Communion is no decorative bread left behind on the table for show, but Living Bread from Heaven given to put all the good on the go in love of the household of God…
I don’t remember why I paused in Philemon. Between the post surgical pain and pain meds, who knows? But this much I remember: Gratitude. Giving thanks. Eucharist, as they say in the Greek.
A couple months back, the infection set in bad on my jaw. Two or three rounds of antibiotics from my good dentist managed to tamp it down a bit now and then, so I could press onward with most major tasks at hand. I had June weddings to preach, semiannual reports and monthly board meetings, a community milestone to observe, junior high kids’ retreat, Synodical convention and more. So I work on and wait, biding my time while quietly biting my tongue now and then.
Surgery got scheduled last May for this past week in July. Multiple extractions. Prosthesis. That’s “dentures” in non-dentistry terms. Thus I must sit in the pew this Lord’s Day, rather than stand before the Lord’s altar or at my place in His pulpit. Such sacred resting doesn’t come easily for me, either, sometimes.
See the guy with the bread up above? He’s like us. It’s very good that he prays. Better still, soon that he should eat! Lately, I’ve felt so stuck in that moment between the praying and the eating. Sore mouth makes for quite little sleep and many very slight meals in these last several months. Hungry, I feel for that poor old soul, hoping he just opens his eyes, hands and mouth to take and eat daily bread our Lord provides right there–so close to him. Likewise, some of us will just pray and despite Jesusly, pastorly coaxing and chides still won’t bother or not even try to take and eat, doing this often, “in remembrance of Me.” One can forget what God has given so nearby “for you,” take it for granted but still not manage to take it in all the same.
The saints at Immanuel have stepped up and done well by their Called Servant while he’s convalescing this week. When the antibiotics let me down and the pain flared up fast again this fourth time, they took up the work of VBS this year without me, teaching their children and neighbors as God bids them do. His Blood-bought saints sent me kind cards and brief texts. Some make personal visits, spend casual time and hold caring conversation with me, for me.
Theirs are no idle, false “thoughts and prayers” of the internet fame. Their prayers and thoughts find concrete forms in the flesh. This is a good, godly love–a right and salutary, personal relief embodied even in the gift of soft, comfort-food meals now and then. Like Paul so often does, I also give thanks for the faith and the love of these saints in Christ Jesus.
So somewhere along the line this week I find myself lazily gazing and grazing here in Philemon. The RSV (Revised Standard Version) is not my usual or default translation for devotional reading and study. Most often it’s his grandson, ESV (English Standard Version), since that’s the English which the Synod prints out for us in these latter days. Still, I plucked this RSV Sabbath grain from Philemon’s field and set it here on the table above us for all of us to share.
Philemon is such a short, lovely book. It’s almost a private letter, except Paul writes both to Philemon “and the church in your house “ back in verse 2. When the Apostle Christ sent writes to Philemon, he intends for the whole Church to hear. Good that we still have kept his word. The ESV offers his thanksgiving as Paul opens this letter:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Now this sounds so very American! Break out the tape measures and ready the demographer’s scales! Don’t we have expensive, elaborate studies or some special poll system by now for such spiritual metrics? Is this effective?!? We ask such questions in most other facets of life, often importing that 21st Century concern into a First Century text as if important now as it must’ve been then for our good life in Christ. We Americans want most everything–especially our sharing of the faith–to be effective, don’t we? The alternative, Christian, is not ineffective–but perhaps immeasurably inactive, utterly dead and inert!
To my ear, this just doesn’t sound like Scripture usually sounds–however Scientific-ly American it may be. Contemporary corporate obsession with things reckoned “Highly Effective” sells millions of lovely Steven Covey books, but simply is not the same spiritual perspective one anticipates from these ancient texts and times. We almost hear that word “effective” today in an exclusively measurable way. Being myself a Greek geek with convalescent idle time, like some sweet-toothed kid at the end of Halloween night, I dug in to the mixed bag to see just what tasty treats I might find. Here’s the ESV, NIV, RSV and KJV for Philemon 6-7 in reverse chronological parallel:
“Effective” or its variant English form is found in three of the four, as common as last year’s leftover holiday sale candy. RSV oddly translated “promote the knowledge” in “the sharing of your faith.” But…Ooooohhh…Wait a minute…look also at those few first words of verse 6:
“the sharing of your faith,” (ESV/RSV)
“your partnership with us in the faith,” (NIV)
“the communication of thy faith” (KJV)
Kind Readers, meet our dear friend “Koinonia,” the New Testament’s multifaceted, main communion word. In Corinthians, Paul connects this directly with the Lord’s Supper. “The cup of blessing which we bless,” this “bread which we break” is our communion, our participation, a sharing in the very body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:15-22). Before we ask what or how this thing is “effective,” first we must chew on this koinonia “communion” word together for a while.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Christ’s real presence in communion for us thus excludes all things idolatrous or demonic, such that Christ Himself should enter in, dwell and exclusively reign there over all our sin, death and the power of the devil. This Biblical, Christian Koinonia never excludes the whole Jesus. Rather, in communion with Christ, we are included and united only to whomever and whatever else rightly belongs with Christ: along with the “the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who laud and magnify [His] glorious name…”
Below, an online interlinear Bible shows the Greek of Philemon 6 and in English relates literally, woodenly “the fellowship of the faith…” and “effective might become…”
This Kononia is the communion of the Church. The one, holy, Christian and apostolic church does not know multiple communions. Hers is “One mystic, sweet communion with those whose rest is won” exclusively in Christ Jesus, as the old song declares. Throughout the New Testament, apostles do talk here and there about different aspects of our singular koinonia. That one communion, “the” communion we enjoy (v.6) may be multifaceted, but in Scripture Christian koinonia never excludes the one Lord Jesus Christ nor anyone “united with Him by Baptism“ (Romans 6:3-6).
Kononia is made most manifest, embodied for us in His Supper at His table. There we share in Him, participate in Him, commune as one in His body and blood with the whole church in heaven and on earth. We commune united not by our slogans, group activities or mutual goals in life, but only by our Savior Jesus Christ. We share this fellowship in Christ with some seen and some unseen, some near now to us and a whole heavenly host geographically or temporally far removed, the vast majority of whom we’ve not yet met, known nor ever seen. We cannot see the full communion of saints until “on the Last Day, He will raise me and all the dead and give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life.” (Small Catechism, Meaning of the Third Article of the Creed) This is most certainly true!
Culturally, American Christians speak of “fellowship” in rather strange and unbiblical ways, verbing that noun as if it mostly involved any and every social activity sponsored by Christians for Christians and all their incidental guests. It is thought that such social and service-oriented good works actually constitutes our “fellowshipping,” especially by those who deny the real presence and work of Christ in and through His Word and Sacrament ministry. Like worshipping, fellowshipping is thought of as our verb, as something we Christians accomplish or do. Likewise Christians speak generally of “sharing the faith,” as though that primarily happens when a Christian speaks with an unbeliever. Paul describes a very different, sacred sharing for us here.
Proselytizing is not the Biblical sort of “sharing the faith“ St. Paul has in mind. Evangelism and preaching the Gospel to those outside “the fellowship of your faith” are vital and important tasks given the Church, but these are not what Scripture includes in “the sharing of your faith.” This Philemon 6 “sharing of your faith” happens between particularly known, confessd Christians, from concrete flesh and blood believer to believer in Christ. This koinonia means sharing in the things which faith believes and the One in Whom faith believes. These are being confessed and held in common, all parties receiving and sharing and participating and communing as one in the same faith, in the same Christ.
In Philemon 6, the Apostle gives thanks for the fellowship these saints already enjoy. The Lord God has created and preserved this fellowship by faith in Christ. Paul’s whole letter and request is predicated upon the presence of their fellowship in Christ. Had they no such fellowship, Paul’s case and request on behalf of Onesimus would be in vain. You see, Philemon knows he has fellowship with Paul, Timothy, Apphia, Archippus, and with the whole “church that meets in your house” (v.2).
Paul’s argument for Philemon to welcome Onesimus’ return is their full communion, their Christian fellowship, what master Philemon and servant Onesimus already equally share in as brothers by faith in Christ. The bread which they break together is participation in one body. The cup of blessing which they bless is participation in the blood of one and the very same Christ.
Both physical and spiritual “effects” of fellowship emerge into view, as we see in verse 16:
15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
So in the beginning, while Paul prays that their fellowship, their communion, their sharing of your faith be effective/effectual, there is one very particular, concrete, interpersonal effect their communion intends to produce: one forgiven sinner loves and serves the next forgiven sinner. Repentant sinner Onesimus ought be welcomed by repentant sinner Philemon as a treasured, blood-bought, fully redeemed and restored brother in Christ.
If Philemon regards the Apostle Paul as a true brother and communicant-partner (κοινωνόν) in Christ, he must also esteem repentant, returning Onesimus this same way. One Jesus died for them all. That same Jesus gives them all to eat the one Bread of Life, His body “given for you.” Together they drink of this one “cup of the New Testament in My blood, shed for you”–and him, too! Jesus is never excluded or absent in Christian koinonia.
6…that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
The chief “good thing that is in” Paul is the body of Christ Jesus. The “good thing that is in” Philemon, Onesimus, and all you who commune is Christ Jesus, the Lord of this Supper. “This is My body, given for you,” Jesus says. What “effect” shall this communion, this fellowship have among us? None other than real sins forgiven, real sinners reconciled. Here we find an effectual fellowship, the uniting in Christ of real persons:
“redeemed [like] me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [like] me from all sin, death and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, His innocent suffering and death, that [we] may be his own…” (Small Catechism, Meaning of the Second Article of the Creed).
The Sacrament shows us that fellowship in Christ and none other. It is effective in this way for those who take, eat and drink as Christ says, believing you receive what He bids you receive and that it does what He gives it to do for you, in you and through you. Participation, this communion, the mutual sharing of your faith at the Lord’s Table with a fellow repentant, confessing Christian brings this joy, this comfort, and a love the likes of which moved my fellow saints to love me in my bodily weakness and need this week.
I thank God these faithful folks don’t just pray and leave the Bread of Life far behind on the Lord’s table, like some dust-worthy antique, religious centerpiece. This Living Bread from Heaven is alive and active in them, by God’s grace, through faith. These folks have opened their thanks-giving Eucharist eyes. They too take and eat and drink and share in God’s grace with me. By their fellowship and enlivened acts of love, I am refreshed, until (soon I pray) I may return and take up my duty among them again. It will be my turn once more for refreshing them in their weakness and need, according to the ‘effective’ activating, dynamic, energy (ἐνεργὴς) God has given me by faith at that same table.
My convalescent gazing and grazing in Philemon brought these things to mind. May it encourage and also comfort yours,