The winning word at this year's National Spelling Bee Championships should be familiar to most Sunday School-goers. Last week, 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani, of McKinney, Texas, outlasted 515 other spellers, winning in the 18th round by correctly spelling koinonia.
Sixteen finalists competed at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., for the coveted title. In advancing, they had survived five brutal hours of challenging spelling that included such befuddling words as glossodynia, triturate, Praxitelean, and bewusstseinslage. Please don't ask me what any of those words mean.
According to the Washington Post, Nemmani "displayed the poise of a veteran, seeming to sail through his words," among which were condottiere, miarolitic, ankyloglossia, and haecceitas. My spell checker doesn't even recognize them!
Incidentally, among the many competitors was Tara Singh, a 13-year-old from Louisville, who was competing in her fifth national bee. This was Nemmani's first time, and for his amazing feat, he received a $40,000 cash price from Scripps and a trophy.
While Nemmani will never forget spelling koinonia before intense judges, many Christians sometimes forget to practice it. The Greek word is defined as "intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing in a common religious commitment and spiritual community." The biblical concept—drawn from Acts 2:45 and Philippians 1:5—describes fellowship, communion, or partnership in the gospel, and often is used in naming churches, youth groups, Sunday School classes, and various ministries.
The late evangelical scholar John Stott, cited in a recent Christianity Today article, explains, "First koinonia expresses what we share in together, what we have received together, what we participate in together. That is the grace of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit …. But Koinonia also bears witness to what we share outward together—not only what we received together, but what we give together," Stott notes, adding that the adjective, Koinonikos, means "generous."
In short, koinonia is not only grace received, but it's also grace freely given to others. Hence, it's a lot harder when it comes to putting koinonia into practice, than it is learning to spell it—even for some regular church-goers. It requires being intentional about displaying fruits of the Spirit, such as love, patience, goodness, kindness and perseverance.
Recently, I was going on and on about how I felt we'd been treated rudely and unfairly by someone. They certainly could have been a whole lot more Christian in how they handled the situation, I griped.
"Not everyone is a Christian," my wife reminded me. She had a point. I'd assumed that everyone had grown up in Sunday School, learning the Golden Rule. Maybe they had. … Or, maybe they hadn't. Sometimes it's really hard to tell.
Sadly, it's not always as apparent as it should be if someone is a Christian or not by how they treat others. At church, someone may behave better than they do out in the "real world," where grace, mercy and kindness often are in short supply, usurped by self-centeredness and impatience.
Nevertheless, Ephesians 4:32 encourages us to "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another…." Here, the Greek word eusplanchnoi, which is translated "tenderhearted," conveys the concept of showing compassion and understanding. We shouldn't be known for our harsh words, attitudes or actions, but rather for being considerate of other's feelings—even if we believe we're right and they're wrong.
How do others see you and your church? Will others be able to recognize you by your koinonia, by the love you demonstrate in how you treat others—even those in the "real world" outside the church walls? It's true: "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up an anger."