Chapter 1 - The Peach and the Coconut

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean - Matthew 23:27

Has no-one condemned you? No-one sir she said. The neither do I condemn you. Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin - John 8:10-11

So what is all this peach and coconut stuff?

Coconut Communities

I remember as a child the village fete, where one of the stalls would always be a coconut shy. All the lads would line up for a go, wanting to impress people (particularly the girls) with the strength and accuracy of their throw. I was never too great in either department, but given enough money would usually manage to win at least one coconut (if not the bloke running the shy would eventually take pity and just give me one).

Having (by one means or another) got a coconut, the question would then arise as to what to do with the prize. There would normally be a bit of shaking, just to check that it was a 'proper' one with milk inside, and then would start the quest to get to the hidden treasures within. First would come an attempt to extract the milk. That involved getting out my dad's hand drill and attempting to drill out the eyes of the coconut whilst holding it between your legs (always a risky exercise almost guaranteed to produce holes in the trousers and wounds in the legs). Eventually we'd get to pour the milk out into a cup, complete with bits of the shell in it, and would taste a little bit which would always be pretty undrinkable. Then it was back to the tool box for a hammer to try to smash the coconut in two. Once that was achieved it would be similarly disappointing. Coconut might be OK when wrapped in milk chocolate in the middle of a Bounty, or in a Peshwari Naan Bread with a nice curry, but raw it's just not that nice (apologies to any raw coconut lovers out there). Now with the coconut in bits it would be hung up on a piece of string in the garden for the birds, who always seemed to be about as keen on coconut as I was. Then after a month or two of shrivelling in the wind and the rain it would go to its final resting place, into the bin.

The coconut represents one model for community. A community which is hard to get into, hard to penetrate, but when you do get in turns out to be a disappointment. Jesus constantly found himself coming up against a coconut community led by the religious rulers of his time, the very people who were supposed to be making it easy for people to find God. He described their community this way:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. - Matthew 23:27

In fact in this description of a coconut community Jesus goes beyond just saying that it is hollow on the inside. He makes two observations about the inside of these communities.

Firstly they are full of dead men's bones. Dead bones represent a structure which used to support life and have meaning, but which is now dead and has ceased to serve the purpose it was created for. Coconut communities can often be filled with activity, but it is activity which, although it once had life and relevance, is now dead and meaningless. If a community is to remain relevant then it needs to be constantly dealing with the 'dead bones' or else it might quickly turn into a coconut. That means always asking the questions 'should we still be doing this?' and 'do we need to change the way in which we're doing this?'. Somebody once said that 'tradition is the democracy of the dead'. We need to cling to tradition which flows from following the Bible but move on from tradition which just flows out of 'that's the way we've always done it'.

Secondly Jesus says that coconut communities are full of everything unclean. He is saying this to the Pharisees who considered themselves to be the cleanest of the clean, but who in their desire to become clean had become hard hearted, judgemental, unforgiving, unloving, uncaring and self righteous. This sort of hypocrisy can often lie at the core of coconut communities, because they embody an ideology which could be decribed as

Behave → Believe → Belong 

This idea says that before you can join the community you first of all need to behave, to externally be living the right sort of life, only associate with the right sort of people, even wear the right sort of clothes and have the right sort of job. Then if you pass the behaviour test you need to have the right set of beliefs, to have all your doctrinal ducks lined up. Only if you pass those tests can you belong and really be a part of the community.

It's so easy to become self righteous in a community like that, convinced that because you stick to the rules and believe the right things you are better than all the people around — that was certainly true of the Pharisees. But it is also easy to become a community of mask wearers (which was the original meaning of the word hypocrite), because people are unwilling to own up to their struggles and any doubts that they might have for fear of being ostracised from the community. Instead people pretend and cover up, internally struggling with life issues and questions about their faith without ever finding a safe place to own up to them, talk them through and get help.

It is also very hard for anyone from outside to join a community like this, because they have to sort their behaviour and their beliefs before they can belong. It's highly unlikely that people with different lifestyles and beliefs are ever going to feel anything but indifference or even rejection from a coconut community, even if that community genuinely believes it is trying to reach out to and love the people around it.

My observation is that with time, and without a community of cultural architects to keep the vision alive, communities can so easily revert to coconut behaviour. That can even happen to the best and most godly people. Consider Peter who had a direct revelation from God that it was now alright to eat any food, and was the first person to see breakthrough in God saving non Jews, yet a few years later had to be faced up by Paul for having slipped back into exclusivity and only eating with fellow Jews (note that it was Paul's grasp of the core of the gospel which allowed him to challenge Peter so strongly and be a cultural architect in this situation). If it can happen to Peter then it can happen to any of us.

Peach Communities

That's enough about coconuts. Let's move on to thinking about how a peach community differs from what we've just described.

There are two qualities of a peach.

Soft on the outside

A peach is very easy to get into. The skin doesn't offer much resistance to anything. Several times when I've spoken on the peach and the coconut I've brought along one of each for a visual demonstration. More than once I've carried them in my soft shoulder bag, and although the coconut has invariably survived the journey intact I've often needed to make a last minute phone call home for a peach replacement. That's just what peaches are like. At least an apple gives a bit of resistance, a banana has a skin which protects it, but a peach is just so easy to get into.

That was certainly what the community of Jesus looked like from the vantage point of the Pharisees. They couldn't understand the company he kept and the people he associated with — the people they held at arm’s length and had nothing to do with were all around Jesus. Whether he was with the woman at the well (a Samaritan, a woman and a multiple divorcee), Zacchaeus the tax collector (who was stealing money from his fellow Jews and collaborating with the Roman army), a crippled beggar who got told to be quiet because he was shouting out to Jesus so loudly, lepers who no one else wanted to touch but Jesus reached out and embraced, the prostitute who washed his feet, or just turning up at weddings and parties, one of the greatest accusations they could make against him was that he was a "a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners'". In their eyes Jesus was very soft with the people he allowed into his world. He was utterly comfortable around these people, and they were comfortable being around him. There was no need in the eyes of Jesus to behave or believe before you could belong.

Tim Keller in his book 'The Prodigal God' in a chapter entitled 'The People Around Jesus' contrasts younger brothers (people who engage in wild living and reject the traditional morality of their societies) and older brothers (the religious — in Jesus’ case the Pharisees and teachers of the law). He says:

'Jesus's teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main our churches do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned down, moralising people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the message that Jesus did. If our churches aren't appealing to younger brothers, they may be more full of elder brothers than we'd like to think. (The Prodigal God — Page 16)

We can produce churches which are growing, influential, well funded, famous and even applauded by other churches and society, but the only way we can be really sure that we are declaring the message that Jesus declared is to ask the question 'are we attracting the sort of people who were attracted to Jesus?'. That is the motivation behind trying to recreate the community of Jesus.

Peach communities can be characterised by the progression

Belong → Believe → Behave 

That's what happened in the community of Jesus. People felt free to belong in the company of Jesus, then in that environment something happened with relation to their beliefs, then that change in belief began to change their behaviour.

Consider the example of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who we meet in Luke 19. Jesus invites himself into Zaccheus's home, a move which provokes the response 'All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner'" - a classic coconut comment. Then as Jesus spends time with him in his home something changes in Zacchaeus's belief system. He goes from being someone who just wanted to get a glimpse of Jesus as he was passing through town to addressing him as 'Lord'. Then something changes in his behaviour — something far more dramatic than anything a community which simply has a set of rules and regulations could hope to produce. Zacchaues gives half of his possessions to the poor and pays back four times what he has cheated anyone of. He's not doing this out of compulsion or under duress but because he's had a change of heart.

That's the miracle which I believe can take place in a peach community. Not that we can change anyone, but we can create the environment, the atmosphere, the soil if you like, where God can get hold of people and do a miracle in their lives.

But let us recognise from the start that building the community of the peach isn't simple or straightforward. Anyone who has ever eaten a peach also knows it can be an incredibly messy experience. It's not the sort of thing you want to be found doing in public as inevitably the juice ends up all over your face and running down your clothes. It was like that for Jesus too. There was something very messy about getting involved in these people's lives. They didn't have it all together, many of them were very much a work in progress and he took lots of criticism for getting involved with them, yet Jesus loved being around these people.

There are also no guarantees that people will change. Coconut communities maintain their purity by only allowing people in who have already made the grade, who already meet the standards. What stops a peach community from just becoming indistinguishable from the people around it?

Solid at the Core

It's important to note that a peach isn't soft all the way through. At its core is a stone, and if you bite the stone you're likely to do yourself some damage.

Jesus never compromised on his core. Take the woman caught having sex with a guy she wasn't married to (John 8:1-11). The Pharisees in this situation had no interest in the woman, they just want to use her brokenness to try to catch Jesus out. Jesus, in contrast told, took a genuine interest in her as an individual, telling her that he didn't condemn her but then going onto tell her to leave her old sinful lifestyle behind. Jesus was willing first to love her just as she was, but then loved her to such an extent that he wasn't willing to leave her in that state.

At Kerith we want to be the same. We never want to compromise or seek to hide what exists at our core, the truth about Jesus Christ and what his life and death represents, and what it means to follow Him with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. Those truths don't always sit comfortably with the society we live in, but that makes it all the more important that we're clear about them and never give in to the temptation to fudge them or compromise our core beliefs. But we also need to be clear about what is core truth and what is just tradition or a particular view on how church should be done. Truth is unchanging, but traditions and ways of doing church always need to be challenged, and when necessary changed.

In this book you'll find chapters examining some of the things which are core to us as a community. We are going to look at issues such as who Jesus was and how we can relate to Him, and who the Holy Spirit is and what is His role in our lives, as well as thinking about other areas such as money, sex and how we resolve conflict.

Peaches not Tomatoes

The danger with being soft on the outside as a community is that we become soft all the way through — more of a tomato than a peach. Without spiritual architects, key leaders and community influencers who will keep restating and redirecting the community back to its core values, then my observation is that communities naturally gravitate towards one of two extremes. They either become more like a coconut, hard on the outside but dead on the inside, or more like tomatoes, soft all the way through. In Christian terms that might be expressed as being either more conservative or more liberal. Conservatives are passionate about being theologically correct but can miss out on loving people in the process. Liberals are passionate about loving people but can end up compromising or ignoring bits of the Bible which could cause conflict or offence. Jesus was able to be culturally liberal on the outside and yet theologically conservative at his core, in short to be peachy.

And it wasn't just Jesus who seemed to reach for that ideal. Paul could never be described as compromising his core beliefs (just take a look at Galatians chapters 1 & 2 for an example of how solid he was at his core), and yet on the outside he seemed to be incredibly peachy in wanting to remove all external barriers to people far from God hearing this incredible message. Just consider these words from 1 Cor 9:22  - 'I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some'. Or his appeal on Mars Hill where he quotes from their pagan poets and philosophers (Acts 17:16-32). Or his desire to think long and hard about speaking in tongues in church if it was going to alienate and confuse non believers (1 Cor 14).

We're not the first people down this road, nor will we be the last. In fact I believe it is the job of every generation to define what peachiness looks like in their cultural context — this book is our attempt to do that for our generation. So please join me as we take a journey into what it means for us to build the community of the peach.

Recommended Reading

No Perfect People Allowed — John Burke. This book has shaped much of what we understand about what it means to be a peach community. Although it doesn't anywhere use the language of peaches and coconuts, the church which John Burke describes is very much the church we are trying to build.

The Prodigal God — Tim Keller. Tim Keller argues from the story of the prodigal son that elder brothers (the religious) can be as far from God as their younger brothers (the 'sinful'), but that God loves both in equal measure.