Koinonia. What is it? When I hear that word I picture a rich man who has vast ponds with huge, brightly coloured fish powerfully swimming – a beacon of wealth and status. What it actually is, is something quite different. It is a way of doing fellowship with deep vulnerability and although it can be hard work, it can become a beacon of the wealth of love we have for each other in the Church.
Koinonia is a Greek word that is rich in meaning, so rich that we have no one word that can explain it in English. It means a deep ‘fellowship’ or ‘joint participation’. It was used to speak of conjoined twins, it could be used to describe a joint gift or contribution given from a group of people, and it can also be a picture of marriage – a deep sense of sharing everything. Koinonia is a way of life in which everything is shared, and like conjoined twins, a group who practise koinonia suffer together, weep together, laugh together and celebrate together. So when one in the group mourns with no words, the others mourn with no words, and when one has passed a driving test, everyone whoops and punches the air!
This does not mean the whole group lead exactly the same lives but rather they live their lives differently, together. We may be picturing one of the New Monastic communities in which people live together, praying and serving under pretty much the same roof. Although this is pretty amazing (go see it in action at Scargill House) a question that the Church is constantly asking in different cultures is: How do we live our different lives and yet share everything? Let’s not think about ‘living together’ but ‘together living’.
We can do this by choosing the same purpose. A group experiencing koinonia feel so close in purpose because their overall purpose in life is the same – it’s God’s purpose. We can pray and decipher what it means for us to have God’s purpose in our individual lives but what does it look like to have God’s purpose as a group? The perfect example we have of living in community is the Trinity. Here are some things to remember when asking how we can have God’s purpose as a group:
1) We all choose to live by the Spirit. ‘Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.’ (Romans 8:5–6)
2) We all have our lives hid with Christ on high. ‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ (Colossians 3:1–3)
3) We all, by adoption, are brothers and sisters, children of God. ‘For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.’ (Romans 8:14–16)
These things remind us that we are caught up in the family and movement of the Trinity. This group life is a constant rolling of love. It reminds me of Joey from Friends when he tells Monica and Chandler what he is going to say at their wedding ceremony: ‘It is a love based on giving and receiving as well as having and sharing. And the love that they give and have is shared and received. And through this having and giving and sharing and receiving, we too can share and love and have… and receive.’
The humour comes from the fact that he doesn’t have any more vocabulary to express the love shared between Monica and Chandler. The love in the Trinity is all about the simultaneous loving, giving, having and receiving, and we don’t have any great words to express it better!
Joey keeps repeating the same themes and the future Bings get exasperated at the constant repetition. Sometimes I feel we get like that in groups: a bit bored of the same giving and having love for the same people… but take heart! This love can be refreshed in us through all being caught up with the Trinity in prayer – receiving God’s love. It is this same everlasting love that we give to the other members in the group and when we get exhausted it is good to remember that our lives are ‘hidden with Christ’ (Colossians 3:3). So Christ’s Spirit of infinite love speaks to God’s Spirit in us, to enable us to give that love to others without exhaustion. God does the love for us!
Don’t forget that we are by adoption all children of God. If we imagine adopting a child, do we not hope that child would know they are fully and wholly loved by their adopted Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters? So then, we need to show our adopted brothers and sisters that same love, as Jesus loves us.
So let’s think how we have that movement of love in the group, practically practising koinonia ‘together living’.
- Sharing in vulnerability. The more we get to know a small group, the more we become vulnerable and are able to share deeper heart issues. This should not be instant, and it is sometimes a warning sign to others when that vulnerability shows up on first meeting someone. Trust should be built in a group, confidentially over regular meetings.
- Sharing normal life together. Had a small achievement? Email the group. Got told off at work? Let someone in the group know! Sometimes we don’t think our little stuff is important, and we don’t want to be the one sharing the ‘boring’ stuff. It’s through the ‘boring’ sharing of our thoughts that we get to know each other better. This is a two-way street! When others in the group share small things, we can be interested or compassionate because they are family and we care what happens to them. Share life together by eating together on a regular basis – this is where koinonia can excel (see Acts 2:42).
- Interdependence.This means being there for each other. It is not co-dependence where one leans heavily on the other and the other leans heavily back – it is a group connectivity where we all help each other work out the practicalities of life. And this does mean giving our time to each other and giving our resources to each other. Ask yourself how much of your time and resources you give to your group.
- Boundaries! You may think this contrary to what we’ve just been talking about, but just as you give your children boundaries and still love them deeply, so we can give boundaries to our group members. The balance of sharing everything and yet not taking advantage of each other can be very tricky.
We have all had experiences of seeing or being one who takes the most out of a group, and it is OK to let people have their season of being that person. However, if there is one who takes and never gives in the long term, boundaries need to be set up to love this person. Boundaries are a great thing to always talk about in your group. How close is too close? When is not a good time? What does confidentiality mean? When these boundaries are clear between one another, everyone can give freely. (Dr Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries is a fantastic resource.)
- Flowing out. Lastly, a great way of allowing the movement of love from God is by allowing that love we have and give to flow out of the group to others. This could be through a group mission or ministry, or a group event that blesses others. Don’t forget before and after this flowing out to pray for one another, constantly asking God’s love to refill each other.
The best example of koinonia is in the Early Church. Acts 2 says the believers, ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All the believers were together and had everything in common’ (Acts 2:42,44). They had everything in common because they shared life together. They probably didn’t all like the same Middle Eastern Lyre Gold Album, nor have the same taste in flatbread fillings, but they mourned together, they celebrated together, they had everything in common as they had one common purpose – God’s purpose; to love as Jesus loved them.