The Substance of Faith (Book 1)

Following Jesus involves being and doing, the journey inward and the journey outward. The books I’ve chosen for the summer series fall into these two broad categories.

The first and last books are about the outward journey. The second, third and fourth books are about the inward journey.

The first book is fairly obscure. I realize that almost nobody has heard of The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons or it’s author Clarence Jordan. And that’s too bad.

On Sunday I get to tell you why the book is significant and about Clarence who is one of  the Christian saints of the twentieth century.

I want to come clean up front about why this book tops my list. It’s the content of the book and the character of it’s author, for sure. But there is this one little detail that really makes the book stand out for me.

My second year in seminary while taking a class on the Sermon on the Mount, I had literally stumbled on Clarence Jordan’s The Sermon on the Mount, which he wrote as a Bible study for the American Baptist Churches in 1952. The book blew me away.

For weeks I talked about Clarence Jordan and his insights to all of my friends—boring them terribly. Except for this one friend.

Then for my twenty-fourth birthday I received as a gift The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons from a smart, attractive young woman who I was quite taken with at the time. She was in seminary, too, and we were both studying Greek, so it didn’t seem odd that she wrote in the front of the book in Greek: From the woman friend, Love forever.

Eight months later I married Lynda, and there were hundreds of reasons I made that choice. One reason was her deep sense of what is right and real and true.

Like Clarence Jordan’s grasp of how the Christian faith was intended be lived.

Clarence was a farm boy from Georgia who went to college to study agriculture. He was  training to be an army officer when it struck him that as a follower of Jesus he should be loving his enemies not driving bayonets through them, so he resigned his commission and headed to seminary.

He earned a Ph.D in Greek New Testament, studying with A.T. Robertson, the finest scholar Southern Baptists every produced. After seminary, Clarence and his wife Florence moved to a farm outside of Americas, Georgia, and set about establishing an interracial Christian community modeled after the descriptions of the early church found in the book of Acts. The year was 1942.

They called their experiment Koinonia Farm. It was the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. I’ll tell you that story on Sunday.

Clarence translated much of the New Testament and called it The Cotton Patch Version. He imagined that Jesus had been born in contemporary Georgia, and so the cities found in the New Testament became cities in the South. The struggle between Jew and non-Jew became the contemporary struggle between whites and blacks. The Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament has an edge that our typical English translations leave locked in history. Thanks to Smyth and Helwys Publishers you can read The Cotton Path Version online here.

Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack in October 1969. He was 57. They buried him at Koinonia Farm, and after they had covered his body with soil, everyone was standing around not quite knowing what to say. Out of the silence a little girl began to sing, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Clarence….”

I’m really looking forward to introducing you to Clarence Jordan on Sunday.

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