“There’s nothing simple about simple” is a quote I read today. It was a quote from a potter named Eric Landon, featured on Instagram making some genius “simple” (AKA clean-lined genius artworks/pottery things I’m not even stylish enough to comment on). He was talking about the pottery, but oh gosh he could be talking about life.
There’s nothing simple about simple. In true literature-buff pun-nerd style, I started thinking about the great potter. I started thinking about red-letter Christianity. It’s simple but its so not simple.
Red Letter Christianity is a movement in Christianity that seeks to honour Jesus best through living life according to the red letters – the words printed in red in the Bible, direct quotes from Jesus himself. When life gets complicated, that’s where I return to.
It was something inspired by an old friend I’d lost contact with. When we reconnected, she said to me “I consider myself a red letter Christian, but I’ll never set foot in a church again.” I found the statement confronting. Like her, I had been damaged by negative experiences within organised religion. I still held (and hold) my faith as sacred, and still attended church, but I was putting everything under the microscope again. I was surprised to hear her say that she was a red letter Christian. I knew instantly what that meant, but it was only when I started to read the Bible again, reading only those red letters, what that really meant. It’s simple enough to say, but pretty challenging to live.
It made me realise we build a lot of our faith around what people other than Jesus said. A whole chunk of the Christian experience now is built around what Paul said. Paul wasn’t even one of the 12. He is often held up as the first great practitioner of the faith, and for sure his conversion experience on the road to Damascus was one heck of a turning point, but I’ve got questions about Paul. So do a lot of Biblical scholars (who I’m not even trying to compare myself to). How much of his commentary came from his background as a Pharisee? How much of his commentary on women (for example), came from his cultural background and not from God’s heart for us girls? My questions on Paul could continue for a while, as could my questions to the role of Old Testament legalism in a New Covenant world.
But those things are all asides. There’s one thing I can’t fault, and that’s the words of Jesus himself, but upon my friends revelation I realised something – my Christianity wasn’t placing nearly enough emphasis on this.
Check out these words from www.redletterchristians.org – That’s the first place I landed when I started looking at this stuff, and wow, I couldn’t sum it up better than what they did.
According to that website, which boasts advocates such as Tony Campolo (and is totally only ONE take on this important approach to Christianity), the values of Red Letter Christians include:
- All people are made in the likeness and image of God.
2. Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible… and through which we understand the world in which we live.
3. Doing Jesus’ work leads to personal growth and greater understanding.
4. Freedom comes through serving others—not power, politics or materialism.
5. Diversity and collaboration make us stronger, not weaker.
6. Wherever your power and influence might lie, it is magnified when shared and held by those who are poor, oppressed and looked over by society.
7. Questioning cultural norms is healthy and can lead to wholeness.
8. We respect and fight for the well-being of all people as children of God—especially those with whom we differ.
9. We embrace and work alongside people of different faiths, erasing the lines of ‘us vs. them.
I mean, that’s a pretty kick-arse list if I do say so, and a darn good summary of the things that Jesus stood for. But its when you get into the detail of those red letters that you start to understand the words of my potter muse: there’s nothing simple about simple.
Let’s start with the beatitudes. Here is a passage so beautiful it could be poetry, but to read it for its beauty is to miss its challenge. Blessed are the peacemakers? How nice! But where do we see peacemakers? Right in the middle of conflict, throwing themselves into the fray in order to bring two warring factions to a truce. Their’s are lives on the line.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. My daughters middle name is Clementine, which means merciful. We named her that because it is a strong trait, a gift that can only be given from a place of strength and compassion. But it also requires that someone has wronged you, and that you look at them with compassion and forbearance and release them from their penalty. Mercy isn’t easy. It requires forgiveness after hurt. It’s simple, but its so not simple.
The Beatitudes goes on to talk about persecution, about being meek and pure in heart, and then it moves on to talk about grief. It is then followed by the passage that talks about letting your light shine. I can tell you from experience, this isn’t easy. Because to follow Christ is to go on a journey of change, enlightenment, service, and growth. But as you grow and change, you discover a lot of people are invested in the old you. Your change can scare them. Offend them even. So letting your light shine to the world can inadvertently and unintentionally throw you into conflict with people who have been around you for such a long time, people you are loyal to.
If you want to be a red letter Christian, start in Matthew 5. Want a scripture that shows you how simplicity isn’t simple? Try Matthew 5:44. “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Following the red letters could indeed be the most difficult form of Christianity there is, even though doctrinally it could be the most simple. I wonder, as an Australian and as a spectator on the American state of affairs, whether we could be red letter Christians and still support the current treatment of refugees. I certainly don’t. I read the Matthew 5 and think our role should be right in there advocating for those whose lives have been torn apart. Yet somehow this has become an issue that has divided (particularly Americans) into “Lefties” and “righties.” It perplexes me that the Christian crowd is the one wanting to shut the borders. How would our Saviour feel, seeing it all play out?
I think He’d care. I think this because of Matthew 5:41-42 “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”
Its not that these people are asking from us. Its that they are begging. Its that they have no lives to go back to, only conflict and danger that has compelled them, upon penalty of death or detention, to risk it all for a better life. That’s just one issue. I. Could. Go. On.
I’ve noticed, after years in evangelicalism, that with a whole Bible in your hand you could argue any position. You could argue for refugees and against them. You could argue for grace and against it. You could argue for legalism and against it. You could argue for predestination and against it. In fact, I once heard a preacher say “decide your position first and then find the scriptures you need to back it up.”
Gag! Say what? What about searching the Bible with an open mind and trying to figure out what God really thinks about it. I wonder if we miss the boat a lot on issues because we read the Bible through the lens of our own culture/fears/norms rather than reading it to just learn.
My thoughts now can be condensed into this: Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament law and prophecy. He is one third of the trinity. There is no better example of what the true nature and intent of God is than Jesus Himself. So if you are ever confused, if you are ever conflicted, come back and read the red letters. They might actually be the only ones that matter. You’ll find enough challenge in them to keep you on a journey of change and transformation. And though living them out will be far, far from simple, it will be the most rewarding thing in the world because yours will be a conscience that its clear – both in the eyes of God and in the eyes of man.
I’m aiming for this. I’m failing probably on a daily basis, but those same red letters tell me God didn’t send His Son into the world to condemn it, but that the world through Him might be saved.
That sure takes the pressure off me. Because He’s the one who does all the saving, and He is never here to bring condemnation.
Just some thoughts for the day.
Over and out.