subtitle: [33,000 Christian Demoninations]
Here are our red letters for today.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Jesus told us that through unity, we would affect believers outside the faith by showing them the mission of Christ. He wanted us to stay in the faith as one group united together. Here we are 2000+ years later and have we listened to his words? Of course the answer is NO!! Christians are currently fractioned into about 33,000 different denominations! The primary cause of this division is doctrinal and Scripture disagreements. We just can’t seem to agree on what the Bible is supposed to be telling us. I’m sure each of the 33,000 groups is proclaiming to be the champion of the true words of the Bible. Most of us have an easy time agreeing on the authority of Scripture, but interpreting it has been a very different story.
Why not put scripture in context and study how the early church interpreted the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles? Who has a better understanding of the Gospel, the man in 2008 interpreting it for himself from a copy of a copy of a copy of the original text or the people who actually learned it at the feet of Jesus or the Apostles? By studying the history of the early Church, we can come to a better understanding of what those first generations of Christians actually believed. To me it seems almost ludicrous to think that our detached Sola Scriptura interpretation is more reliable than their theology and praxis. But, there are in fact many denominations who believe exactly that.
Eusebius was an early Christian historian. Many say he was the first. Eusebius’ historical account attests, as late as the 4th century that the Church was still arguing about which books constituted the New Testament. The New Testament was not the rule of Faith for the early Christians since a New Testament as such didn’t exist at that time and even if it did people were for the most part illiterate so they couldn’t read it even if they had gotten their hands on a very expensive copy. Instead, church teachings were passed down from generation to generation and kept pure by a clerical hierarchy. The undisputed historical record of what that early Church believed should be a more authoritative measure of the Faith than any modern interpretation based on Scripture alone? This is why traditional, historical Christianity has always wisely accounted Scripture and Tradition as two expressions (written and oral) of the same Gospel.
Many today agree that you must put all verses of the Bible in the context of which they were written. You can’t isolate a particular phrase or rule from the teachings around it. But, many of these same people then refuse to look at early church history to more thoroughly understand the words of Scripture but instead insist that the Bible alone is all they need. They do not take into account the church history or culture at the time to understand the underlying meanings of the New Testament text.
Unfortunately, it looks impossible for all of us Christians to ever be one as Christ instructed us. That is until the second coming. At that time I’m sure we will all be shown the errors of our ways. In the mean time let’s all try to be a little more tolerant of our fellow Christians understanding of scripture. Yes, there are absolute principles on which Christianity has to be based but most of our disagreements seem to do with the decoration of our Christian house not its foundation.
Here are the red letters I will concentrate on for today’s posting. Since I haven’t learned how to make actual red letters in WordPress yet they are actually in black. But, what the heck.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Mt 5:43-48
These red letters were spoken about the same time as the Beatitudes which I will definitely get into on future posts. This event was also recorded in Luke 6 where some of the things were stated differently but I will concentrate on Matthew’s version here. In the same conversation Jesus also gave corresponding redefinitions for: murder, divorce, oaths, and vengeance. Jesus starts out quoting some Old Testament that he is about to turn on its ear. He seems to do that a lot; he says “this is the way it used to be but now that I am here this is the way it is to be from now on”. Since his death and resurrection gave us the salvation which was impossible to obtain by trying to obey the Jewish laws we should be paying attention to this stuff.
Love your enemies is indeed a radical concept in today’s world or even in Jesus’ world for that matter. The heart of Jesus’ teaching always seems to be love. You could say that this is a rephrase of the Golden Rule but I think Jesus actually takes it to a complete other level. He not only expects us to treat other well but to even love our enemies. How do you do that when you are pointing a gun at them in war time? I don’t know? This is one of those verses that our Amish, Mennonite, and Quaker brothers use to defend their non-violence stand. I do respect them for that position.
Jesus goes on to reiterate that loving those who love you is just not good enough. Even the tax collectors did that! Of course the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were in no way the same as the IRS is today so please don’t infer that he was putting down our IRS brothers in Christ. It’s easy to love someone who loves you but a completely different matter to love someone who hates you and even might want to inflict physical harm. Just ask some of the missionaries about this and I’m sure you could get some dramatic stories. We in the United States seem to be about equally divided in two different camps on just about all issues. I think Jesus is telling us here to quit the sniping and bitterness going on between factions.
But, Jesus was not even satisfied with putting the definition of love on loving your enemies. He ends up these verses by saying we should strive to be perfect as God is perfect!!! If we are truly re-born in Christ then we need to take these words to heart even if they are impossible to fully meet. That is what Jesus constantly does; he is constantly pushing us to act outside our comfort zones.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow so I thought this would be the most appropriate time to share with you a prayer that I have been using the last few years. It is definitely appropriate for tomorrow but can really be used almost any day of the year. The author of the prayer is Samuel F. Pugh. He died just before Christmas 2007 at the age of 103. He spent more that 70 years of his life in Christian ministry. He was also a renowned poet and author. Let us all be truly thankful for everything we have and also aware that there are those among us who need our help and prayers.
A Thanksgiving Prayer
(Samuel F. Pugh)
Oh, God, when I have food
help me to remember the hungry;
When I have work, help me
to remember the jobless;
When I have a warm home,
help me to remember the homeless;
When I am without pain,
help me to remember those who suffer;
And remembering, help me
to destroy my complacency
and bestir my compassion.
Make me concerned enough
to help, by word and deed,
those who cry out
for what we take for granted.
Let me start out by telling you that this post is not about Jesus being a radical but there is definitely some truth to that statement and I will address that in a future post. I know this title is kind of confusing. Is there really such a thing as an “ordinary” radical. I don’t know but that is what Shane Clairborne calls himself. Shane is one of those few people who really seems to live out the words of Jesus Christ. Yes, he is an out-of-the-box thinker and doer who is part of an organization called “The Simple Way”. Shane and the people in his group live a very simple community lifestyle. They take the words of Jesus to the streets of Philadelphia by witnessing, through their actions as well as words, to the poor and undernourished (both physically and spiritually). I sometimes like to think of myself as a radical. After all I was in college in the 60’s. But, to tell the truth, I was working 40-50 hours a week in order to pay my way through college and also taking almost a full academic load so there was really no time for those pesky demonstrations that were happening all around me at the time. I am kind of ashamed to say that I have lived my life pretty much as most others do. Maybe I am a radical in thought only but I have been trying to change that lately!
Let’s get back to Shane. He has written several books including one from which I pulled the moniker above. It is entitled “The Irresistible Revolution – living as an ordinary radical”. This book totally blew me away when I read it! How can a young man, at least young by my standards, have such wisdom about Christian living! Tony Campolo’s remarks at the front of the book does a very good job of expressing my thoughts. He wrote
“Shane expresses the kind of authentic Christianity that most of us are trying to avoid because the cost is too great. He proposes a lifestyle that prophetically proclaims what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the twenty-first century”.
I highly recommend this book, and any of the others he has written. But, I must admit these books are not for those who think we are doing just fine in our Christian living and outreach. I gave a copy to my pastor to read and the first thing he said after reading it was that “the author doesn’t think much of churches today and he is kind of a communist”. According to Wikipedia’s listing for Shane Clairborne, my pastor’s views are shared by other social conservatives in the Christian Evangelical community. I was expecting my pastor, like me, to hook up with the zeal and passion that Clairborne has for Christ but that was not to be. But don’t hold my pastor’s comments against me even if I am not running for president. Maybe I am a radical after all. If you have an open mind and are ready to admit that we, as 21st century Christian, can do a better job of living according to the words of Christ and in reaching out to the community (especially the youth) then you can learn things from this young man. Their website in listed in my blogroll if you care to visit them.
Maybe in the blogosphere the word trashing should be replaced with snarking but that is another issue. Let’s hit this head on. If you search the words “red letter Christian” on WordPress and other blogs you will find several sites by fellow Christians that are antagonistic to that phrase or even to the concept of using red letters. I must admit the word “trashing” might be a little strong for most of these criticisms but not all. People opposed to this concept seem to think that somehow if you concentrate on the red letters (i.e. the words of Christ) you are either a heretic or at least a misguided Christian needing correction. Giving priority to the direct words of Jesus seems almost sacrilegious to some of them. They cite 2Timothy 3:16 for their proof. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. To them this means that no words are more important than others. St Paul wrote the letter that is now recognized as 2 Timothy around AD 60. Many theologians believe that he was referring to the Jewish Old Testament. The reason for this is as follows. The Gospel of Mark, which is widely believed to be the first of the four gospels written was probably composed about the same time as 2Timothy. Therefore it was very unlikely that Mark’s gospel, or any of the other gospels which came later, was even available to Paul as he was writing these words. Of course Paul was a very devout and knowledgeable Jew before he became a Christian so he was very familiar with the Old Testament. Since it would be another 300+ years before anything resembling our present day Bible was even in existence Paul could not have been talking about the New Testament as we know it. But, I do agree that the New Testament , even if that is not what Paul was talking about , is also useful for teaching and training and such.
Even the term “God-breathed” in this text is highly debatable among many scholars of the Bible. Many believe that the original text, or should I say the earliest surviving text, is more appropriately translated to be “inspired by God”. To me “God-breathed” and “inspired by God” has two completely different meanings but I will not criticize others who think differently. Yes, I agree that all of the Bible, and also many of the early Christian writings that did not end up in the Bible, were inspired by God. But, for me I reserve the words “God breathed” to mean they came directly from Jesus’ mouth or were given directly to some of the OT prophets by God himself.
There is a centuries old ongoing debate in the Christian community between “inerrancy” and “infallibility” when it comes to the Bible. I fall into the camp of the latter but I will respect my Christian brothers who choose to think differently than me. One of the best things and one of the worst things about the Bible is that two people can read the same words and come away with two completely different meanings. It often happens that even one person will get two different meanings from one verse depending on where he/she is at on their road with Christ. Some of the sites that speak out against the red letters arrogantly assume that everything they believe is totally true and if you disagree with them then you must be “wrong”. I will not be one to assume that I, or anyone else for that matter, totally knows the heart of God. Won’t those who think that way be surprised when they reach the pearly gates.
Ok this maybe anti-American but Jesus was definitely anti-stuff. When Jesus sent out his disciples to spread the Word he told them to take nothing with them. They weren’t even allow to take and extra pair of sandals for their long walk and they did a lot of walking in those days! And then remember the rich man who approached Jesus to learn how to get to heaven. That ended up with Jesus telling him to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus and his ragtag team. Of course the rich man, as most of us today, could not even conceive of doing that. He just went away rejected.
We, especially in the United States, are totally addicted to our “stuff”. Of course being a capitalist country our whole economy depends on all of us buying more and more “stuff” each year. It’s not good enough to just buy the same amount as we bought last year; we have to always buy more ;). If we fill our house with “stuff” then there is always the garage. If even the garage is full then how about off-site storage which is one of the few remaining growth industries. Or now we can even have our storage unit brought to us for filling up (PODS). If we run out of money to buy our “stuff” there is always another credit card offer in the mail. Let’s face it buying “stuff” is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break
Getting back to the rich man as mentioned above, many Christians now rationalize that to be just a story and not what Jesus really intendeds for us to do. From my studies of early Christianity that was definitely not the case with them. For at least the first few hundred years many, if not most, affluent people really did sell everything when they started following Jesus. I’m not sure exactly when this practice fell out of the favor but I expect it was around the time that Constantine made Christianity a State religion. I think we need to give up some “stuff” and then revisit the practice of giving to the less fortunate than us? But of course we could never go all the way as Jesus mentioned. The apostle John made the following statement in 1John. ” This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence “. Let’s put these word in today’s lingo or at least what I perceive it to be. John says you have to back what you say with actions or the words are meaningless. To me John is flatly saying that if you have faith in Jesus then you WILL do these things. That gets us into a much deeper subject of “works vs. faith” which I will tackle in a future postings. For now, let’s buy less “stuff” and help our less fortunate brothers a little more.
In general red letter living is just plain old Christians living but concentrating on the actual words of Jesus for the primary lessons in life. To me some of the most significant red letters comes from the Sermon on the Mount. But, there are many other lessons that I am sure are almost as valuable. Red letter living serves three purposes: one is to thank God for His saving grace through Jesus Christ as shown by our compassion for others. The second it show us how to live while we are on this earth and how to treat each other. And the final purpose is to help others come to an understanding of who Jesus is and why they need Him in their lives.
I want to tell you up front that while I read the Bible regularly and try to learn as many lessons for my life as I can I am not one of those who can or will cite chapter and verse for much of what I read. St. Paul said that we should always be prepared to give those who ask the reason why we live the way we do. He was making the assumption that Christians, once they come to Christ, will live differently (meaning better/holier lives) than when they were pagans and that others will want to follow our lead. While that may have been true of the early Christians I’m not so sure that it is true today. But, I am getting off track here :). I am convinced that when we talk to people who are not Christians about how we live many are turned off when we start citing chapter and verse. We are much better off just giving them the lessons in our own words but, of course, backed up by the red letters without all the numbers attached. It then comes across as a personal dialogue instead of just a recitation.
But why concentrate primarily on the red letters? For me personally it is because these are the only words in the New Testament that actually come out of God’s mouth. I am sure that the apostles, including St Paul’s many epistles, were inspired by God in everything they wrote but they wrote from a human perspective not from the omnipotent viewpoint of Christ. And, since I have only so many years on this earth before I join my fellow Christians who have died before me I want to make sure I get at least the red letters right. That is not to say that I will ever totally understand the meaning behind the words. Sometimes I come to a completely different meaning of some red letters than I did when I read them before. That often depends on what lessons I have learned getting to that point in my life. That is one of the awesome things about His words and why continuing bible study is so important for me.
Ok, you are starting to get an understanding of where I am coming from on this blog. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I certainly have a lot of questions and I think if we keep studying the red letters most of them will be answerable. Let’s enjoy this journey together.
I am bringing up this blog for several reasons.
- I am an evangelical Christian who doesn’t like how I am generally portrayed in the mainstream media. I admit that I am a more progressive Christian than perhaps most. I readily call myself a “bleeding heart”. I want to let the world know that there are Christians around who believe and vote on more than one or two issues. I hope by opening this blog I can find and share views with like minded people ( and even those who are not so like minded as long as they keep the dialog civil).
- Another reason is to simply have a place where I can record my thoughts about Christian living. Over the past 25 years, and especially the last 3 years, I have been reading extensively about Christian doctrine, theology, history, and practices. I just need a place to hash out all my thoughts and share my views with others.
- Another reason is that I sometimes believe that most Christians today do not pay enough attention to the actual words of Jesus as found in the Gospel texts. Of course, I will be getting into that in more detail as this blog matures. If we don’t pay attentions to God’s own words then who should we listen to and obey.
Let’s have fun sharing our personal roads to Christ. Of course we are all at various points along that road so, hopefully, we can learn from one another.
God’s Blessing to everyone,