[This article begins with Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch” Translation of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) and the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12-27). You may want to read them first in the New Revised Standard Version (or any other version), and then ponder Jordan’s translation. Jordan tried to make the New Testament come alive to the people in southern Georgia by writing as though Jesus had come to that part of the South in the 1940s-1960s.]
The spiritually humble are God’s people, for they are citizens of his new order.
They who are concerned to the point of action shall see their concerns fulfilled.
They who wear God’s bridle are his people, and they will be his partners across the land.
They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people, and they will be given plenty to chew on.
The generous are God’s people, and they will be treated generously.
They whose motives are pure are God’s people, and they will have spiritual insight.
Men and women of peace and good will are God’s people, and will be known as his children.
They who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people. They are citizens of his new order. You are all God’s people when others call you names and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-natured, because your spiritual advantage is great, for that’s the way they treated people of conscience in the past.
Therefore, in all of your dealings with people, treat them as you want to be treated. This, in a nutshell, is the essence of all our moral and religious principles. Approach life through the gate of discipline, for the way leading to emptiness is wide and easy and a lot of folks are taking that path. But the gate into life is hard and the road is bumpy and only a few take this route.
Keep your eye peeled for fake preachers who come to you with sheepskins from a wolf school. (This advice is to the pulpit committees.) You’ll be able to distinguish them by their ministerial tone. You’ll be able to tell the difference between them by the way they live. You know, you don’t gather grapes from a bramble bush nor peaches from a chinaberry tree, do you? So it is that a good tree makes good fruit and a bad tree makes bad fruit. It is impossible for a good tree to bear bad fruit and it is just as impossible for a bad tree to bear good fruit. Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. That’s why I told you that you could recognize them by the way they live.
Not everyone who glibly calls me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the order of the Spirit. But he who does the will of my spiritual Father. The time will come when many people will gather around and say, “Lord, Lord, we sure did preach in your name, didn’t we? And in your name, we sure did give the devil a run for his money, didn’t we? We did all kinds of stunts in your name, didn’t we, Lord?” And then I’ll just have to admit right in front of everybody that I have never known you. Get away from me, you religious racketeers.
That’s why the man who hears these words of mine and acts on them shall be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Down came the rain. Up rose the floods of revolution and turmoil. Out lashed the winds. They all beset that house, but it did not fall. It was on rock foundation. And the man who hears these words of mine and fails to act on them shall be like an idiot who built his house on the sand. Down came the rain. Up came the floods. Out lashed the winds. They all cut at that house and it fell, and my, my, what a collapse.
In November of 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan, along with another couple (Mabel and Martin England), founded Koinonia Farm outside Americus, Georgia. (“Koinonia” is a Greek word meaning “community” or “fellowship.” Luke uses the word in Acts 2 and 4. It was the example of koinonia found in these chapters that Jordan sought to embrace and incarnate on that farm in southern Georgia.) Jordan had a college background in agriculture, a seminary degree in ministry, and a Ph. D. in New Testament Greek. He was one of the brightest and finest to come out of a seminary and could have become a renowned preacher in a prestigious pulpit or an impressive biblical professor in some university, divinity school, or seminary But he and his wife felt they were called by God to live out the gospel in a more radical way than they witnessed in the churches around them.
With his agricultural background, Jordan was familiar with the concept of a demonstration plot. During the Great Depression, the government had established such plots to serve as models for farmers so they could learn the best and most productive ways of farming. In a similar way, Jordan wanted to establish a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God (which he called “the God Movement”). He wanted to flesh out a Christian community based on the Sermon on the Mount and the other teachings of Jesus. He yearned to be a part of a community which sought to live out the gospel in tangible, concrete ways in its own unique time and space. He labored to incarnate the principles of sharing, unconditional love, peace, truth, compassion, and justice he saw in Jesus.
As Jordan returned to his home state of Georgia, he realized the evils facing him–racism, poverty, injustice, violence, and greed which were sucking the life out of the poor and hardening the hearts of the rich beyond redemption. But he believed that any community which was willing to take the risk of following Jesus could overcome such obstacles. And so he and his wife and those who came to join them built a community where all was shared–where all were cared for as equals, black and white–where the Bible was lived and not just quoted–where Jesus was followed and not just worshipped–where the gospel became as practical as the clothes on a man’s back, the food in a child’s stomach, and the opportunities of employment and education for a battered woman.
Needless to say, this kind of Christianity–the Jesus kind–did not sit well with the white folks in southern Georgia. Over the years, the community at Koinonia was boycotted, shot at, vandalized, bombed, arrested on the basis of all kinds of false charges, and slandered in the most evil of ways. In 1950, Rehoboth Baptist Church voted to disfellowship Jordan and his followers and banished them from attending services. But the community survived. Through its simple living, its farming enterprises, and a pecan and fruitcake mail-order business, Koinonia found the means to live out the gospel. Over the years they have tutored thousands of poor children, black and white; they have built whole neighborhoods of housing, predating the movement of Habitat for Humanity; they have ministered to those in prison and have offered sanctuary to refugees from Central America; they have operated a daycare and child development center for poor children at no charge to the parents of those children; and they have given hope, dignity, and love to countless people in Sumpter County who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks.
Across the decades there has been an ebb and flow to the life of Koinonia. The community has changed and adapted to fit the needs of the times and the call of God. But throughout its history, it has sought to live out the gospel, taking seriously the teachings, life, and call of Jesus. Jordan’s influence has permeated the Christian community far beyond that red clay countryside of southern Georgia. His witness and that of the community he founded demonstrate that the gospel can be lived, incarnated, fleshed out even in some of the most challenging of circumstances. Today, many communities all over the globe are still touched by his witness and vision, even if they do not know his name. It was he who inspired Millard Fuller to begin Habitat for Humanity.
The community at Koinonia still struggles to offer a faithful witness for Jesus. The God Movement is alive and well in a world of greed, violence, arrogance, and ubiquitous lies. The Light still shines, and the Salt of the earth still seasons the world with love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. And it all began with the dream of Clarence and Florence Jordan. (Of course, they would say that it all began with the dreams of God incarnated in the Lord Jesus Christ.) My Greek professor at seminary was a contemporary and friend of Jordan’s. His assessment of this twentieth-century saint was this: “The rest of us preached and taught the gospel. Jordan lived the gospel. He put into flesh and blood its grace and truth.”
In October of 1969, while translating the Gospel of John for his Cotton Patch Translation, Jordan died of a heart attack. He was buried in the shipping crate of a coffin in a pecan grove on Koinonia Farm. If you visit Koinonia and ask to see his grave, you will be shown that pecan grove. There is no marker. No one knows for sure exactly where in that grove Clarence Jordan was buried. No tombstone, shrine, or monument is needed. Why? Because as neighbor of Koinonia remarked, “He be gone now, but his footprint still here.”
[Books about Clarence Jordan as well as collections of his sermons and lectures are available from Koinonia. The great Harry Chapin wrote a musical based on Jordan’s Cotton Patch Translation of the Gospels of Matthew and John. It’s called “Cotton Patch Gospel” and is available on DVD. I have used this DVD with kids, youth groups, adult Sunday school classes, and study groups which included biblical scholars and Ph.Ds. The result has always been the same regardless of the makeup of the group. Everyone gets the message on a deeper level than they ever had before. Like Jordan, it’s full of wit and humor, but then suddenly and in ways you could not anticipate, you are confronted and overwhelmed by the unvarnished truth of the gospel. Susan and I watch “Cotton Patch Gospel” several times a year. It both inspires and challenges us to reassess our priorities and our discipleship. It brings Jesus right dab into our home in such a fresh and uncompromising way. The musical ends with a song with these words: “Now if a man tried to take his time on earth and prove it before he died what one man’s life could be worth, well, I wonder what would happen to this world.”( I wonder, too.)]