The Rev. Frank
Koinonia—A Deeper Connectedness
The sun bears down on the prisoners standing row by row. It is July 1941 and a prisoner has just escaped from the German death camp at Auschwitz, Poland. Someone must pay. The commandant makes the men stand in the sun all day at attention, then he comes to address them. In retaliation for the escape, the commandant declares that ten prisoners will be starved to death in a concrete bunker. The commandant walks down the line and points to Franciszek Gajowniczek. The prisoner cries out, “My poor wife, my poor children. I shall never see them again” At that moment, Prisoner 16670 stepped out of line and took off his cap.
The commandant barked out, “What does this Polish pig want?”
Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest answered, “I want to die in the place of this prisoner.”
The commandant, who by his word had power over life and death in the camp gave the word, “Accepted,” and moved on.
That night, Father Kolbe and nine other men hand selected by the commandant were placed in the basement bunker of Block 13. Lying naked on the floor, they prayed and sang hymns. After two weeks, the bunker was opened and four men, including Kolbe were still alive. The commandant ordered that they be disposed of. Following two weeks in the starvation bunker, Kolbe was taken, still conscious, to the head of the sick quarters. The 47-year old priest died of a lethal injection of Phenol.
Fellow prisoner Jerzy Bielecki declared later that Father Kolbe’s death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength. It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.” Kolbe had written to his mother from Auschwitz earlier that summer, “Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds every one of us in his great love.”
Kolbe’s action sprang from his larger vision of life. He could not single-handedly defeat the entire Nazi regime, but he could and did make an important stand against hatred and arbitrary and meaningless death by offering his own life in the place of a fellow prisoner. In October of 1982, Franciszek Gajowniczek, his wife, children, and grandchildren gathered with 150,000 others in St. Peter’s Square in Rome to celebrate Father Kolbe’s victory over hatred at Auschwitz. They celebrated all that the priest’s life had meant to them.
On a cold November day in 1991, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the rock group Queen died. Mercury, was idolized by hundreds of thousands of fans. He had reached the top of the Rock and Roll heap. However, his life was not without its problems. In a song he wrote for Queen, Mercury asked, “Does anybody know what we are living for?” He told one interviewer, “I seem to eat people up and destroy them. There must be a destructive element in me because I try very hard to build up relationships, but somehow I drive people away. No one loves the real me inside, they're all in love with my fame, my stardom”
In spite of his great success, a large fortune, thousands of adoring fans, and fame, he wrote shortly before his death, “You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man, and that is the most bitter type of loneliness. Success has brought me world idolization and a great financial fortune, but it's prevented me from having the one thing we all need—a loving, ongoing relationship.”
These two men, Maximilian Kolbe and Freddie Mercury died just over 50 years apart. Both men continue to be known around the world, I had no trouble researching their lives and words on the Internet, where sites about each man abound. I think that the difference between these two men was not how they died, but how they lived.
Kolbe’s letter to his mother, and other existing writings show how he felt a deep connection to God and through that relationship, he had a deeper sense of connection to other people. On the other hand, Mercury writes of how disconnected he felt from others. Mercury longed for a truer, more meaningful connection to others, but found it elusive.
This idea of connection is what the Apostle John wrote about this connection to God and among each other in his First Letter, which is our Epistle reading this morning. John says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
The word in the New Testament Greek translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “fellowship” is koinonia. Koinonia is a close connection. To have koinonia with something or someone is to participate with it and in it. Koinonia can mean “fellowship” or “community.” A better translation for koinonia is communion and our communion service is called just that because in communion we have and celebrate koinonia with God and with each other. In Communion, we participate in the very life of God.
John went on to write that, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” It’s interesting that he says that in getting closer to God, we grow closer to one another. At a practical level, it has to be that way. As we draw closer, to God we get closer to all those God is close to. Communion with God leads to a deeper connection to one another. Christian community is at its best when we share each of joys and bear each others burdens because of the connection we feel.
We act out koinonia each time we celebrate a communion service. Each of us comes as an individual. Through the words and actions of the service we are drawn together. We say the same words, in order to commune with God. Through that communion with God, we realize that as children of God, we are brothers and sisters to all the other people on earth. Our connection to God allows for a deeper connection to other people.
I saw that sense of community lived out this week with the prayer list King of Peace has via email. The email list is, appropriately enough called koinonia. We have been in prayer for Sheriff Bill Smith’s son Blake since a car accident two weeks ago. The accident crushed his seventh cervical vertebrae. He’s had 17 hours of surgery since the wreck. Whether he will regain feeling below the chest is still an open question and he is facing a lengthy recovery. I have tried to keep up with his progress and pass those updates along to our prayer list and in turn to another list of more than 200 people around Camden County who join together in praying for needs.
I visited Shands Hospital this week and got to see Blake. We had never met, but I had been one of many people praying for him regularly. I went in and was introduced by his Mom, who mentioned to Blake how requests for prayers for him had filtered out from our prayer list to hundreds of people. Blake held out his hand, and despite a profusion of tubes in his mouth and nose, he look me in the eye and said “Thank You” and asked me to pass my thanks along to the many people praying for him. He asked what we were praying for. I told him, that we were believing for a miracle for him. He said, “Thanks, I need one.” His wife, Gina, and parents also asked me to thank all who were praying for Blake.
On the drive home from Jacksonville, I thought of the many people connected to Blake and his family through prayer. It is an example of koinonia—people sharing a deeper connection with one another in a very real way. I could feel that sense of koinonia in Blake’s eyes, his touch, and in his voice. His “Thank you” was not for me, but for all who he has felt connected with by prayer. This is what John wrote of when he said that everything he declared about Jesus was so that we could have koinonia with God and with each other.
Let’s look once more at Maximilian Kolbe and Freddie Mercury. Kolbe stands for people who experience koinonia in their relationship with God and their relationships with other people. This deep connection with his fellow prisoners made it possible, even logical to Kolbe that he should take the place of a man so concerned over how his death would harm his wife and children. Freddie Mercury stands for people who feel cut off from other people. Mercury was surrounded by people, but felt lonely in a very essential way. The difference between them was not what they did, but who they were and are.
God does not call us to do new things, but into a new way of being. God calls us into koinonia, through that relationship with God; we can experience a deeper connectedness with other people. For Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Note: In this sermon, it is not my intention to judge any person referenced. I do not say that Freddie Mercury is a bad person or to disparage his life work, nor do I intend to do so. My comparison is between the written record of each man's words. It is their own words which offer the contrast between a sense of connection and the absence of one.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526