A homily given by the Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

As was pointed out at the start of our time together this evening, we are being asked tonight to complete forms for the National Church Life Survey. So, my message will be briefer than normal.

The NCLS website describes the purpose of the survey we are completing as being:

Designed to listen to the views of your leadership, attenders, and broader community to provide a picture of your church’s health and vitality. The results will help you identify your strengths and provide processes to help you evaluate, make decisions and connect effectively with your community.

That’s ‘survey talk’ for helping our congregations have an effective, faithful mission to ourselves and the community in which we all live. Our Epistle reading this evening [Gal 4:12-20] was an admonition from Paul to the faithful of Galatia, the pivotal point being verse 18:

It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times. [4:18]

In his commentary on this verse, Matthew Henry wrote:[1]

An excellent rule is given. It is good to be zealous always in a good thing; not for a time only, or now and then, but always. Happy would it be for the church of Christ, if this zeal was better maintained.

In other words, Paul was exhorting the church in Galatia to keep faithful to Christ and not be affected by pressure from the world in which they lived. Yet this should not mean a total disconnection from that world. N T Wright in his article The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology, has written:[2]

The God of whom Paul speaks in Galatians … is not a private God, to be worshiped by initiates but kept secret from the outside world. This God must be spoken of in the public arena. This God claims the allegiance of all, because this God is both creator and lover of all.

May I encourage us then to reflect that our mission is not only to be a community of believers for our own collective self-interest but to be, as we heard the choir sing just now in the Nunc Dimittis:

… a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. [Luke 2:31]

So, as we complete the survey forms tonight, might we not think about that task in terms of how our congregation may be such a light that echoes the Grace where we say:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. [2 Cor 13:13]

‘The fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ – in Greek the word ‘fellowship’ is κοινωνία [Koinonia]. Koinonia is one of those churchly Greek words that we often use and which give us warm feelings when we do – in this regard it joins such words as agape and shalom. We have the apostle Paul to thank for this churchly power of the word, for he used it often, a key use being in his first letter to the Corinthians:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [1 Cor 10:16]

Where the word ‘sharing’ in the RSV version of this version was a translation of koinonia or fellowship as it is more regularly translated. While he used the word often, Paul also used it differently from previous usage. Indeed, Paul elevated the word from a mere descriptive noun to a theological concept. Up to that point the word, cognate from the Greek koino which meant ‘ordinary or common’, came to mean only a group gathered. Henry Ergas has noted that when the word referred to such groups it didn’t:[3]

Necessarily (imply) any form of close bond, much less fellowship.

He noted that Aristotle had used the word koinonia as a descriptor simply for ‘community’ as gatherings of people either tribally (ethne) or geographically (poleis) brought together, but it did not carry any deeper sense of bond between members of such groups or define the nature of the relationship with those beyond the group’s bounds of tribe or geography.

It is true that the philosopher Epicurus [341-270 BC] had used the word in his Principal Doctrines in a manner verging on a concept, when he wrote in his Doctrine 38:[4]

… those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community.

Where he had used the word koinonia to signify ‘mutual advantage among companions’. By that usage, Epicurus had intended that the word would define an ‘us’ whose interests were superior to a ‘them’ who existed beyond the defined group, and therefore not deserving of any preference.

This was distinctly not Paul’s intent; consider Galatians 2:9 where Paul wrote:

(they) gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (koinonia) when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.

In his use of koinonia here, Paul had invited the ‘them’ to be part of the ‘us’. More than that, as the words of the Grace attest, the ‘us’ forming the koinonia were to be in fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

By doing so, Paul indicated he understood what Jesus had meant when our Lord had spoken of the two greatest commandments – loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself [Luke 10:27] – and then had given an altruistic definition of neighbour – the parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:28-37] being a key such lesson.

Epicurus had intended preferment to members of one’s own group in his concept of koinonia, Paul had not. He had expanded the meaning of the word echoing Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do that? [5:46-47]

As we complete our NCLS forms tonight, what sense of koinonia will guide us? Epicurus, speaking from the world’s wisdom of self-interest of one’s own group; or Paul, following Christ, calling us to a universal outreach?

A supplementary note about koinonia not used in the homily due to time constraint

In the Septuagint, the version of the Torah in Greek, there is this usage of the word koinonia in Leviticus 6:2 (Leviticus 5:21 in the Torah in Hebrew and in our Old Testament):

The soul which shall have sinned, and willfully overlooked the commandments of the Lord, and shall have dealt falsely in the affairs of his neighbour in the matter of a deposit, or concerning fellowship (koinonia), or concerning plunder, or has in anything wronged his neighbour. [Brenton’s Septuagint translation]

The Hebrew Torah equivalent translates a little differently, leaving out the phrase ‘concerning fellowship’:

If a person will sin and commit a treachery against Hashem by lying to his comrade regarding a pledge or a loan or a robbery; or by defrauding his comrade.

Paul, born in Tarsus, where Greek predominated, and who was ‘brought up … at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law’ [Acts 22:3] would have known this Septuagint version of the Leviticus verse. It is speculation, of course, but it may have influenced the development of his thinking about what koinonia could mean as a deeper concept.

Further in the line of speculation, the Bibleinfo.com site has this to say about Gamaliel:[5]

From Gamaliel, we see the importance of being guided by the Holy Spirit. Gamaliel was open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, even though he was a Pharisee and an expert of the law.

So, this may have influenced Paul’s wording of the last line of the Grace:

… and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you always.

[1] Galatians 4 Bible Commentary – Matthew Henry (concise) (christianity.com)

[2] The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology – NTWrightPage

[3] From e-Mail received from Henry Ergas, 18.02.22

[4] Principal Doctrines, by Epicurus (monadnock.net) Principal Doctrine #37 also contained a similar usage of koinonia.

[5] Who was Gamaliel? | Bibleinfo.com