The Surprising Word that Won the Spelling Bee

The National Spelling Bee, which began in Louisville in 1925, held its 91st competition last month. The Bee begins with 11 million kids, age 15 and under — all vying to get a spot in the national championship in the Washington DC area. (Apparently, there’s no minimum age; last year, a 5-year-old made it through the preliminary rounds. This year, an 8-year-old was among the 519 who made it to the finals — though I gotta ask: What’s he been doin’ the past 3 years?)

But what’s most fascinating to me is the word that won it all. With the championship on the line, what did Karthik Nemmani have to spell in order to wear the crown? Koinonia.

Koinonia is a term that is best-known for appearing in, of all places, the Bible. And specifically, it’s most quoted reference is Acts 2.42 — a description of what the first believers of Jesus committed themselves to practice. Included in the mix is “the koinonia” — a word that usually is translated “fellowship.”

Now, when we use the word ‘fellowship’ in church, it’s usually as an adjective. As in: Let’s gather in the Fellowship Hall for a fellowship meal sponsored by the Fellowship Class. All good things, for sure; but even better because they point to the deeper meaning of the word koinonia.

Koinonia is sharing; a coming together. It’s a bond; it’s having something in common. It’s unity, oneness, participation. It’s where our lives come together in such a way that something happens that’s indispensable; essential; life-changing. 

In fact, a form of the word koinonia appears in Acts 2.44 and 4.32,  both of which describe how the early Christians shared their possessions in common. So, I think it’s appropriate to say that koinonia is where we come together to meet each other’s needs as the family — because we have already come together to be family, in Christ.

Koinonia, then, is not just the pinnacle of the Spelling Bee; it’s the pinnacle of the Christian life. Koinonia is what we share with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1.9), and, as a result, what we then share with each other (described in Philippians 2.1-4, and then powerfully illustrated by the description of Jesus in verses 5-11).

Koinonia is giving ourselves so completely to Christ and to each other that whatever comes — whether it’s suffering in this life, glory in the next, or anything in between — we share it with Jesus, and with each other.

But koinonia doesn’t stop there. We see this at the end of Acts 2, in verse 47, where the first believers were praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Or, at least that’s how the NIV reads. But in this place, I think the King James does a better job, when it says: “they had favor with all the people.”

The idea here, I think, is that the earliest believers lived in such a way that the grace they experienced — the koinonia that they shared — went out from them toward all the people. Church wasn’t just about them, but about taking this wonderful fellowship and unity and purpose out there — to the temple, in the homes, and out where people were.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter tells of a woman who worked in a grocery store checkout lane. Her “sphere of influence” was only a few feet, but everyday she greeted customers with warmth, remembering their names and asking about their families. She would end their brief interactions by saying that she was going to pray for their families.

Over time, this began to cause problems … because people wanted to get in her lane, resulting in long lines. They would wait, though, because she encouraged them. When she died, years after she had retired, the church was packed — as people came to share how this woman had blessed them in her checkout lane.

That’s what koinonia looks like — when we take it out there, where we live. And there are a bunch of ways to do that. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Look Up: Notice people around you. Start by considering who else is seeking to follow Jesus where you live, where you work, where you go to school, where you work out or play cards or golf, and connect with them. (Perhaps, if you don’t find it too hokey, you can call these folks your “Koinonia Krew.”)
  • Look Around: Notice those around you who could use some encouragement, some love, a glimpse of grace. Be available to them. Enlist your Koinonia Krew to join you in praying for, and blessing, these folks.
  • Put Down Your Phone: How many times have you seen people in public not engaging with those right in front of them because they are staring at a screen? How many times have you been that person?
  • Pick Up Your Phone. But wait, Jeff, didn’t you just say….? Yes, but in this case, maybe you need to pick up your phone and reach out to someone who needs to receive a word of encouragement, or forgiveness, or just a simple text that you are thinking about them.
  • Go Outside: Go out in your neighborhood, or in a community space — and see who you run into. Last night my son and I were outside throwing a baseball, when I noticed 6 skunk crossing our street. I don’t remember the last time I saw a skunk (alive, anyway), and here there were at least 6 skittering across the road. (I saw “at least 6” because I sure wasn’t going to get close enough to do a head count.) Anyway, that led to a conversation with the neighbor across the street — someone I barely knew. Who knew skunks on a street could be the source of a refreshing scent — in this case, a whiff of koinonia?
  • Take a Moment: At least once a day, ask someone: How are you doing? Then stop, and really listen.

The point: you can go take the koinonia we share out there, every day, everywhere you go. You don’t need a formal church program, a big budget, a ministry staff, or be a part of a ministry staff to go and love people. You simply need to be grounded in the reality that you are connected to Jesus and to his people — and then go live it out.

Author:

I’m Jeff Dye. After 16 years on staff at a healthy, outreach-minded church, I currently have a ministry called The Paraklesis Project. In the New Testament, “paraklesis” means encouragement — which is what I seek to bring to churches of all sizes through speaking and consulting.

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