So begins the movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I saw the Duplasses’ latest movie this past weekend with a friend, and it stuck with me much longer than the 83 minutes of laughing and crying in our local theatre. From the midst of absurdity, shocking idiocy (and I mean that in the kindest sense possible), and relational blundering, the mysterious reality of the interconnectedness of humanity shines forth. Jeff, a thirty year old, unemployed pothead who lives in his mother’s basement, follows what he perceives as signs pointing toward his destiny or purpose in life. Pursuing these signs sends him on a whacky adventure through which he, his brother, and mother (along with the audience) discover that we all are really linked together in invisible but powerful ways. We all really do belong to each other. Our encounters with each other may have significance beyond what we can see in the moment and perhaps even in our lifetime.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home has remained with me, because it reminded me of a profound spiritual reality—koinonia. A number of systematic and practical theologians have explored the ontological reality of koinonia (see below for a list of recommended resources), recognizing even that the insights of quantum physics, object relations theory, and interpersonal neurobiology point toward (witness to) this larger theological category. In brief, koinonia, frequently translated in the New Testament as “fellowship,” refers to multiple relationships that are characterized by mutual indwelling, participation, coexistence . . . at the level of being. As George Hunsinger puts it, this indwelling signals the greatest possible intimacy and integrity in relationship. Here integrity means something like differentiation. The Triune God exists in koinonia and creates humankind for the sake of a new kind of koinonia—union and communion between Creator and creature. Human beings tragically spurn this koinonia. Thus Jesus Christ reconciles human beings to God and each other, thereby establishing us eternally in a union and communion of love with God, each other, and indeed the whole cosmos.
We don’t see it usually; we remain unaware of it most days; but, the truth is that we belong to one another. We participate in one another’s lives, not in some external sense, but in an internal, spiritual sense. This is what the communion of saints refers to—our lives are inextricably caught up with that great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us and will come after us. We exist in Christ, in and with them.
Sometimes we get glimpses of our mysterious, life giving, and life sustaining koinonia with Christ and each other. I’ve had the privilege to see that recently, not just in a movie but in the midst of the profound suffering-love of two women whom I’ve never met and who have never met each other. Karin Smith, the wife of a friend and colleague of mine and perhaps yours (Duane Smith), was recently diagnosed with cancer and has undergone extensive, radical surgery and treatment. Duane created a facebook page where friends and family members could keep in touch with Karin’s progress and post their prayers and loving thoughts. I’ve read Duane’s many messages on a daily basis. I’ve been moved, awed really, by the outpouring of love, by how much this all witnesses to the mystery of koinonia, by how much Karin and Duane’s painful adventure is connected to persons near and far.
One of Duane’s friends, Eric who is doing mission work in Swaziland, was praying with Alphosinah, a woman suffering from cancer with no medical resources or help to speak of, when his alarm beeped to remind him to pray for Karin. Eric invited Alphosinah to pray for Karin as well, and as she was doing so, Eric was inspired by the Spirit to consider how those supporting Karin might also support Alphosinah. As Duane reports, Eric didn’t know that at same time, “Karin’s Hope,” a ministry that will raise funds for cancer victims in third world countries, was taking shape. Born out of particular suffering and love, Karin’s Hope is already helping Alphosinah, giving her hope and providing means for her healing. And in the process, all of us who are connected to these women, and through them to each other, are reminded of God’s great love that embraces and upholds us all together. Personally, Karin, Duane, Alphosinah, Eric and everyone else connected to them have inspired me to rest and revel in the faith, hope, and love birthed in my heart on account of our existence in koinonia.
** To find out more about Karin’s Hope, go to Karin Smith Support Group on Facebook.
A few resources on koinonia:
Hunsinger, George. Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Eerdmans, 2000.
Latini, Theresa F. The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry. Eerdmans, 2011.
Loder, James E. The Transforming Moment. 2nd ed. Helmers & Howard, 1989.