On February 19, 2017, I delivered a message called “Seeing Red” to Vestal UMC. On June 18, 2017, I delivered that message again, this time to Walland UMC and, somewhere along the way, the message changed; not in its basic point, but in tone and delivery. The change was good – for the better – and was, in part, due to living into the message I delivered the first time. Below is the written version I worked from at Walland UMC.
Seeing Red – Walland
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.
I have a few things I want to talk to you about today. These things have been heavy on my mind for a while now. They have to do with Christians, and with the Bible. My concern is that I’m not sure we’re getting either one right.
About a year ago, Alana Levandoski released an album titled “Behold, I Make All Things New.” In an interview about the album, Alana said:
“Whenever, historically, we have seen God as “out there”, we’ve done things in the name of God that would otherwise be seen as a desecration if we saw God as in here.”
Alana went on to explain that she wanted to tell the central story to the Christian faith in a way that would remind us that God is in here. Going on in the interview she said”
“Imagine if we could go for a walk and we saw every bush burning, if we realized that everywhere we walked was sacred ground. Imagine if we looked into someone else’s eyes and knew that what we do to them, we do to Jesus. For whatever reason, this was lost. There was some sort of split that happened. The central teaching of Jesus is “Abide in me as I in you”, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” … and somehow along the way, we separated ourselves from all of that.”
I think Alana was dead to rights with what she said. I also think I might now how the split happened and how we lost our bead on the central story of Christian faith. Let me explain.
I am not a Christian. You see, to say “I’m ~a~ Christian” makes “Christian” a noun. A thing. An item. An object. And that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. “Christian” is not a noun. It’s a adjective. It describes an action – the action of following, of being like Christ; of being His hands and feet here on the earth, of carrying out the commandments and directives he gave us.
When we announce that we are “a” Christian or when we say, “Oh, so and so is ~a~ Christian”, we’re just checking off a box on a label, and we are removing the responsibility of carrying out the actions to be Christ-like from ourselves or those we name as ~a~ Christian. And the responsibility for carrying out those actions is critical – it’s our entire God-given purpose. It’s the most important responsibility we could ever hope to undertake! As Thomas Merton said, “Christianity is Christ living in us.” Living – to live – an adjective implying action. Christ living in us and through us.
No, I am not “a” Christian. I am, however, continuously striving to be Christian. It’s a daunting task that requires vigilance because I’m human, so I stumble, fall, backslide and sidestep daily, but I’m not giving up. I hope and pray that all of you are striving, too, and that none of you will give up either.
OK, that’s the first thing. The next part is the Bible, and I think it may be where we get messed up on the first part.
In this box are 1,138 pieces of paper – one for every page of scripture in my bible. The number of pages in a bible can vary based on the translation times the page size divided by the presence or absence of study notes, illustrations, etc. My bible is an NIV without any extras, so it only has 1,138 pages.
This first part is the Old Testament – what some refer to as the “the Hebrew Bible” consisting of the Torah (those books we call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy), the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim (which combined hold all the rest of the Old Testament books). When you put those three parts together, you get the Tanakh.
That’s a boatload of paper isn’t it? There are 872 pages, to be exact. It’s actually 70% of the whole Bible. And, almost all the most colorful stories are in this part. You’ve got talking serpents, a giant ship with an onboard zoo, floods, pillars of fire, chariots, burning bushes, splitting seas, plagues of frogs and locust, wars, civil strife, family drama, more wars, oppression, survival, wilderness adventures … You could preach from this stack for a lifetime and probably never get through it all. What’s important to note about this section for us Christians is that this part is where we learn not just that the stove is hot, but what the stove is.
OK, let’s pull this next bunch out. This thin little bit is the Book of Revelations. It was written by the Apostle John as a letter to seven specific churches in what was then called Asia and is now called Turkey. For no more pages than it is, it is every bit as exciting as anything in the Old Testament, but not very many preach about it, choosing instead just to refer to a few scriptures in it like, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). Sadly, those that do preach from it extensively may actually be getting it completely wrong. At any rate, we’re going to start a second stack with this.
Next, we have the Epistles. The Epistles are, like Revelations, letters. They make up 21 of the 27 books in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote 13 of them, ten to specific churches and three to church leaders. Paul’s are mostly encouraging the churches he was writing to, pointing out things that could become bigger problems, or explaining how the church should work. The Apostles Peter and John who were two of the Twelve Disciples, James who was Jesus’ half-brother, and Jude, who was a servant of Jesus, wrote the other eight. For the most part, their letters are more general or universal, intended for all the churches rather than sent to a specific church.
I’ve heard a lot of preachers deliver messages out of the Epistles, especially Paul’s letters to the various churches, and when they do preach out of them, they tend to reinforce those messages with scripture from the Old Testament. Since they’re “New Testament”, let’s put these over here in the second stack with the first letter, Revelation.
Let’s see. What’s left? Acts of the Apostles! Hey, I like this one. It’s where many preachers are right now during the season of Pentecost. Did you know they made a TV mini-series just a year or three ago about this one. Good stuff! We’ll add it to the second stack, too.
Before I get to whatever’s left in this box, though, I want to tell you about four fellas. Three are practicing Jews. One isn’t. One of them is a doctor. One used to work for the government. One is a preacher. And one is just a boy, a teenager, who’s his Teacher’s favorite, beloved even. As it turns out, two of them are best friends with the Teacher, and one happens to be a close friend and colleague of another close friend of the Teacher.
I needed to tell you about them, because these four gentlemen left you … this. Eye-witness accounts by two, and reports of first-hand accounts by two others. Everything you need to know about the Teacher … who the Teacher was, who the Teacher is, who the Teacher ever shall be … what He did, what He SAID … EVERYTHING … is right here … in this .. the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
And the most amazing part, for me anyway, is that these four fellas didn’t just “recollect” … they didn’t say, “I remember the time Jesus talked about feeding the poor …”. No way! They wrote, “Jesus said” and “Jesus did”, and then they wrote down what HE said and what HE did to the best of their ability and memory.
I want to read you a story by Kaitlin Wernet:
Gathered around the living room, we remained seated as the doorbell continued to ring. We didn’t need another casserole or vase of sympathy flowers; we needed words.
Void of compassion, the blank document—an unforeseen obituary—stared back at us, wringing all adjectives of their meaning, one after another. Each suggested description seemed to shrink our beloved boy, the one who held the titles of both my best friend and younger brother, into someone foreign and unrecognizable. The task of fitting all of his life and all of our love into one small newspaper column was exhausting, so we traded our pencils for pillows and gave up for the night.
A few hours later, unable to sleep, I found my sleepy-eyed father furiously scribbling notes on a stack of white index cards. Between the light blue lines were favorite stories, memorable quotes, and beloved quirks. My dad handed me a stack, and as the dark sky faded into morning, our collection of cards finally created the outline of something familiar—someone familiar.
I imagine the apostle John sitting down to translate the encounters he’d had with Jesus into suitable words. To him, Jesus was not a faraway character, but a trusted friend and beloved Savior. Writing these words, this Gospel account, John probably recalled intimate details about Jesus—the way he smelled, what his favorite foods were, the sound of his laugh. He could clearly call to mind the expressions his friend made when feeling tired or excited or somber. Yet, John undertook the task of assembling words to describe the heaven-sent Son of God to those of us who didn’t know Jesus in the flesh.
Through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, this dear friend of Jesus begins his narrative with the thing that identified Jesus most: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
After years of witnessing Jesus’ parables, miracles, and interactions firsthand, John presents Jesus as the Word. Jesus did not come to merely deliver a message from God—he himself is the message.
Three of the Gospel authors were that close to Jesus. They shared a level of intimacy with him that gave them those memories, and it’s from those memories that they wrote the Gospels.
Now, understand, the Bible as a whole is God’s word, we know that. God’s Spirit was fully on Moses when he recorded centuries of oral traditions and his own eye-witness accounts of the Exodus. God’s Spirit was fully on every prophet and poet and author of the Old Testament. It was all God-inspired, and it is God’s holy word.
But the men who wrote the Old Testament couldn’t walk or break bread with God as they knew God. They couldn’t physically embrace or touch God or kiss His cheek. They couldn’t even look on the Face of God when He did appear to the few of them who were privileged with that experience. They could only know as much of God the Father’s will, His commandments, and His laws as was revealed to them by Him through Moses who gave it to Joshua who gave it to the Elders who gave it to the Prophets who gave it to the most high priests of the Temple. And they didn’t get to experience the depth or breadth of love that God showed us through the sacrifice of His son.
The Epistles and Revelation were written by men who knew the Teacher personally in the flesh or to whom he revealed himself after his resurrection, but they were written to explain, interpret, and reinforce. They are clarifications and affirmations of things that had happened here in the Gospels – kind of like how-to manuals. They don’t add to the Gospels. They just expand on what’s already there.
The Gospels, on the other hand, are essentially eye-witness accounts, a kind of transcript if you will, of what God Himself … manifested in God the Son … said and did while in the flesh, in real-time, walking among us as a man, breaking bread, sharing meals, laughing, crying, comforting, and healing with his own hands, his own voice. Not shouting down from the heavens in a booming voice with no face or from the center of a burning bush in the desert, but standing right there with them. And Acts is an account of what he empowered the disciples to do through the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.
Consider this. The next time you tune into one of the televangelists or even local church broadcasts, pay attention to what they’re preaching. I’d be willing to bet they’re preaching from one of Paul’s Epistles or from the Old Testament. Or, check your social media feed or the section of your favorite store that carries any Christian items. How many bible devotionals, images on Facebook or Instagram, t-shirts, coffee mugs or everywhere else do you see quoting Jesus? Again, I’ll wager … not that many. Most will be quoting something from one of the Epistles or the Old Testament.
We worry that we know the Ten Commandments. We stomp and fume and file law suits to try to get them hung in every possible public building. But can any of us recite the Sermon on the Mount? Beyond “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,” can any of us recite anything Christ said?
That’s why I believe we’re getting both “Christian” and the bible wrong. That’s how I think the split Alana Levandoski referred to happened, how we “lost” the central story of Christian Faith.
And that’s why I’m seeing red, why I need you to see red, and why you need to see it more than 5-20 minutes once a week on Sunday; why you need to see it every day, study it, meditate on it, and you need to pray on it and over it and under it.
You need to know the Gospels so well that they become like breathing. We’ve been here for a while now this morning. Show of hands: How many of you sat here all morning thinking about your next breath and the one after that and the next and the next? No one? Yet you’ve been breathing the whole time. Or at least I hope you have.
If we don’t see red as quickly and easily and without thought as we breathe, we can’t be Christian. We can only be Christian if others can tell by our outward actions that we are living out what Christ taught us. “Abide in me as I in you.”
And where do we find what Christ taught us? We find the first-hand account of his teachings in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
All these other books – the Old Testament, the rest of the New Testament – they’re all wonderful, holy, God-inspired, God-given works, but … without the Gospels – they don’t get us where we need to be. We couldn’t even understand the other 23 New Testament books without them, plus we’d all be Jewish!
Which leads my last point and some more Red I want you to see.
I need some volunteers to come up here with me. If you would please form a line going out from the cross over here out this way facing the far wall, and if you would each place your hands on the person in front of you. Now just hang in here with me for a few minutes.
The people in this line represents 42 generations. Every person represented in this line except two lived in the Old Testament part of the bible. EVERY person represented in this line was Jewish. Every single one. This line is a blood line – a family tree.
It begins here in the front and comes forward in time for 42 generations. It includes a lot of names we all have trouble pronouncing, but it also includes names we recognize like Abraham, Isaac, Boaz, King David, King Solomon. You can’t push your way into this line, you can’t cut this line, you can’t buy your way into this line. There is no earthly government or executive order or army or any world leader that can get you or themselves into this bloodline. Not even Ancestry dot com’s DNA tests could get you into this line. You only get into THIS line by being born into it. It is unbreakable until …
Until we get all the way to here. To the last person represented in this line. And I’ll tell you what; this last person is someone special, because THIS person made a way. He suffered mightily for it, though. He was ridiculed, he was beaten, he was whipped, he was humiliated, but he was unlike any other person before him or since.
Yet, with all he went through, He still made a way. And when they finally took him, when they nailed him to that cross … when they pierced him with a spear … when His red, red blood ran down and wash and spilled and washed over all of us …
His blood broke every chain, freed us from our sins, adopted us into His impenetrable bloodline … under HIS new covenant … and made us sons and daughters of God! His red blood!
He didn’t put any restrictions or exclusions or exceptions on it, either. He hung there on that cross and said, “Father, forgive THEM for THEY know not what they do …” And John tells us, “For God so loved the WORLD” … not just the Jews, not just the disciples, not just this bunch or that bunch or the bunch over there …. THE WHOLE GREAT BIG CHAOTIC, LOST, FRIGHTENED, ANGRY, WONDERFUL WORLD. His blood poured out over all of us!
How precious is that? How undeserving are we? And all He asks of us in return is to follow Him. To spread the Good News. To be HIS hands and feet. To go where and when he calls us and do what he bids us to do … to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give both our shirt and our jacket, to be charitable, to help one another … to love God above all others, to love one another and even our enemies…
To love God above all others and to love one another, even our enemies, as he loves us … By his own words, the two greatest commandments.
Is that so much to ask for all He’s done for us?
This man here at the end of this divine bloodline made a way for everyone. And now it’s up to us to find the way He made, and to step fully and firmly onto that Way.
To do that, we absolutely have to clearly and completely see Red.
If we take away this Red – the Red of the Gospels – then we take away the Epistles and Acts, because they couldn’t have happened or been written without this Red. That leaves us back here in the Old Testament and never knowing the loving sacrifice of God for all of us … for the world.
See this red, study this red, know this red, keep it in your heart, LIVE it, BE it …
And see His red that He spilled out for all of us … in the face of everyone, no matter what or who they are, because there is NO ONE on this planet that His blood was NOT spilled for. No one. You may not see it at first glance, but keep looking. They may not know it’s on them, but keep showing them. You’ll find it and they’ll see it if you look hard enough and deep enough.
It’s there. I know it’s there. Because He’s promised you that right here in THIS red.
See red, folks. When you see, study, know, live, breathe that red; as you grow more and more in the teachings in the Gospels, as you carry out what He taught … THEN … then you ARE Christian.
And all God’s people said … Amen.