Red Letter Jesus
Matthew 10: 24-39, 40-42
I don’t know how it is for you, but there are some sections of scripture that don’t sit right with me. Some are circuitous and trending toward incomprehensible; a few just rub me the wrong way; there are those that set the bar so high that I’ve concluded that they’re metaphor for something much deeper than the disciples could get their minds around – and for some reason, Jesus chose not to interpret them in the moment. Most scripture lessons are comforting to me, but many, including our first testament reading, leave me feeling more than a little uneasy. But I would go so far as to say that there are a few scripture readings that go against a lot of what I believe that Jesus represented, such that I wonder if he even said them at all. This is where we are today: My Jesus didn’t come to bring division. He is the Prince of Peace. My Jesus said that perfect love cast out fear. My Jesus strived to reconcile households and not tear them apart, right down to the Prodigal Son.
So when I read the lectionary lesson from Matthew, which actually ends with verse 39, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” I spent most of Tuesday studying alternative lectionary texts for today. And wouldn’t you know, through my continued research of this text and others, I learned that our gospel reading is actually Red Letter Jesus. Red Letter Jesus is not just a highlighting technique from the King James edition. It’s also not a device to further ultraconservative rhetoric. Red Letter Jesus is what we say when we know from a critical exploration of historical sources that in all likelihood, Jesus actually said these words. And like a pebble in your shoe in the middle of a walk, such realizations make you to stop and pay attention, and take responsibility of the underlying situation head-on.
So, once I knew the text was Red Letter, I felt like I needed to pursue why it was rubbing me so hard the wrong way. Here are some of the thoughts that kept me going. When we care about a person, we want them to succeed. We want them to learn the most important lessons first. We want them to learn the most important lessons well. We want them to have the right foundation to lead a fruitful life. And if I assume that this is the case for you and me, I will go further to assume that like a good medical doctor surrounded by a group of residents heading into an operating room, Jesus probably felt that way, too. ‘Probably was the case that Jesus felt like he had some critical information his disciples needed to know, and he gave them the goods in a challenging way so they would not lose hold. This was what he needed them to learn about the fullness of life with him, lest they miss their reward of eternal life in the heavens. In the same, red letter kind of way, Jesus wants us to follow him. But are we willing to learn from a directive style of teaching? Do we even want to be associated with the kind of teaching that would tell us to leave behind those who love us most because what they verbalize is not consistent with what Christ says is required of us to enter into eternal life? Well, since I because that Jesus wants us to keep on following him to the end, I also believe that he wants us to know first and foremost that he loves us to the end. This is why I expanded the lectionary reading through to include verses 40- 42. Let’s not ever forget the expansiveness of Christ’s welcome and embrace, remembering, “none of these will lose their reward.”
We sidestep certain texts because they make us feel anxious, or because they are counter-intuitive, or maybe even because they make us feel inadequate, in a “will I ever be able to measure up?” kind of way. How many times have I said or done or left undone something that would suggest that I am not truly following Christ? Will I ever be able to acknowledge Jesus fully enough? What in the world does one do to lose her life and still feel good about it?
But I believe that another, more frequently experienced reason we avoid, or discount, or question certain texts is because we feel anxious about what it means to be associated with them. Church historians agree that “one of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as “fundamentalism.” … Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state. … (Christian fundamentalists) want to go back to the basics and reemphasize the fundamentals of the Christian tradition, which they identify with a literal interpretation of scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines.” Progressive Christians – liberals, as the fundamentalists would call us – want no association with such stuff. Accepting, talking about, quoting Red Letter Jesus could get you into trouble with the people we like and respect most. So we do what we feel like we need to do to make it right. My solution was to add three verses to the end of the lectionary reading. Avoidance is one way to get around the things that you need to work on you hardest, I guess.
Because most of us are not living completely Christian lives. Most of us are more like Secular Christians in a way that we occasionally hear the term, “Secular Jew.” We might come to church, but often something more enticing, or potentially more educational, or possibly more family friendly is presented as a Sunday morning option. We use whatever language comes to mind. We extend ourselves to a church event or collection or member so long as it doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Most of us are Secular Christians, although we could explain to each other the many ways we’re devout.
We could go further to say that most of us Secular Christians are as much Practical Atheists, believing in Christ in a way that makes sense for us in the moment, but acting as if Jesus really doesn’t exist. This could be why there are so many lukewarm people in our churches and then, by application, why there are so many lukewarm and I would suggest, unmotivated and unmotivating churches.
Most of us are not living completely integrated, Christian lives. Most of us are more like Secular Christians in a way that we occasionally hear the term, “Secular Jew.” We could go further to say that most of us Secular Christians are as much Practical Atheists, believing in Christ in a way that makes sense for us in the moment, but acting as if Jesus really doesn’t exist. This could be why there are so many lukewarm people in our churches and then, by application, why there are so many lukewarm and I would suggest, unmotivated and unmotivating churches.
An evangelical pastor named Craig Groeschel – a fundamentalist, if you will – takes this even further to say that too many of us are Christian Atheists, believing in God but living like God doesn’t exist. He says that in order for us to strengthen our own life in Christ and the church, we need to become a body of Line 3 Believers. Let me explain a bit about what that means.
A Line 1 Christian is someone who believes in the gospel enough to benefit from it. What does that mean? Well, a Line 1 Christian appreciates the benefits of not going to hell. A Line 1 Christian is glad to have a place to connect with a casual or personal friend once a week or so, hear some good music – almost for free, maybe get an hour of free babysitting on a Sunday morning in exchange for sitting through a harmless worship service. A Line 1 Christian is someone who really doesn’t put herself out in any meaningful way while reaping whatever benefits she identifies are there for her taking. Good enough.
Then, we have Line 2 Christians. These are the Christians who believe in the gospel enough to contribute comfortably to it. We have in this category those who will pass out bulletins or usher when asked, who will willingly put a modest contribution in the offering plate each week, who might attend a church group activity during Lent or Advent. A Line 2 Christian might participate in a weekend service opportunity or Saturday morning march, but a Line 2 Christian would not even consider joining JC and the G-7 in Kentucky. These are the Christians who not only realize that they receive some certain benefit from their life in Christ but they’re willing to do something to demonstrate their gratitude.
But where we all should want to be is on Line 3. Line 3 Christians are those Christians who believe in the gospel enough to give their lives to it. These are the Christians who have been so touched by Jesus’ love that they haven’t been the same since. What they read in their bibles at night, they tell to a friend the very next day. When someone attacks them for what they believe, they take a public stand that Jesus is the way and the truth and the light. They are respectful toward all people, but passionate about living out the good news of Jesus Christ. And they aren’t embarrassed to say so. They are hungry to learn more about Jesus’ ministry in this world and how they can become more like him here. Line 3 Christians are the Christians who have a sort of energy field around them that motivates their work for the kingdom and motivates others to want to join in. As Jesus said of them, “Truly, none of these will lose their reward.”
The sad truth of the last several decades is that Mainline Protestant Christians –progressive Christians – associate such language, expressions, and self-giving with the fundamentalists we’ve most often tossed to the side. Putting this in the context of Jackson’s baptism, too many of us neglect to extend outward signs of the inward and very spiritual grace that God continually showers upon us. We dry ourselves off from the waters of the baptismal font and go through life in the shallow end of the Christian spectrum.
We need to ask ourselves if we are satisfied being Secular Christians. Are we satisfied with ourselves when we twist and turn over Red Letter Jesus? Are we somewhere on the path of life that demands that we reconsider our association with God through Christ and begin to acknowledge him before others in order – Red Letter here – that Christ acknowledges us?
Chuang Tzu, one of China’s greatest Taoist sages, recalled, “Chu’I the Draftsman could draw more perfect circles freehand than with a compass. His fingers brought forth spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind was meanwhile free and without concern with what he was doing. No application was needed, his mind was perfectly simple and knew no obstacle. So, when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the belly is forgotten; when the heart is right, ‘for’ and ‘against’ are forgotten. No drives, no compulsions, no needs, no attractions: then your affairs are under control. You are a free man. Easy is right. Begin right and you are easy. Continue easy and you are right. The right way to go easy is to forget the right way and forget that the going is easy.”
On our journey through life, dotted with Red Letter billboards and suspect signs, let each one of us welcome the words of our Lord as we welcome our Lord into our lives. Let us look forward in faith for the eternal reward he promises to all who trust in his name. Let us become more the disciples he is calling us to be through his sometimes difficult instruction. Through our consistent, persistent, never wavering discipleship of Christ, let us remember that Christ’s perfect love that will carry us through his sometimes difficult instruction, remembering that it is Christ’s perfect love that will carry us through this life into the next. Amen.
 Armstrong, Karen, The Battle for God. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.)