taking the words of Jesus seriously

“By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we are alluding to those old versions of the Bible wherein the words of Jesus are printed in red. In adopting the name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that Jesus taught.” Red Letter Christians pgs. 20-21

Odd as it may sound, since reading Tony Campolo’s book about Red Letter Christians (RLC), I have felt a deeper appreciation of the Bible’s black letters. The whole notion of RLC has given the black letters greater vitality and significance in my faith.

I am a Red Letter Christian in no small part because the black letters about Jesus have changed my life. My faith is framed by the non-verbal work of Jesus. In fact we Christians are a remarkably black letter lot. We state our faith in who Jesus was, that he died for us, that he was raised from the dead and that he ascended – relying on the black letter narrative. Let’s trace this thought through the language of theology and the Apostles’ Creed.

The Incarnation

“…conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…” In the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke the baby Jesus says nothing. This is not startling. He was, after all, an infant. Infants make noise and they make their parents see red. But it is understandable that the baby Jesus would not have goo goo-ed a message about having been born that we might have life and have it abundantly. He was a baby!!

More relevant to our conversation is that there are no red letters until Jesus is twelve and in the Temple, dazzling the elders. Even then we get only two short sentences and those are only recorded in one of the four narratives. Indeed, that is all we have of Jesus speaking during the first three decades of his life.

The Atonement

“…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…” As he rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, what was he saying? When he was being beaten by Pilate’s soldiers, and when they were driving the spikes into his hands and feet, what did he say? So far as we know he said nothing on any of those occasions, the letters are black letters. Jesus’ saving work was non-verbal. It was body language. The pivotal events of our faith happened with Jesus remarkably silent – no red letters.

Have you ever attended one of those three-hour ecumenical Good Friday services? It was at one such service that Tony heard a black preacher, friend of his, say over and over, “It’s Friday; but Sunday’s coming’.” Those Good Friday services are filled with preaching. In fact some preachers have been irreverent enough to call them “the Pillsbury preach off.” But in filling the three hours with the sound of our own voices, we preachers may miss a profound reality of the crucifixion. The only words the Bible tells us Jesus said during the agonizingly long time he hung impaled on the cross are the seven very brief remarks that the gospel writers have attributed to him. “The seven last words” we call them. Those seven last words are assigned one each to the seven preachers who will try to outdo each other in robbing the service of silence.

I decided one year that in preparation for my own silence robbing remarks to compute how much of his time on the cross Jesus spent saying his “seven last words, ” and how much of the time he was silent. I timed how long it would take me to read everything Scripture quotes Jesus as saying in those seven statements. With the clock ticking, I read it all at a reasonable tempo. It took me 26 seconds, less than half a minute. This means the Bible is telling us that the vast majority of his time on the cross was spent suffering an agonizing death by asphyxiation, in silence. No red letters. It was an event more than a speech. My life has been changed more by the fact that he was “Crucified, dead and buried, ” than that he said, “I thirst.”

The Resurrection

“…The third day he rose again from the dead…” Yes, Jesus said some things AFTER the resurrection. Mary, a couple on the road to Emmaus, Thomas and Peter among others had their red letter moments. But what of the actual resurrection itself? What did Jesus say AS he was resurrected? What did he say as the stone was being rolled away, as he came out of the tomb, as he saw the guards, lying unconscious? We do not know. The actual moment of resurrection happened without red letters.

The Ascension

“…he ascended into heaven…” After giving some last minute instructions, Jesus levitated. As he ascended, what do you suppose he was saying? “Hey guys! I can see the Temple from here!” Who knows? The narrative finds it important not to tell us. At least, it doesn’t tell us. As far as we know he had no comment. We have it as a black letter event. Body language. No red letters.

So, how on earth have I made the leap from this to calling myself a Red Letter Christian? We will discuss this further in future blogs. For now let me just suggest that, at this point in my life, the red letters are a necessary guide for how I am to live my life. And they breathe life into the black letters. I doubt that the crucifixion and even the resurrection would have been life changing for me without the red letters. Many people were crucified in those days. In fact two men were crucified with Jesus. But I have not accepted them or anyone else as Lord just for being crucified. That Jesus is my Lord and Savior is a reality in my life because he taught me in the red letters who he is. He taught me that he was going to die and be raised from the dead, that it was according to God’s intention for my life. As I said a bit earlier, the red letters have breathed life into the black letters and ushered them into the center of my life.

And they have instructed me how to live in response.

A way that I have found helpful in thinking about how the red and black letters relate has been to say that the black letters very well articulate God’s work of “Justification” in Jesus. They tell us of Jesus’ atoning death for us. And the red letters also include many teachings of Jesus about this justifying work being God’s plan for our salvation. They help us understand God’s intent, how God was in Jesus, what it meant.

But the real biting challenge of the red letters is that they not only help us embrace our justification. They lay out for us the challenge of our “Sanctification, ” living as those who have been justified. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

If the black letters are more about “Forgive us out debts, ” or “Forgive us our trespasses, ” the red letters are more about how are we to “Forgive our debtors, ” or “Forgive those who trespass against us.”

For all the life changing power they carry, the black letters can be accepted by those who only talk the talk. But we cannot so easily accept the red letters without feeling the tug to walk the walk. That is why the black letters describe how God has saved me in Jesus Christ and the red letters make me nervous.

Dr. John Galloway is a retired Presbyterian minister and graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. A frequent guest preacher, Dr. Galloway is the author of three books, the latest of which is Ministry Loves Company, a guide on how to be a parish minister.

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