The Rev. Frank
The second reading each Sunday this Easter season is taken from the letter we now call First John. This letter was written from an Elder in the church to a congregation in crisis. The church is dealing with the aftermath of a church split. One congregation has become two.
Each group considers themselves the only true church left too. That’s the way church splits go. Each group convinced they are right—both sides in pain from the rupture in community. John is writing to people in pain, the emotional pain caused by a break down in community. It is the sort of situation Walt Kelly’s character Pogo summarized with the famous line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The split in the church occurred when a group within the church began teaching Gnostic Christian views. The Gnostics followed the Greek philosophical thinking, which taught that material things are bad while only the spiritual is pure. Reasoning along these lines, they decided that Jesus was not a real human, but a spirit that only made himself seem real. This teaching was too much for the orthodox group and the church divided.
John is a pastor writing his letters to a community in crisis. It helps to know this context as you read John’s letters. When John reminds the congregation that they are to love one another he does so to a group he knows to have just been betrayed by part of their own. Some of the one another they are to love has said and done some pretty harmful things. Now what?
In the verses immediately before our reading for today, John wrote,
This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised my brothers, if the world hates you. (I John 3:11-13)
John wants the congregation to be like Abel, the innocent victim of the murderous Cain. For Cain envied his brother, then hated his brother, then acted on that hatred to kill his brother. John wants to stop the hate and warns the congregation in our reading today that “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.”
This may seem extreme, but John knows the temptation is there for the congregation to hate those on the other side of the church split. Johns knows the hate will tear them up and he doesn’t want his flock to go down that road. John calls this church to hold on to the teaching of “love one another” after the church has discovered that the enemy is us.
John then pushes this understanding further. The enemy is not just us as in the folks who were part of our group who are now gone. Rather, if you are holding on to hatred for the ones who left in the church split, then the enemy is you. Or at least the enemy is that hatred you are holding onto.
John gives the congregation a quick test to see if they have made the transition from being hurt by someone, through the process of feeling the pain of that loss to the other side when they can once again love and pray for the very people who caused the pain. John writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love one another.” Passing from death to life is a conversion of the heart. John says the test is whether you love one another, even the one another who has hurt you most. This is no easy test.
John ties love to concrete actions. He asks how anyone who has the ability to help someone can see a fellow human in need and not help out. For John it’s not possible to say you have love without acting on that love. John writes that we are to love not in word and speech but in truth and action. This fits so well with John’s teaching in the Gospel and his three letters. For John, Truth is not something you are aware of. Truth is not a fact to learn. Truth is a verb. Truth is something you do.
Remember the scene in John’s Gospel when Pilate is interviewing Jesus? Jesus says, “For this I was born, and came into the world, to testify to the Truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” In reply, Pilate asked, “What is truth.”
No answer is given in the Gospel. But John would have us see that Pilate would not know Truth if it was staring him in the face, because Truth was staring Pilate in the face. Jesus was and is Truth. Jesus life was Truth in action. Our lives are to be like his. We are to love one another as Jesus loved and that love will initiate action for loving acts of compassion just naturally flow from the love of Jesus.
The farmer-theologian Clarence Jordan translated the verse about loving in truth and action as “My little ones, let’s not talk about love. Let’s not sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real.” Clarence Jordan did not write “Let’s put love into action and make it real,” but he also tried to live out this ideal. The often quite blunt Jordan liked to say that some people “worship the hind legs off Jesus but they wouldn’t obey him.” Jordan intended to put his faith into action.
Clarence Jordan created Koinonia Farms 60 years ago as an experiment in living out the life of the early church. Clarence had an undergraduate degree in agriculture and a Masters and Doctorate from Southern Baptist Seminary. He intended to use both parts of his education equally.
Clarence and his wife Florence along with their friends Mabel and Martin England moved to Sumter County Georgia in 1942 to put love into action. The Jordan’s and England’s wanted to live out three principles they saw in the Christian Church of the New Testament:
They envisioned an interracial community of blacks and whites living and working together in a spirit of partnership. They began with an interracial Bible Study with people around their farm, mostly children. They then offered a place to live to some alcoholics and others who needed a fresh start. The vision for the farm became a reality, and by 1950 the Jordans and others at Koinonia came under attack.
One incident in August of 1950 stands out because of its similarity to the setting of First John. Rehoboth Baptist Church had been home to the Jordan’s at that time for eight years. Clarence led the singing and preached on occasion. His wife Florence taught Sunday school. That August, the church held a meeting to cast the Koinonians out of the church for their views that blacks and whites are equal.
Others from the farm were away and Florence had to face the congregation alone. The recommendation to reject the people of Koinonia was read as Florence listened in silence. No one spoke for a long moment. Florence stood and made the motion to accept the motion as read. No one knew what to do. The congregation supported the motion but did not want to side with Florence over anything. The Koinonians were eventually excommunicated, but not that day.
Violence escalated against Koinonia Farms. Angry neighbors cut their fences, chopped down nearly 300 fruit trees, stole crops from the fields and dumped garbage on Koinonia’s property. Openly hostile classmates abused kids from the farm at school and crosses were burned in the yards of black families considered friendly to the Koinonians.
Clarence wrote a letter on March 13, 1959, which reflects his inner thoughts on what was happening:
"I remember the night Harry Atkinson and I were on our way over to the roadside market after we had received word that it had been bombed and was burning. When we came over a hill we could see the fiery glow on the horizon, and this ignited a burning in my heart. I was scorched with anger, and I'm sure if I had known who had committed the act, there would have been considerable hatred in my heart. At that time I doubt that I could have distinguished between anger and hate.
But as I had occasion to think, I realized that the hate was rooted in a consuming possessiveness. True, I had given up personal possessions, only to find that I had transplanted it from an individual to a group basis. The market was our property; together we sweated to build it; and now it was burning, and I was too. The damned culprits have destroyed our property, I thought. And I hated their guts. Later I had the same reaction when various ones, including myself and my children, were shot at. The so-and-so's were trying to take our lives from us!
The solution to this soul-destroying condition came only upon the recognition that neither property nor lives were ours but God's. They never had really been ours in any sense of the word. We hadn't even "given them back to Him"—they were His all along. And if this was the way He wanted to spend His property and His people in order to accomplish His purposes, why should we pitch a tantrum?"
Koinonia Farms lived out the example of the New Testament Church and found themselves persecuted. Just as John’s community had to do 1900 years earlier, the Koinonians had to learn to turn away from the hate generated by those who hated them. They had to find a way to love in the midst of hatred.
Whatever happened to those folks at Koinonia? Well the farm community did dwindle down, but not before it spawned a movement that continues to grow today. Jordan’s life example and words planted a seed in Millard and Linda Fuller. That seed grew into Habitat for Humanity International, born from Koinonia Farms interest in the problem of housing. There are a lot of amazing things that can happen when we turn from hatred to love and put that love into action.
Just as John told the community in pain, you don’t know the Truth, you do the Truth. Or as Clarence Jordan put it, “Let’s not talk about love. Let’s not sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real.”
For Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
 From an article on Koinonia Partners in Sojourners, December 1979, Vol. 8, no. 12 written by Joyce Hollyday which is found at http://www.koinoniapartners.org/History/Overalls.html The Koinonia Partners was also helpful in finding other information for this sermon and is well worth the visit if you have the time. The photos of the Jordans are from the Koinonia Partners website.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526