Are You a Red Letter Christian?

It was a serendipitous moment. On Saturday, October 26, I had the privilege of offering a greeting to the 167th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa. Whereas United Methodist bishops come and go, Bishop Alan Scarfe was elected as the Episcopal Bishop of Iowa in 2002 and has been a wonderful episcopal leader.

I am deeply grateful for the common historical roots between the Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church. The Methodist movement in America sprang up from the Anglican Church in England in the 1700’s, and our founder, John Wesley, never left the Church of England, even as he gave birth to a new church in America.

Since 2002, The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church have been engaged bilateral dialogue, seeking to discern God’s will regarding how our churches might embody a new kind of public witness to the unity of Christ’s body. Seeking full communion as the goal, the document, A Gift to the World, has been submitted for potential action at the United Methodist General Conference in May of 2020, with the Episcopal Church scheduled to take action on the proposal at its General Convention in 2021.

I arrived early to the Episcopal Convention and was both surprised and delighted to meet Shane Claiborne, who was the primary speaker. Shane and I connected right away because he has United Methodist roots, lives in Philadelphia (my home territory), and is the founder of The Simple Way. The Simple Way is a small organization and intentional living community that supports the building of neighborhoods of positive change and hope in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. Claiborne has now spent 22 years of his life living in community.

Shane is a prolific writer and speaks around the world about simple living, discipleship, community, and social justice. He recalls the time he spent with Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, one of the poorest cities in the world, and the wisdom she shared.

  • “Let every person I come in contact receive the forgiveness of Jesus.”
  • “Taking a cold shower makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others.”
  • “We are not called to do great things but small things with great love.”

Claiborne told us about the feet of Mother Teresa, how they became deformed because there were just enough donated shoes at the Missionaries of Charity in Kokata for everyone to get a pair…and not many extras. So Mother Teresa went through all the donated shoes and took the worst pair for herself. Over the years, wearing ill-fitting shoes all the time deformed her feet. Then Claiborne said to convention-goers, “Calcuttas are everywhere. God gave you eyes to see your own Calcutta.”

Claiborne is also a disrupter. He is not afraid to confront us with our own prejudices, failings, and reluctance to be “all in” with the teachings of Jesus. These statements of Claiborne were both challenging and convicting.

  • “Our Christianity has become less and less fascinating because of how unchristian, judgmental, and hypocritical much of Christianity seems to feel.”
  • “What do young people think of the church? You will know them by their love. This is what young people are hoping for.”
  • “We are called to be the Good Samaritans, but after pulling so many people out of the ditches, we need to rethink the road to Jericho.”
  • “We are way too adjusted to racism. We are called to resist.”
  • “I met Jesus and he messed me up. It’s time to disrupt with holy agitation in a holy, humble, and non-violent way. (Shane has been arrested 20 times.) We will not tolerate the things that squash any person.”

But there’s another way in which Shane continues to challenge our, at times, lukewarm Christianity. Claiborne and Tony Campolo, both well-known Christian activists and speakers, co-founded Red Letter Christians as a non-denominational movement to “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Years ago, when I first heard Tony Campolo refer to red letter Christians, I was confused. What was he talking about? Finally, I got it. Many Bibles today quote in red the words of Jesus that are commonly accepted as authentic. These red-letter Bibles were meant to be a handy way of discerning the heart of Jesus’ ministry through his very words. In some Bibles, Old Testament passages that Jesus directly quoted or referred to are also printed in red. Staying true to the foundation of combining Jesus and justice, Red Letter Christians mobilize individuals into a movement of believers who live out Jesus’ counter-cultural teachings.

In his presentation, Claiborne noted how interesting it is that many of us underline passages in the Bible that particularly speak to us. Kind of like printing them in red to get our attention. The problem is our human tendency to latch on to the things Jesus said that we like and ignore the rest. These are usually the words that are the hardest to hear or that mess with the safety of our faith, like the first shall be last; go to the end of the line; sell what you have and give it to the poor; love your enemies; and turn the other cheek.

Claiborne wrote an article in Esquire magazine in 2009 in which he said, “In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay ‘out there’ but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, ‘Nothing good could come.’ It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.”

At the end of his presentation, Claiborne described his calling as a Red Letter Christian, “What would I do differently? I would take more risks. I did not tiptoe through life so I could arrive safely.”

Red Letter Christians. They do not tiptoe through life. Rather, they are committed to loving Jesus and loving justice. They live simply. They live faithfully. They live expectantly. And they are committed to doing what Jesus said, like caring for the immigrant, reaching out to the hopeless, and offering a hot bowl of soup. Are you a red letter Christian?

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