I am, and always have been, a bibliophile. That is not a bad word nor the sort of thing that might get me arrested. It is, quite simply, one who has a love and appreciation for books. If you look in our home or in my office you will find hundreds of books, lining walls, stacked on desks, piled on nightstands. If you find me without one for very long, and such things are rare, you might want to call an ambulance or a psychiatrist because something is definitely, woefully wrong.
I have and continue to read, a wide variety of genres, but I often find myself coming back to familiar stories and authors, particularly my first literary love, science fiction and fantasy. Among the greats, such as Terry Brooks, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson, the grandfather of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, stands out as my favorite to read, more specifically, The Lord of the Rings saga. In this three-volume set, you will find all the tropes of fantasy fiction you could ever hope to find: magical creatures and beings, unusual races, vast landscapes, and an epic quest of good against evil. Yet, to me, what stands out more than anything is a great friendship and extreme loyalty to the main character and his faithful servant: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.
As the story begins, Samwise is the gardener of Bag End, the home of Frodo Baggins, as his father before him had been. Samwise is a curious fellow and his curiosity gets the better of him when the wizard Gandalf comes to tell Frodo of a great evil in the lands. Samwise is caught eavesdropping and finds himself moving from gardener to valet for the journey ahead. Along the way, Sam and Frodo develop a friendship that leads them to lean on one another to survive the perils of the quest to distant lands and great dangers.
At a certain point, it becomes apparent that the travels have brought these two characters closer, depending on one another for their very lives but also for their emotional survival as well. The quest is to carry a ring of great evil to a volcanic mountain far from their home, and the power of this ring weighs heavily on Frodo as he carries it. So, Frodo carries the ring and Sam carries Frodo, literally at one point in the story, to alleviate the burden. Their relationship becomes so close that Frodo begins to think of and treat Sam as a member of the family, in the end leaving his home and sizable fortune to Sam and his wife on Frodo’s leaving the shire for the Undying Lands, a type of heaven.
For me, this relationship typifies the idea of communion. Communion, when used in the Christian sense of it, means the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level and specifically between the individual and God or the individual and others. This comes from the Latin words communis or communio, meaning a mutual participation. For Frodo and Sam, their journey was one of mutual participation if nothing else. Their connection to one another was, to me, a fitting example of what the earliest followers of Jesus lived out.
The community of believers that we read about in Acts 2:42-47, and again in Acts 4:32-35, was one in heart (kardia) and mind (psuche). I believe that oneness of heart and mind found its focus on God. It was because the believers, through the power of the Holy Spirit, found a deep, abiding connection to God that they were able to connect to one another. New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright alluded to this in his book Simply Christian when he wrote,
“God offers us, by the Spirit, a fresh kind of relationship with himself – and, at the same time, a fresh kind of relationship with our neighbors and with the whole of creation…Christian spirituality combines a sense of the awe and majesty of God with a sense of his intimate presence.”
This hunger for God together is, I believe, part of the catalyst for many of the great movements of the Spirit of God in the history of Western Christianity and the source of the great movement of God that we have seen around the world recently, particularly in Africa, South America, and Asia during the last half of the twentieth century. I believe it is also the driving force behind the spiritual movement in those who seek divine presence but not in the established church, the “spiritual but not religious” group that has sworn off the institution in favor of seeking a personal connection to God privately elsewhere.
Historically, the early church is not the only place we have seen this kind of movement. It was found in many fringe groups throughout the history of the church, including “the desert fathers and mothers, the Waldensians, the Beguines and Beghards, the Bruderhof, the Amish,” and others down to the Methodist movement of John Wesley in his day and groups like Fresh Expressions in ours. All through the history of Jesus’s followers, there have been those who connected to one another by their communion, their mutual participation in life, with God through the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
The first example we have for this comes to us from the gospels. The writer of Luke tells us, “But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.” By this example, Jesus shows the disciples that prayer requires time devoted to being in the presence of and in communion with God, away from the world around us. It is not just a passing moment where we throw up a few well-meaning requests about the people and things we are worried about in our lives. Prayer is communion, mutual participation in the moment, with God, an intense connection to the Creator that calls us into being and sustains us in this life. Interestingly enough, of the eighty-two times that prayer is mentioned in the New Testament, fifty-eight of those are found in the gospels, either referencing the prayers of Jesus or his commentary on prayer.
The writer of Matthew notes that Jesus commended his people to prayer, or spiritual communion with God, but not just any prayer. Jesus gives the disciples a lesson in the Sermon on the Mount, saying,
“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.”
Jesus ends this discourse on prayer by giving the disciples the model prayer that we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, as a kind of guide for what is important in prayer. But notice what is said about prayer in this passage. It is a solitary pursuit. We go into a quiet place alone and seek the presence of Abba, the Father. It is an honest pursuit. God knows what we are going to ask for before we ask so the asking isn’t the important part, the connection to God is. Empty words and frivolous platitudes are meaningless when our souls are truly laid bare in the presence of the divine. Meister Eckhart writes, “…if a man has God, and has only God, then no one can hinder him. Why? Because he has only God, and his intention is toward God alone, and all things become for him nothing but God.” In other words, when we truly seek beyond the formulas and rote expressions to being in the presence of God first, foremost, and above all, we will find ourselves changed to being able to see the hand of God in and behind all things. Every experience of life will then have the opportunity to be a God experience.
Yet, this solitary communion with God does not limit our communion, our mutual participation in a life of faith, with one another. If nothing else, it enhances it. Imagine, if you will, a point on a sheet of paper. From that point, countless lines radiate out in varying lengths and all are pointed to the center, all are focused on the single dot, and moving the direction of that dot. If we consider God to be the dot and ourselves to be the lines, we have an image of communion. Each line is connected to one another by its connection to the dot in the center. If we are all moving in the same direction, we are all moving not only toward God as the center dot but toward one another as we grow in the same direction. This is spiritual participation with God and one another; this is communion.
As we look back at Jesus’s followers in Acts, we find this as their communion. They were devoted to life together, to “the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.” They “were united and shared everything.” “They met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.” They were “one in heart and mind…and held everything in common.” In other words, they experienced this new life in the way of Jesus as a unified, singular expression of faith, a way of being with and for one another.
And God was with them in the midst of it. “A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.” Throughout the text of Acts we see over and over God moving in communion, mutual partnership, with the faithful acts of those who followed Jesus’s Way; leading, guiding, restoring, healing. In their communion with one another, they experienced communion with God.
To see the state of this country and the greater church is a sad commentary on this idea of communion. If anything, we seem to live in days of an anti-communion, where the wrong thought might set you on the outs with those you thought were friends and family. When social media gives people a platform to disseminate hate and vitriol to those whom they would not have the courage to speak to face to face. Where people cannot, will not, even seek to find common ground for fear that they might be seen as weak and compromising. All of this reminds me of a sermon by John Wesley called Catholic Spirit. In it, Wesley speaks into today, saying,
“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”
Are we willing to offer our hands to others in communion as we offer our hearts in communion to God, even if we don’t agree on everything or anything? Can we truly seek to experience a mutual participation in this life between ourselves and God and neighbor and friend and enemy and anyone else that walks the Creation of God? Let us hope so. If not, I fear that brokenness will lead to greater brokenness and peace of heart and mind will be replaced with callousness and suspicion. May the words of Jehu be our rallying cry to true communion, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?…If so,…then give me your hand.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 1954.
—. The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Inquiry Into the Sociology of the Church. London: FB&c Limited, 2015.
Bridges, Jerry. True Community: The Biblical Practices of Koinonia. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012.
Rohr, Richard. Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of St. Francis of Assisi. Cinncinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014.
Willimon, William H. Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Wright, N.T. Simply Christian. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2006.