, or look for another job. They may have families to support, and to lose even a single day’s wages, and perhaps their ‘job’ as well, could be disastrous. They are stuck. They are slaves in all but name. If we want to sneer at ancient societies for being so barbaric, we should be careful. They might just sneer back.
Peter does something far more creative than sneering. Quite a few Christians were slaves, as you might expect granted that the gospel of Jesus gives dignity and self-worth to all those who believe it. Peter addresses these Christian slaves. Instead of telling them (as we might prefer) that they should rise up in revolt against their masters, he tells them to obey, and to show respect. And he stresses this, not only when the masters in question are kindly and fair-minded, but also when they are unjust.
Here, from our point of view, he sails very close to the wind. Putting up with unjust suffering looks, to us, very much like colluding with wickedness. Many a violent household, many an abusive workplace, has been able to continue acting wickedly because people have been afraid to speak out, and have kept their heads down and put up with the abuse. Blowing the whistle on such behavior can cost you your job, your home or even, in extreme cases, your life.
Peter would tell us, I think, to stay with him while he explains. He has glimpsed a deeper truth, behind the moral quagmire which is so obvious to us when we think of people putting up with unjust and painful treatment. He has reflected long and hard on the extraordinary events to do with Jesus. He has thought and prayed through them in the light of the strange and dark scriptures which came to fulfilment in those messianic moments. And he invites followers of Jesus to inhabit his extraordinary story: to embrace it as their own, and, being healed and rescued by those events, to make them the pattern of their lives as well.
The key to it all, of course, is that the crucifixion of the Messiah was the most unjust and wicked act the world had ever seen. Here was the one man who deserved nothing but praise and gratitude, and they rejected him, beat him up, and killed him. To understand this, Peter goes back, as many early Christians did, to Isaiah, this time to the famous chapter 53, where the royal figure of the ‘servant’, called to carry out God’s worldwide saving purposes (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 51:4–9), does so precisely by being unjustly treated, being insulted but not replying in kind, suffering without throwing back curses at his torturers. ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross’, says Peter, picking up Isaiah 53:4. We were going astray like lost sheep, but the wound which he suffered gave us healing (Isaiah 53:5, 6). This is one of the clearest statements in the whole New Testament of the fact that Jesus, the Messiah, took upon himself the punishment that his people deserved. As Israel’s Messiah, and hence the world’s true Lord, he alone could represent all the others. He alone could, completely appropriately, stand in for them.
Now we see how important it is for Peter to say what he does about slaves and masters—and about other situations later in the letter. He isn’t simply recommending that people remain passive while suffering violence. He is urging them to realize that somehow, strangely, the sufferings of the Messiah are not only the means by which we ourselves are rescued from our own sin. They are the means, when extended through the life of his people, by which the world itself may be brought to a new place.
This is hard to believe. It looks, to many, as though it’s just a clever way of not confronting the real issue. But Peter believes that the death and resurrection of Jesus was and is the point around which everything else in the world revolves. Somehow, he is saying, we must see all the unjust suffering of God’s people as caught up within the suffering of his son.
As I was writing this, an email arrived from a Christian friend who lives in a country where the Christian faith is barely tolerated and often persecuted. Things have become very bad, he says. His livelihood has been taken away. The authorities are closing in. Receiving such a message, I feel helpless. Somehow, in prayer, and in such campaigning as we can do, those of us who read 1 Peter in comfortable freedom have a deep responsibility to help our brothers and sisters for whom the persecution of which Peter speaks is a daily reality.(Wright, T. Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah [2011, Louisville, KY] pp. 69–72)
Sharing in hard times is a great subject for a locked down world. As almost everyone tries to keep going in these troubled times sharing has become harder. We now crave to share with friends a few moments even though they are virtual. We seem to be moving towards more freedom from home, but we have no real idea what will happen.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Sharing probably isn’t the first idea that comes to mind during the COVID-19 pandemic as it implies physical contact. However, there are many ways to share that don’t require physical contact. Last week, I explored why we need to share now more than ever. Thankfully, there’s a growing wave of resource sharing, mutual aid, and volunteering sweeping the world. Here are 10 ways you can join this wave:
Check in with your family, friends, neighbors, and the most vulnerable in your community.
Provide comfort, health guidelines, and whatever aid is needed to those closest to you. Stay in it with them. Depending on your situation, you might have your hands full with just this. If everybody does this, then everyone has access to at least a basic level of care and emotional support.
Support front line medical workers and the institutions they serve.
They’re the dam keeping back the floodwaters of infection. We can’t afford for this dam to break. Check in with your local hospitals to see what they need. People and organizations are already donating protective medical gear, medical equipment, meals, and more. You can even volunteer remotely or join an open source team designing medical gear. Start here to see where to jump in.
Join or start a mutual aid network.
Grassroots, volunteer-run mutual aid networks provide community-scale aid, often with a focus on mutual support for the most vulnerable. If you want to increase your impact locally, this is a great way to go. These have gone virtual during the pandemic using spreadsheets to match needs with resources. Here’s an inside look at one of the thousands of COVID-19 mutual aid networks started recently. Directories of them have popped up in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere. Search the web for one in your area. If there are none, start one. Sometimes all it takes are two friends and a spreadsheet.
Support those that need it the most.
This can include the elderly, those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 Healthwise, those previously or newly on the economic margins, those facing eviction, those experiencing racism or discrimination, people who are undocumented, victims of domestic abuse, people experiencing house lessness, people with disabilities, those with mental health conditions, and more. The pandemic poses unique challenges for people in these groups. Support can be direct, mutual, or through the many local service organizations. Search your area for your preferred channel.
Be social, safely.
As Shareable has reported, loneliness was a huge health challenge before the pandemic. Social distancing could make it worse. We already have an economic recession on our hands due to the pandemic, we don’t need a “social recession” to compound the misery. A more constructive approach is physical distancing with social solidarity, not social distancing. This is a time to be warm, friendly, and kind to those you know and strangers alike virtually and when you’re six feet apart IRL. This is also a time to exercise your social creativity. People are holding virtual happy hours, dance parties, birthday parties, book clubs, religious services, and more. Use this moment to reweave the social fabric.
Share reputable information responsibly.
It’s important to keep your friends, family, and community informed. However, the web is awash in misleading and even panic-inducing information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Make sure what you share is from reputable sources. Cross-reference news reports with reports from other reputable sources. Equally important, make sure what and how you share doesn’t unintentionally induce panic. Balance sharing truthful, alarming news with relevant how-to, safety, and solutions information. To help you stay sane, consider a media diet that responsibly limits your news intake. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the 24/7 COVID-19 pandemic news cycle. Panic kills, let’s stay calm.
Budget time to do the above.
Schedule time each day for checking in, supporting front line medical workers, mutual aid, or preventing a social recession — whatever mix of activities make sense to you. Make it part of your daily pandemic routine. Share your contributions with others. Invite them to join in. It’s natural to feel a tad powerless in this situation, this is a way to take back some control.
One of the reasons that fellowship is lacking in many churches is that Christians often fail to set aside specific time each week to spend with their fellow believers. There seems to be something about the idea of observing the Sabbath that unnerves many people. Early last summer the state legislature in Virginia substantially revised and updated many of the state’s labor laws. But because of how those new laws interacted with some of the older existing laws, an unintended consequence was that suddenly all workers in Virginia were granted a Sabbath day each week. In other words, Muslims and Jews could not be forced to work on Saturdays, and Christians could not be called into work on Sundays. Right away business owners ran to the lawmakers and begged them to change the law as soon possible, basically saying that the entire economy of Virginia would otherwise come to a grinding halt. In response, Virginia’s governor summoned an emergency meeting of the legislature, and in record time both houses voted unanimously to repeal the Sabbath provision. (“Virginia repeals its "Day of Rest’ law requiring Sundays off,” The Washington Post, 7/14/04)
A factor that keeps many people today from sharing as generously as the first disciples did is a concern that they don’t have enough. We convince ourselves that in order to be able to give to others, we first must secure more for ourselves. Yet often we hesitate to define what amount we will be content with. A Japanese Zen master was on his death bed. As he was about to expire, he called all his followers around him and said, “In my life, I have learned only one thing: how much is enough.” (Harvey Cox, “The Market As God,” Atlantic Monthly 283, no. 3 [March 1999], p. 23)
Although Jesus calls us to share in fellowship even with those who are quite different from ourselves, we tend to gravitate toward those who share similarities to us. A psychologist at McMaster University in Canada has found that we tend to view people whose faces resemble our own more favorably than those whose faces are markedly different. Dr. Lisa DeBruine suggests that when we see people who resemble ourselves, we tend to think of them as being “family.” In the study, both men and women indicated a preference for pictures of people who shared facial characteristics with them. Previous research revealed that people are more likely to trust others who look like them. (“Familiar faces seem more friendly,” BBC, 8/31/04)
In translating texts from another language, it is often difficult to find an exact equivalent in one’s native language. Such is the case with koinonia, which we usually translate with the rather fuzzy term “fellowship.” In translating the Bible into English, William Tyndale ended up creating some new English words in order to convey some of the terms in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. For example, Tyndale invented “Jehovah” as a means to translate the tetragrammaton. Likewise, Tyndale was responsible for bringing “Passover” into English usage, employing it as the translation for the Hebrew Pesah. Further, he created words such as “scapegoat” and “atonement,” which, although common terms today, did not previously exist in his day. (Alister McGrath, In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture [New York: Anchor, 2001], p. 79)
Isolated in their second floor room, his wife’s shallow breaths gave the paramedics a jolt as they realized she had an oxygen saturation level of 75% on room air and difficulty breathing at rest. She was immediately taken to the hospital and, as her condition worsened, was later transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.
As I was consoling my patient, repeating my hope that his wife recover quickly, I couldn’t help but wonder how his situation could have been different if we had an early warning system in place. What if she had a symptom tracking tool that would have told her to seek care earlier? What if she had a connected device to measure her blood oxygen level or thermometer that could have communicated early signs of deteriorating health? What if a care provider could have been prompted to touch base with her on a daily basis?
I lead a COVID-19 assessment centre near Vancouver, Canada and I daily come across cases where people present with flu-like symptoms. These range from the classic symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath to less well known symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as anosmia (loss of smell) and stomach upset.
Here in the province of British Columbia, in Canada, we have restrictions on who we can test and this means that many patients who are positive are not tested but sent home to be followed up closely. Despite that close follow-up, some patients slip through the cracks. Recently, a 47-year-old COVID-19 positive patient died at home. Why he died at home and wasn’t able to seek care earlier is unclear. What is clear is that he is not alone. Every day around the world we hear about COVID-19 positive people who succumb to the disease without ever finding their way to a hospital. This happens both in places with poorly and well-resourced health systems.
It is tragic and prompts the question: could these deaths have been prevented? The hundreds of companies, universities, health authorities and government bodies that have released self-assessment apps, symptom trackers and COVID-19 specific tools would suggest that, yes, we can use technology to better understand how the novel coronavirus is spreading; what its health effects are; and how to disseminate targeted health messaging to people. Packed with geolocation, contact tracing, and self-diagnosis features – to name a few – these apps would have us believe that they can help save lives and improve health outcomes. This is true and for some more than others. Yet what this mass of innovation misses is two important points about how this pandemic can most effectively be beaten back.
Engaging in fellowship with other people can be a challenging, and sometimes stressful, endeavor. To avoid that problem, some people nowadays are turning to virtual companionship instead. A Hong Kong company called Artificial Life has developed a new game where men can have a girlfriend on their cell phone. That girl friend, though, is rather demanding. In order to keep her as your girlfriend, participants in the game must be prepared to spend a considerable amount on gifts and flowers for her. In return, generous boyfriends are rewarded by having the girlfriend introduce the person to her female friends, who are likewise electronic images. If, however, players neglect the girl friend, she will refuse to speak to them. What makes this particular computer game different from others is that advancing to the different levels will be a function not of skill, but of how much you are willing to spend. The virtual girlfriend is thin and dark haired, patterned after the Lara Croft character in the game Tomb Raider, which garnered a huge male following. The company does have plans to offer women an opportunity to have their own virtual boyfriends, but they question whether women will be as willing to shell out the money to pamper the virtual date. (“HK firm develops cyber girlfriend,” BBC, 8/23/04)
Rather than sharing in fellowship by eating with other Christians, many people today prefer the company of a television set. Amid all the stars in the sidewalk outside Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood is a tribute to Gerry Thomas. Although his name might not be particularly well known, he was the inventor of the TV dinner. The innovation met with such success that by the 1960s, the Swanson company dropped “TV Dinner” from its packaging because the idea of eating in front of the TV set was so commonplace. By the end of the twentieth century, 66% of Americans reported eating dinner in front of the television. (Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], pp. 119-126)
One of the reasons that fellowship is often lacking today is because people just don’t have the time for it. The pressures of time are so great, in fact, that a growing number of Roman Catholic clergy are reporting that they outsource many of the prayer concerns they are given to Catholic clergy in India. In the United States, priests are often given $5 to offer a memorial or thanksgiving prayer. That payment is then passed on to priests in India who welcome the extra work, where there monthly pay is usually as little as $45 a month. (“U.S. outsourcing prayers to India,” New York Times, 6/14/04)
Koinonia calls us to a deeper form of caring than would normally be expected: “Christianity demands a level of caring that transcends human inclinations.” (Erwin W. Lutzer)
The world around us often evaluates the church based not on its words, but on its caring: “The test of every civilization is the point below which the weakest and most unfortunate are not allowed to fall.” (Herbert Henry Asquith)
Closeness to God and closeness to our fellow believers are both essential aspects of our faith: “You must live with people to know their problems, and live with God in order to solve them.” (Peter Taylor Forsyth)
Here are two principles for being an effective Christian in today’s culture: “Silence evil by doing right and good” and “Let yourself be built into a spiritual house.” The earliest church did these things and, although they experienced conflict within themselves and with one another over these two things, the more they were able to allow the Spirit to transform them along these lines, the more effective they became in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Regarding "silencing evil by doing right and good,’ here’s what occurs to me: the early Christians were slandered by both Jews and secular culture. The Jews slandered them for being blasphemers and by Romans for being disloyal citizens. Contemporary Christians are slandered as being overly protective of our children or of wanting to "impose our values on society.’ In both instances our first and most effective response is the success coming from doing good.
When I think of "letting yourself be built into a spiritual house,’ I remember this: for some of us this reformation begins at ground zero—we have to learn the basics of being trustworthy, telling the truth and gaining self-control. For others the reformation takes a more complex route—finding ways to raise children and live distinctively within a hostile culture that allow abortion, promotes pornography, instills greed as a virtue and sees rampant debt as the cost of being successful .
In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren identifies these characteristics of life together in a healthy church: authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, and mercy:
·Regarding "authenticity,’ Warren comments, “Authenticity is the exact opposite of what you find in some churches. Instead of an atmosphere of honesty and humility, there is pretending, role-playing, politicking and superficial politeness but shallow conversation. People wear masks, keep their guard up and act as if everything is rosy in their lives.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life [Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002], pp.139-40)
·Regarding "mutuality,’ Warren makes these observations, “it is the art of giving and receiving. Mutuality is the heart of fellowship, building reciprocal relationships, sharing responsibilities and helping each other. You are not responsible for everyone…but you are responsible to them.” (ibid pp. 140-41)
·Here’s what he notes about "sympathy:’ “sympathy is entering in and sharing the pain of others. Today some call this "empathy.’ Sympathy meets two fundamental human needs: to be understood and to have your feelings validated.” (ibid p. 141)
·Regarding "mercy,’ Warren counsels us that “fellowship is a place of grace, where mistakes aren’t rubbed in but rubbed out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice. You can’t have fellowship without forgiveness God warns, you can "never hold grudges because bitterness and resentment always destroy fellowship.” (ibid pg. 142)
Warren also counsels’ congregations to cultivate community through these virtues: honesty, humility, courtesy and confidentiality. He then notes, “when you look at the list of characteristics it is obvious why genuine fellowship is so rare. It means giving up our self-centeredness and independency in order to become interdependent.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life [Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002], pg. 151) .
Warren’s chapter on “Protecting Your Church” has good counsel on what to do when the unity of a congregation’s fellowship is threatened: “focus on what we have in common, not our differences; be realistic in your expectations, choose to encourage rather than criticize, refuse to listen to gossip, practice God’s method for conflict resolution and support your pastors and leaders.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life [Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002], pp. 161-66) .
As many church members lead busier and busier lives, the classic pot-luck supper is becoming an endangered species. Fewer and fewer churches regularly get together simply to share a meal, not as a fundraiser or community service event. The early disciples knew that one of the best ways to cement the spirit of a community is to make sure they eat together on a regular basis. Perhaps our judicatory officials would deal with fewer conflicted churches if more of them broke bread together more regularly.
One of the main barriers to deep fellowship today is our hesitancy when it comes to sharing, particularly when it comes to sharing our money. The ancient desert father named Anthony recognized that possessions often are an impediment to following Jesus. A story is told about a man who was leaving the secular world to take up residence among the desert dwellers in Egypt. Although the man gave away much of his goods to the poor, he kept some of his wealth for his own use. He then went to Anthony, and when Anthony realized what he had done, he said, “If you want to be a monk, go to the village over there, buy some meat, hang it on your naked body and come back here.” The man went and did what Anthony commanded him. But as he walked along, dogs and birds tore at his body. When he returned, Anthony asked him if he had done what he was told. The man showed him his tattered body as evidence. Anthony declared, “Those who renounce the world but want to keep their money are attacked in that way by demons and torn in pieces.” (The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by Benedicta Ward [New York: Penguin, 2003], p. 53)
Cohousing is a type of living arrangement that is attempting to create a sense of community among residents who might otherwise never get to know one another. One such cohousing community is in Wild Sage, Colorado. The 34 homes resemble traditional townhouses. But each home opens to a sidewalk that leads to a large common house that is used for community meetings, dinners, and activities. Instead of picking up the mail from a box just outside the front door, residents walk down to the common house to get their letters and magazines. As a result, neighborhood residents have a much greater opportunity to interact with their neighbors. One resident in the community commented, “I just can’t walk out and get my mail. It’s a 30- or 40-minute event, because I’ll wind up talking to 12 people. It’s such a refreshing change of lifestyle.” The first cohousing neighborhood in the United States was set up in Davis, California, in 1991. Since that time, more than 65 similar communities have arisen across the country, and at least 60 more are in the planning stages, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Unlike the communes that arose during the 1960s, residents in cohousing developments own their own homes and pay homeowner fees based on the size of their house and family. To promote a sense of community, Wild Sage offers a movie night each Friday, community dinners are held on Wednesdays and Sundays, brunch is provided on Saturdays, and adult-only dinners are sponsored each Saturday. (“Cohousing Community Draws Locals Together,” Associated Press, 10/23/04)
It’s one thing to share things in common, but some people push the limits a bit. When a woman from Douglasville, Georgia, returned home from a vacation to Greece, she was stunned to discover that a complete stranger had moved into her home and had begun to set up housekeeping there. The woman who had moved into the house uninvited had proceeded to “start wearing some of the homeowner’s clothes, had changed the house’s utilities into her name, and had begun ripping out some of the carpet and repainting a room that she did not like.” Police could not offer an explanation as to why the 54-year-old woman had done that, moving into the house and acting like it was her own. (“Stranger moves in, redecorates while woman’s on vacation,” CNN, 10/22/04)
Instead of focusing on how we can share with one another, many of us concentrate instead on how we can store for ourselves as much as we can. In times gone by, if someone was known to be an “organizer,” it was assumed that the person was someone who traveled from factory to factory attempting to recruit workers to join a union. Nowadays, though, an organizer is also someone you pay by the hour to come into your house, study your closets, and organize your stuff for you. The National Association of Professional Organizers, based on Norcross, Georgia, claims to have more than 1,500 members. The group even offers a certification program. Their goal is to enable people to find a new sense of freedom by bringing some order to all their possessions. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 143)
The passage in Acts drives home the point that who we spend our time with greatly shapes what kind of people we will be. Eugene Rivers was a pastor in Boston who organized “the Boston miracle,” a ministry where a handful of clergy sought to reclaim a Boston neighborhood that had become overrun with drug dealers. A defining moment for Rivers was when a drug dealer offered to take him and some of his colleagues into a crack house to see for themselves the drug dealers and guns they were up against. At one point during the tour, one young heroin dealer turned to Rivers and said, “I’m going to explain to you Christians, who are such good preachers, why you are losing an entire generation. Listen, this is really about being there.” Rivers responded, “What do you mean?” The dealer replied, “When Johnny goes to school in the morning, I’m there, you’re not. When Johnny comes home from school in the afternoon, I’m there, you’re not. When Johnny goes out for a loaf of bread for grandma for dinner, I’m there, you’re not. I win, you lose.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 74)
Koinonia is about developing a deep, sincere solidarity with one another. Barbara received an invitation to attend a national gathering of Lutheran youth. The seventeen-year-old was “paralyzed from the waist down because of a car accident she had been in a few years earlier.” At the time, she didn’t really think too much of the church, and she wondered if she would enjoy attending that kind of a conference. But when she learned that a friend of hers, who was also in a wheelchair, was going, she decided to sign up. On the final evening of the event, the youth had a dance. For a while, Barbara and her friend debated about whether to go, wondering what kind of fun they would be able to have at a dance when they were in wheelchairs. Finally they decided to go and give it a try. At one point during the evening, a boy from Latin American surprised Barbara when he walked up to her and asked her to dance. Flattered, Barbara quickly said yes. The young man proceeded to wheel her out onto the dance floor, then he went and got a chair which he sat in front of her, and there the two of them danced, sitting down. Soon another boy asked Barbara’s friend to dance. He likewise wheeled her out on the dance floor, got a chair, and they danced together, sitting down. Before too long, the entire room of youth followed suit. The room became filled with 500 Lutheran teenagers, all dancing sitting down. (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 177)
In order to share in fellowship with one another, we have no choice but regularly to spend time with one another: “A person who says he believes in God but never goes to church is like one who says he believes in education but never goes to school.” (Franklin Clark Fry)
As the community of believers comes together, the church discovers that it ultimately belongs not to its own members, but to God: “The Church cannot exercise democracy. The Church does not belong to its members nor is it dependent on its members for its life or existence. It belongs to Christ.” (David J. Howson)
The deep fellowship of the church is a necessary environment in which to train Christians how to live in the world: “The meeting-place is the training-place for the market-place.” (John Wimber)
In the film, Chocolat, Vianne has come to the small French village to open a chocolatier, but in the process she has befriended a number of women oppressed in different ways by their families. The village mayor turns many of the townspeople, including the young and pliable priest, against the woman whom he regarded as a bad influence (she had turned down his invitation to attend mass). When a band of river gypsies dock at the village, the mayor’s campaign against bad outside influences includes them as well, and an unstable follower of the mayor starts a fire in the gypsy camp that almost proves fatal. Discouraged, Vianne tells her daughter that it is time for them to move again. The girl is upset because she believes that they finally have found a place where they can give up their wandering ways. However, Vianne remains adamant—until she enters her kitchen and finds the friends she had helped in such meaningful ways busy cooking her recipes. Taken aback by their resoluteness, she realizes that she had started a community that could be described (by Christians anyway) as a koinonia. Her resolve renewed, she agrees to stay, with the result that the village itself, including the mayor and the priest who had blindly followed his lead, is eventually transformed.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Like a shepherd, God calls us together to be God’s flock!
People: Like a shepherd, God provides for all our needs! God gives to us our daily bread and satisfies our thirst!
Leader: Like a shepherd, God leads us in the right paths! God shows to us the pathway that leads to life!
People: Like a shepherd, God is with us both in the sunny fields and in the dark valleys! Come, let us worship the Great Shepherd of the sheep!
God of compassion, in Jesus Christ You have drawn near to us. Yet we hesitate to draw near to You and to one another. Our focus is often on what is “mine” instead of on what is “ours.” And when we do associate with others, frequently we seek out the company of those who are like us—those who think, vote, and act like we do. Merciful Lord, forgive the sinful ways that we separate ourselves from each other. By Your Spirit, tear down the walls that keep us apart so that we may live in sincere fellowship with all Your children; through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
Loving God, apart from You we would have nothing and we would be nothing. All that we have is a gift from You. The blessings You shower upon us are beyond our comprehension. Accept our gifts as a sign of our thanks. For we celebrate the fellowship that we share with You today, and we look forward in profound anticipation to the glorious fellowship we will share in the kingdom that is yet to come; through Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Heavenly Father, God of all people, we praise You for the way that You have called us together to be Your church. We rejoice that even though we are different in so many ways, by Your voice You have brought us together to worship and serve You. As we continue to look to You, bind us together in deep and firm fellowship, so that our commitment to one another and to You will mean more than just “being nice” to one another, but that we might bind ourselves to each other with a faithful love that is rooted in You.
As we look at the world around us, we pray that we might extend the fellowship that we share to those in the broader community. Wherever barriers keep Your people apart, empower us to remove those obstacles. Therefore, we pray for an end to racism in our society, where we allow differences in skin color to keep us apart. We pray for an end to ageism, where we write off the mature members of our society as having outlived their usefulness and where we dismiss the young in our communities as having nothing of value to offer. And we pray for an end to classism, where we measure people’s worth in terms of how much money they possess. In amazing and marvelous ways, draw us and all Your people into a community of faith that is shaped and guided by You. In the name of our Master and Friend we pray. Amen.