Friday, April 9, 2021

Koinonia - Sermon for week ending April 10, 2021

Gospel Reading: 

Acts 4: 32-35
The whole group were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.


Our reading from Acts is one of the lectionary texts for the first Sunday after Easter, as it shows the disciples who were so afraid that they abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, finally finding their courage and continuing the mission that they all started together. Now apostles, they formed what we refer to as the first Christian community, made up of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, probably all Jews at first, but not for long, as we soon see the baptisms of an Ethiopian eunuch and a Roman centurion. The apostles tried to model their new community on Jesus’ teachings about the Kindom of Heaven. These verses in chapter 4 are actually first found in chapter 2, which says: “They would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. They spent time together, broke bread and ate with glad and generous hearts.” The Greek word for this kind of communal living, shared possessions, and fellowship is koinonia. Koinonia is more than that, though. It’s togetherness, acceptance, interdependence, equality, encouragement, service, and radical hospitality. No good deed goes unpunished, though. The apostles were arrested several times because they were getting more and more followers, which, like Jesus and his followers, was a threat to the Empire, but also like Jesus, they kept going, kept spreading the good news, and some of them paid with their lives. We know that Jews and Christians eventually split, likely based more on practices than beliefs, but I like to think that for a little while, at least, there was something close to Jesus’ kindom of heaven on earth. In the late 60’s and early 70’s some of my fellow Jesus freaks joined communes that tried to follow the same principles we see in the earliest Christian community. I don’t know if they were successful or not. But there is one group that started much earlier, and is still around. You might know more about them than I do. Koinonia Farm, just outside Americus, Georgia. It was founded in 1942 by Clarence Jordan. After graduating from the University of Georgia with an agricultural degree and a mission to improve farming techniques for underprivileged farmers and sharecroppers. Then he got his PhD in Greek New Testament from Southern Baptist Seminary. He was influenced by the early progressive pastor and writer Walter Rauschenbusch, who said that faith was as much or more about the kingdom of heaven than it was about being saved or born again and that Jesus preached about this kingdom much more than he did about a personal relationship with God  (and that was in 1917). Inspired by this social gospel, which was inspired by the community described in the book of Acts, Jordan joined with a few others, bought 400 acres in Sumter County and started a farm based on this model, where “those formerly poor and formerly rich worked together hand in hand as equals, black and white families worked together as if part of the same family farm, and the principles of the kingdom were the guiding light for how the community functioned. Sharing all things in common, this community would be a strong and powerful witness to how the gospel of reconciliation would tear down the intense racial divide and systemic bigotries in this part of the Jim Crow South.” But like the Roman Empire, the Jim Crow Empire was very powerful. In 1956, after Brown vs the Board of Education threatened Jim Crow, Koinonia’s interracial summer camp was shut down by the health department, a boycott of all the products the farm sold was called, and a campaign of intimidation, which included violence, began. White Sumter county citizens started driving past at night, firing guns indiscriminately. They burned crosses on their property and dynamited their farm equipment and roadside stands. In 1957, an 80-car motorcade of Klan members visited Koinonia and told them to leave the state. When Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker Movement came to sit night watch, someone drove by and fired a shot gun into her car. But, like Jesus and the apostles, they kept going. They kept living the message. To circumvent the boycott, they started a nationwide mail-order business, shipping pecans and peanuts to sympathetic customers across the country. That kept them afloat, but they still struggled. And their membership dwindled, which is what the white citizens of Sumter county wanted. Help arrived in what could have been one of Jesus’ parables.  In 1963, Millard Fuller, a lawyer, businessman, and millionaire from Alabama, and his wife Linda, who were having a spiritual and a marital crisis, gave away everything they owned and moved to Koinonia with their children. Fuller found a mentor and partner in Clarence Jordan, and both believing the words from the bible that land and property should be available to all those in need, they began building houses for poor people in Sumter County. After 10 years, the Fullers left to establish a similar housing program in Africa, and in 1976, with the support and backing of the Koinonia members, Habitat for Humanity international was established. Koinonia has gone through many changes in its 79 years.  It became a non-profit in 1993. But in 2005 it returned to its original form of communal living. And it is still going. Its present mission statement is “to live an intentional, common life together, modeled after the description of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. While we might not be able to live in a physical covenantal community of fellowship, shared possessions and shared meals, we can strive always to live by its principles:  togetherness, acceptance, interdependence, equality, encouragement, service, and radical hospitality.


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