Archives For Islam

I’m just gonna keep repeating myself:

I believe the Church is called not to make the world a better place but to be the better place God has already made in the world. I believe the Church is that better place when our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ.

Such a community, one like the Trinity of difference and peace, is made possible only by listening to those who are different from you.

I last posted a rebuttal from the Right regarding our Pastoral Letter on the Executive Order on Refugees. Now, I thought I would post a rebuttal to the rebuttal, from one our (majority conservative) congregation’s leaders.

At a time when a lot of Christians are lamenting how the protests against Trump make them feel, I think it’s especially urgent to clarify how the Executive Order (and Trump himself) makes other Christians feel.

Again….deep breath…to be the Church is to listen peaceably to those different from you.

“I wanted to give you a quick series of thoughts on some of the recent discussions regarding the Executive Order.

Recently the vibe I’ve gotten is that the direction people want to take with this is to stay out of it because it’s too political, and to talk about this stuff in a church context is impolite.

I’m fine with that as a leader.  I can see the argument as to how that’s better for the church and its mission in the long term. I am not OK with that at all personally.  As you know, my wife and oldest son are immigrants from Muslim majority countries.  This very easily could have impacted them and our family had George W Bush done something similar after 9/11 (with far more justification).

I also have lived and worked with literally hundreds of Muslims.  I count many of them as close friends.  All of this is to say, I have very close personal ties to this issue and I will never be OK with any version of God that might countenance this, or even countenance not speaking out about this.  You can say I have strong feelings on the issue!

As I am in the minority, and as I have to respect the decisions of the rest on this, I will just kind of check out of discussions around this topic in the future.  I will be present, I will listen, but I won’t invest a lot of emotional energy in them as the result is it just makes me sad and angry by varying degrees.

And I am going to have to stop reading Jason’s blog for at least a little while!  I am not disappointed or frustrated with any members of our church – I have simply had different life experiences than them.

I have personally appreciated Michelle Matthew’s strong stand on this issue, and also the stand of the United Methodist and wider Church overall. And I hope and pray that I am wrong about our President and his motives.  Hopefully this whole issue blows over quickly, either because the courts strike it down or because it really is just a 90 day pause, and not a ban.

OK, long ramble over!

Thanks,

 

“….and it’s Christians who are bringing it.”

For Episode 77, our guest, Mona Reza, discusses the consequences President Trump’s Muslim travel ban has had and will have on her and our fellow Muslim American brothers and sisters.

With all the talk of travel and immigration bans there have been real consequences. American citizens who are Muslim have been forced to have tough conversations with their neighbors and children. Xenophobia is creating fear throughout our nation rather than embracing the diversity we have in our country.

Mona is my wife’s close friend and colleague. In addition to being a Catholic-educated, cracker-jack lawyer, a stellar mom, and a hardcore patriot, she’s also a devout, practicing Muslim.

Mona recently shared her thoughts and fears over Trump’s Ban in a post you find here. In a fractured and polarized culture, Christians can be a community where there is neither Republican nor Democrat only when they listen (to understand) to voices other than the ones they self-select to hear.

Let us know what you think of the conversation with Mona. If you’d like to hear more from her in the future, we’ll work to get her on the docket.

We’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk,  Mandy Smith, and Alice Connor. In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of  Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rohr, and Scot McKnight.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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This is a post from my wife’s close friend and colleague, Mona. In addition to being a Catholic-educated, cracker-jack lawyer, a stellar mom, and a hardcore patriot, she’s also a devout, practicing Muslim.

In our present polarized climate, where so many of us have retreated to our own ideological ghettoes where we can hear only what reaffirms our preexisting politics and worldview, I think it’s important (for Christians at least) to listen with charity to those whose experience and view might conflict with yours.

In a climate where xenophobia is thick and, one could argue, legitimated by our leaders, I particularly think it’s urgent for Christians to listen to the testimony of Muslims, for Christ’s command to love the Other necessarily implies that we will work to keep others from becoming Other.

As my wife, Ail, writes of Mona:

“She’s a beautiful person in all ways, and she and her husband, Raj, have raised strong, intelligent daughters here in the DC area. Mona and I share a lot in common–we’re both attorneys, her youngest daughter and Alexander are the same age, we share the same values, and we both enjoy that we can talk openly about our faiths with one another in an increasingly secular society. Please read all of what she says here with an open heart. If you react with anger at what she is saying instead of compassion and tears, then you aren’t listening.”

Here’s what Mona has to say:

We are getting so mixed up with everything thrown at us I think that perhaps one thing we all agree on doesn’t seem to be clear.

We would like our country to be safe and we would like to see ISIS eradicated. What we disagree on is how this is going to happen. What is alarming is the attempt to couch any disagreement with how it is done as a failure to care about the safety of Americans. That’s ridiculous.

You know why I oppose waterboarding? Not because it’s cruel or unconstitutional, but because experts say that it does not work. If one of my daughters disappeared tomorrow and you told me that you had a suspect that you wanted to waterboard I’d say I’ll do it myself if that means we’ll get answers. The reason I wouldn’t do that is that there are better ways to get the answers we need.

We don’t want to give ISIS propaganda tools not because we are catering to them, but because research has shown that this is what they want. We need to play the game in a way that we are going to win. It’s fun to say we’re going to “knock the hell out of ISIS” but it only matters if your tactics work. Republicans are not the only people who don’t want another terror attack. Don’t you think the children of liberals go to malls and zoos and movies? Not one sane person in this country is willing to risk another terrorist attack if we can prevent it. The discussion is, how do we prevent it.

I posit that American Muslims would like everything possible to be done to stop a terror attack, perhaps more than the rest of you because God help us we get it from both ends. On the one hand we are the victims of the terrorist on the other hand we get the backlash. It is absolutely disheartening that after the shooting in the Canadian mosque last night by a pro-Trump white nationalist most people lost interest in the shooting completely, particularly our new administration that is so laser focused on terrorism. It was only interesting when the perpetrator may have been a Moroccan immigrant. Both ends. We get shot while praying and we are accused of not caring about terrorism if we say please don’t assume I’m the shooter.

The only silver lining I’ve seen in the last ten days is people moving beyond their own personal interest. Call it intersectionalism or whatever, it’s something I have shared with my friends for years. God is the same no matter what language you use to pray or faith tradition you follow, black lives have always mattered, who you love is your business, and reproductive rights are personal. Whether you’ve been pushed into this way of thinking by current events or you have always felt human first and that God gave each of us free will for a reason, your support now is so welcome and I will continue supporting you. And to the white women (and men, but as always women get the worst of it) out there who don’t always have a dog in this race but march, and post, and protest, and many times lead the fight? Thank you. The implication that you should feel that it is not your right to do so irritates me no end. Many of you have been my best allies for years now, not just when it impacted you directly.

The events of this weekend have shaken me up. Again, not because I want unvetted refugees to enter the country or visas given out like candy to foreign nationals (I don’t) but because the broader implications of an administration that disregards checks and balances and acts without counsel and refuses to concede valid points of criticism is pointing us down a dangerous road. We are moving there at breakneck speed.

My conservative friends have (mostly) stayed quiet and I will tell you it hurts. After the election an article was sent to me by a friend who worked in the Reagan administration to assuage my fears. In relevant part it stated “Born or naturalized Americans, working or studying on a proper visa and abiding by American laws, whether Muslim, Mandarin, or Martian, should understand that they have nothing to fear.” I haven’t asked him (yet) if he still feels that way.

Your silence hurts me because I am at an anxiety level where I panic at the grocery store not sure how much longer I’ll be able to buy produce outside of an internment camp (or worse). I try focusing on work but I feel like I should be planning an “out” for my family for WHEN this administration chooses to attempt to suspend the rights of Muslim Americans allegedly in the name of national security. The only thing that gives me comfort is all of the friends and family who have stood up for our rights and I believe will continue to do so. If you asked me last year if that included you my conservative friends, I would say absolutely. We grew up together, went to college or graduate school together, we raised children together and sit on the bleachers and complain together. There is no way you think that what is happening right now is o.k. I tell myself. But you know what? I’d like to hear that from you. I’d like to hear you call out crazy when you see it, because unfortunately the only voices this President hears is those of his supporters.

“Christians must guard against the assumption that when the Qu’ran differs explicitly from biblical revelation it is therefore false.”

Last week I posted an essay from my teacher, theologian Bruce McCormack, thinking through possible Christian responses to the question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

061213soulenTo continue that conversation, my friend, theologian Kendall Soulen, offered me his essay below which reflects on the very same issues. In it, Soulen points out the tradition among the Church Fathers of typological reading to inform theology and, as an example of such reading, uses the short story of Jonah to suggest three varying types of conversion to God. Each of these types, Soulen suggests, can correspond to how we conceive each of the Abrahamic faiths worshipping God.

It’s a PDF so just click on it below.

Soulen – The Sign of Jonah

 

4A few years ago my congregation welcomed a local mosque into our building for their Friday prayers while their own space was being renovated. You can check that here.

It was not an uncontroversial gesture with some church members leaving and many others protesting because, they argued, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

Today, the Christian social media universe is aflame over that same question as Wheaton College has attempted to fire one of their faculty for expressing solidarity with Muslims.

What interests me is not the campus politics or the question of academic freedom but the theological question, one which has grown more urgent as the issues of terrorism and refugees become more critical: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Here is a thoughtful response from Dr. Bruce McCormack, my theology professor from Princeton. I learned much from him in several different classes and I hope you will too.

*Originally posted at Noah Toly’s Tumblr.

It is a great pity that the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has come so forcibly to the center of attention for so many (on social media especially) through ongoing controversy at Wheaton College. The nature of that controversy is well-known and does not need to be rehearsed here.  I say it is a pity because the issue is a theologically profound and complex one which admits of no obvious answer.  It is a question worthy of engagement by the finest theological minds in our world today precisely because of its complexity.  But it is also an issue with implications not only for inter-faith relations but also for inter-confessional relations. That is to say: how we answer the question, the charity or lack of charity with which we do so could very well have an impact on ecumenical relations long after the controversy at Wheaton has come to an end.  So the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My hope is that all of us would learn to admit that more than one answer can reasonably be given and that is a huge mistake to assume that anyone who gives a different answer than one’s own is automatically guilty of either bigotry or a betrayal of the gospel.

Before I turn to the issue, I should say that I have had great respect and appreciation for Wheaton College for a great many years.  I have lectured there twice, preached in their chapel, and benefitted greatly from the privilege of teaching an extremely high number of their graduates here at Princeton Seminary during my twenty-five years here.  My respect has only been increased by the comments made in recent days by Wheaton faculty (including Larycia Hawkins!) on social media. Wheaton’s “hype” is not exaggerated in my view.  It is simply lovely to see so many non-theologians who read enough theology to comment so ably on theological questions.  I have been, as a result, heartbroken to watch this happening; heartbroken most especially for Prof. Hawkins but heartbroken too for faculty, students, alums – and, indeed, administrators.  My goal here is to do theology well.  And by “well” I mean not only theology that is academically rigorous and responsible to Scripture and the history of the construction of orthodox understandings of God but theology that serves reconciliation and peace.  How we do theology can be, at times, just as important than the content if only because how we do it will decide whether it can be heard by others.

In what follows, my goal is to present what I take to be the best case that can be made on both sides of the “same God” question by one such  as I (whose training is in the history of doctrine).  I will begin with the negative answer and turn then to the positive answer.  As this is a blog contribution and not an academic paper, I will not seek to defend every claim I make – though I would be happy to do so if pressed.  I will simply say that my views on the range of theological topics relevant to this issue are the result of forty-three years of intensive engagement with historical and systematic theology, the last fifteen of which have been devoted specifically to the doctrine of God.

I. The Case for Rejecting the “Same God” Thesis

Those who think that “Allah” and the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” could not possibly be the same God defend their answer best on the following grounds.  The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”).  The relations simply are what God is essentially.  For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity.  In support of these claims, Barth cites (among others) Johann Gerhard (the most significant orthodox Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century) and Herman Bavinck (a well-known modern Dutch theologian).  “J. Gerhard writes of it: ‘whoever does not know the mystery of the Trinity does not know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word’…” (Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, p.96. And from Bavinck: “‘The whole of Christianity, the whole of special revelation, stands and falls with the confession of God’s triunity.  It is the heart of Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the substance of the new covenant.’” (Ibid., p.97.).  On this basis, Barth concludes “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (Ibid., pp.97-8).

The strength of this argument has to do with Barth’s conviction that only God can reveal God and that, therefore, the One who would reveal Him must Himself be God if He is to reveal Him.  Quite clearly, this argument also rules out of bounds a good bit of speculative or “natural” theology.  And it leads us quite naturally to the recognition that theological language that is responsible to its “object”(i.e. conformed to the nature of God) ought to be grounded “Christologically” (i.e. in the Christ attested in Holy Scripture).  And that means, among other things, that the concept of “oneness” which we employ in trinitarian discourse ought to be one that is purchased from close reflection on the nature of the unity of Jesus Christ with His Father.

But if triunity “goes all the way down”, then the triunity in God cannot be a concept arrived at by simply adding the number three to a prior commitment to the number one.  God is not One and Three; God is One-in-Three and Three-in-One.  Now the latter is, quite obviously, a very difficult thing to say. The concept of perichoresis (or “co-inherence”) was devised in an attempt not to fall silent where the unique “oneness” of the Christian God is concerned.  But even perichoresis leaves some extremely important questions unanswered – to which I will return in a moment. Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.

That, I believe, is the strongest case for rejecting the “same God” thesis.  It is one that I find deeply compelling and have done so for years.  So my convictions on this question are not shaped by current events.  But! the problem with this case is that it is almost too good.  For stated as I have stated it, this answer ignores a number of problems – not least of which is the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  The truth of the matter, as we shall now see, is that the burden of proof where orthodoxy is concerned is much greater for people like me than it is for Larycia Hawkins. And that is because hers is the more traditional, the more obviously orthodox position.   To explain why I turn to the best case for an affirmation of the “same God” thesis.

II. The Case for Affirming the “Same God” Thesis

The place to start is with the recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the fourth century.  Development is obvious on the face of it; concepts like ousia,hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT.  What we do find there, in many places, is a “high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1).  We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of Israel.  But none of these affirmations adds up to a doctrine of the Trinity.  What they provide are the building-blocks for constructing one. But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination – a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28. All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some time.  Four centuries, in fact.  And one then has to ask: what understanding did Christian theologians have of God in the meantime?  Now that is a most interesting question.

Before there was a “pro-Nicene” theology, before the Church could be united in the belief that there exist in God three “persons” whose unity is guaranteed by the principle of “inseparable operations” (see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy), the most obvious thing for Christians to believe – and what the NT writers themselves believed – was quite simply that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the One God of Israel.  The truth is that Phil.2:9-11 (especially when read as I read it) works exceptionally within the NT canon.  The most natural understanding of the oneness of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of “singularity” and/or “uniqueness.”  This understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists.  By the mid-second century at the latest, a concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle Platonism.  The concept in question affirmed that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being.  In constructing this concept, there can be little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all.  Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for the early Fathers.  And that was one of the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted.  All of the fourth century theologians whose doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought). And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”

The truth is that the conceptual differentiation between ousia and hypostases worked out by the Cappadocians placed the “persons” in a rather more pale light than the intensive light which shown on the common or shared “essence.”  Why do I say that?  Because the great unresolved question of the orthodox settlement was: what are the three?  What is it that differentiates or distinguishes the “persons” such that Christian trinitarianism does not lapse back into absolute monotheism?  The only answer available to orthodox Christians at the time was that the three persons are “distinct” by virtue of their differing “modes of origination.”  But that is not an answer to the what-question. It tells how the three are what they are, how they “come to be” (eternally, of course); it does not tell us what they are.  Many of the orthodox, including Basil and Augustine, were quite candid in admitting this.  What the “persons” are, what makes them to differ, is ineffable (i.e. it cannot be brought to speech).  Given that this is so, it is understandable that the only “properties” thought to be “personal” (i.e. proper to a single “person” only rather than shared by all three) were modes of origination – and that all other “properties” (which did give an answer to the question of what God is, even if not what the “persons” are) are shared.  It also becomes immediately comprehensible why the “principle of insuperable operations” was such a big deal (i.e. if one member of the Godhead does something, they all do it, by virtue of shared essence).

The strongest case for affirming the “same God” thesis lies in the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in which “oneness” was both historically prior to and, to an extent, logically privileged over “threeness.”.  The move historically was from oneness to triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way that “fit” the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of “oneness” – which, we now have to say, can be and is upheld by a great many Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.  And that leads me to a final, ecumenical point.

Roman Catholic theology has always had and will continue to have a big stake in the metaphysics of the Fathers.   That is why the affirmation that Christians and Muslims worship the same God could find approval at Vatican II – because it was an affirmation built upon the metaphysics of the ancient Church which found its way into the great syntheses of Augustine and Thomas.  But to mention the Roman Catholics in this context is to remind ourselves that the issue we are discussing is not limited to Christians and Muslims.  It touches upon issues with profound ecumenical significance.  To be sure, I have my questions about the orthodox settlement (having to do largely with the metaphysics of the ancient church).  I do believe that it could be improved upon. But any improvements would, at this stage, still be the opinions of a private theologian.  They would not have ecclesial standing.  There is no such thing, at the end of the day, as the Protestant doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity is the shared teaching of the churches scattered across the globe who adhere to the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Church. For that reason, I could no more deny to Larycia Hawkins the orthodoxy of her understanding of the Trinity than I could deny it to those who affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For it is she who stands closest in this controversy to classical orthodoxy, not people like me.

Final Thought

No one involved in debates over the issue raised by the Wheaton controversy should deny that the issue is theological.  At the same time, no one should act as though there is only one clear solution to it available to orthodox Christians who adhere to Scripture and the Creed.  Orthodoxy itself left unanswered questions lying on the table for future generations to debate.  And debate is precisely what we should do with them. My hope, my prayer, is that these debates can take place in a spirit of charity and in a spirit that seeks reconciliation (not only at Wheaton but outside Wheaton as well).

The Christian blogosphere has been all atwitter lately over the National Cathedral’s welcome of an Islamic prayer service into their sacred space. Living here in DC as I do, I can say that Muslims praying in the cathedral will be neither the first non-Christian activity on the cathedral’s schedule nor will it be as a-religious as much of the silliness which transpires there (seriously, I was once forced to take a ‘Laughter Yoga’ class there).

True to form, my mentor and partner-in-crime, Dennis Perry, was well-ahead of the curve in showing Christian hospitality to our Muslim neighbors when their mosque was under renovation. Fidelity to Jesus, Dennis points out, involves much more than tribal allegiance to him. It requires us to embody his life and ministry, and when it comes how we should offer hospitality to our despised, feared neighbors Jesus even gives us a handy-dandy, black-and-white parable to abide: the Good Samaritan.

Our church welcomed our Muslim neighbors 4 years ago. It was not without controversy. Many church members got angry. Others left. Only one ever actually came to me to tell me they were upset.

In the end, in a denomination whose highest value is most often making members happy, we’re a stronger congregation for welcoming the stranger.

Here’s the sermon I wrote 4 years ago, the Sunday after the Friday we first welcomed our local mosque into our sacred multipurpose room. I preached that Sunday while Dennis sat in the middle of a firing line of questions between services.

As luck would have it, it’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary text.

Also, just for shits and giggle, here’s a bit the Daily Show did about our hospitality.

The Form of God’s Shalom – Matthew 25

A few years ago, before she graduated, I went with my wife, Ali, to a law school party. I hate parties. I avoid them. I go only begrudgingly and when I’m in them I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a minister- a marine biologist, say, or an architect. Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks like saying you’re a minister, and nothing provokes unwanted conversations like saying you’re a minister.

So, there I was at this party full of wannabe lawyers, gnawing like a beaver on celery sticks, desperately trying to keep conversation to superficial things when this Urban-Outfitted guy asked me what I did for a living. And because my wife was nearby I told him the truth.

Sure enough, the first thing he did was discretely move his wine glass behind his back. Then he copped an elitist air and said:

‘Well, I’m not religious, of course, but I do try to live a good life and help people when I can. Isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about?’

And I thought: ‘Wow, that’s really deep. Is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? I should write that down. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.’

Today’s scripture text from Matthew 25 seems like the perfect example of such do-good moralism.

One of the most obvious features of this judgment scene is what’s missing from it. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, there’s no mention of a confession of faith. There’s no mention of justification. Nothing is said here about forgiveness of sins or grace.

There’s nothing here about what we say or believe about Jesus. Many conclude from this text then that our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith are all incidental when compared to our deeds, that this parable shows us that what really matters is what we do, that one day we will be judged not on the strength or sincerity of our faith but on the presence of our good deeds to others.

The only problem with such an interpretation is that its an interpretation that doesn’t require Jesus; in fact, you can forget Jesus is the one telling the parable.

The suggestion that ‘doing good to others is really what it’s all about’ is hardly a novel concept. It’s not specifically Christian or even particularly religious.

There has to be more going on here.

Jesus and the disciples have just left the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus preached a series of woes against the faithless city. It was while they were there that the disciples couldn’t help but marvel over the impressive architecture of Herod’s temple mount.

And hearing their amazement, Jesus responds by predicting the complete destruction of every building they see, stone for stone.

Then Jesus leads them up to the Mt of Olives. When they get there, the disciples ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5). Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’ That this is the setting for today’s scripture is key to understanding Jesus’ parable.

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read this parable rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture.

Every year I spend the first three weeks of our confirmation program drilling into the confirmands’ heads that harmony was God’s intention from the very beginning. Harmony with creation, with one another, with Father, Son and Spirit.

Sometimes we spend so much time praising God for dying for our sins we forget that Sin was not in the first draft of God’s story. We forget that harmony was God’s original design, and we forget that harmony is God’s promise for a

New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. By telling this parable here the Shepherd is passing his vocation on to his sheep. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

You see-

The point of this parable is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se. The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point of this parable is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged. The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to his way of life which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep are saved not because of their good deeds. The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to live the life that redeems the world. The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about? The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation came to me, quite upset, and told me they couldn’t understand why we would allow for an Islamic congregation to hold their Friday Jummah prayer services here in our building.

‘How can we ask our youth to give their lives to Christ when we’re condoning the practice of another religion in our fellowship hall?’

It was an honest question. I don’t doubt the sincerity of it, and it was just one of many such questions I’ve received in the last few weeks.

Implicit in the question is the suggestion that by welcoming the Islamic congregation we are watering down our beliefs in Jesus when in fact I think it’s the opposite.

I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I believe he’s the savior of the world. And because I believe that, I believe his way of life is the form of God’s shalom. And there is no better description of Jesus’ life than as the One who welcomes the stranger, love his enemies, cares for the outcast, heals the sick, and brings good news to the captives.

Do I believe the worlds’ religions are all just different paths to the same destination? No.

Do I believe Islam rightly understands the God of Abraham? No.

Do I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Yes.

But when we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

That we would welcome Muslim strangers into our sacred space with no strings attached is not a reduction of what we believe about Jesus (or a betrayal); it is, I think, the fullest possible expression of what we believe about Jesus.

This isn’t just a relevant question for our congregation. As globalism and secularism spread, the question for the Church in the future is: how do we as Christians engage the stranger?

We do so as Christ, who regarded the stranger as neither darkness nor danger.

Today’s scripture is Jesus‘ final teaching moment before the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- where Jesus sends out the apostles to make disciples of all nations. What that means, I think, is that the necessary condition for evangelism, the necessary condition for sharing our faith, is the presence of a People who embody the life of the One whom we wish to share with others.

Fundamentally, you can’t share a message about the One who welcomed strangers and loved enemies and forgave sin and conquered the power of Death in a hostile, suspicious or fearful way.

The manner in which we share our faith has to match the content of our message. Otherwise we’re practicing an ideology and not the ministry of Jesus.

Look-

There are irreconcilable differences with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the God of Abraham. Secular culture tries to tell us that those differences don’t really matter. Extremists try to tell us that those differences are worth killing over.

I believe what the Church has to offer the world right now is a gift we’ve already been given by Jesus. What we have to offer the world is a ministry that welcomes the stranger. What we have to offer the world is a community where there is no danger in the Other’s difference because welcome of the stranger is an attribute of God’s own life.

Let me make it plain:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

We do this because this is the form of God’s shalom. This is the labor Christ has given us. I recognize such labor at times can be painful, uncomfortable and difficult. But ask any mother- labor pains always come before new life.

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It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…

——————————————————————————-

Dear Pastor, 

     We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question. 

     My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it. 

     I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do? 

     How do I know God’s plan for me?

She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

She was wrong, of course. About her question.

In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:

Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?

Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?

Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?

Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?

Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?

Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

What am I supposed to do?

How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?

Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’

It’s a dicey question.

For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.

It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.

For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.

Therein lies the trap.

If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.

No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.

By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.

Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’ 

Which means….?

What exactly?

All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.

Confused is a better translation.

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.

If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, right?

So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?

Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?

brian-boitano

The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.

It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.

We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.

I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.

‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’ 

I asked her what she meant, and she said:

‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.

Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’

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It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.

Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.

‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.

And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’ 

You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.

That just begs a whole other question:  What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?

Should they pay the tax or not?

It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.

And not have him.

So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.

As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.

God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.

He gives us a person to follow.

Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.

Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?

Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?

Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How do I know God’s plan?

The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.

But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.

As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.

For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.

Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.

But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.

The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.

God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.

Always.

Through the years I’ve had friends and close acquaintances who are Muslim. As a prison chaplain I worked alongside a Muslim Imam. In every instance, I’ve always noticed how I actually have MORE in common with them than I do with many of my cultural (non-practicing) Christian friends. Given how radically secular our culture and my generation is how could it be anything but? In college, for example, the only other people I knew who prayed besides myself did so to Allah.

As many of you know, Islam is defined literally as ‘submission’ to God’s will and teaching. The closet Mennonite in me, which is to say the Methodist in me, has always admired the Muslims’ notion of submission. After all, most Christians define Christianity as what? Beliefs…faith in…Jesus as Savior? That’s part of it certainly but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how so many Christians define their faith in a way that conveniently sidesteps or makes optional the actual teachings and example of Christ.

I’ve been thinking this week about the doctrines of incarnation and trinity for the Sunday sermon and I’ve been struck once again how those beliefs work to secure Jesus’ place in the God-head. In other words, the one who gave the sermon on mount wasn’t merely an historical teacher whose words can be dismissed or ignored. He’s God. The sermon on the mount is, literally, the word of God.

So that’s why I’m thinking about submission. I’m wondering what the Church would look like, what the world would look like, if Christians understood THEIR religion as submission to the teachings of Jesus.

This story of Rimsha Masih in Pakistan goes underreported slash unnoticed.

Two quick responses I had to the story:

1) Islamic blasphemy laws appear vulnerable to abuse for petty alterior motives in a way that reminds me of the Salem Witch Trials, which I think illuminates not anything about Islam per se so much as it shows how sin is an ecumenical reality.

2) That Rimsha’s mental disability is not a mitigating factor for those who believe she’s committed heresy I believe illustrates just how peculiar- and sometimes forgotten- is the Christian presumption for, in favor of  the weak, vulnerable and outcast. Christianity was subversive to cultural mores in the ancient world and Christians need not be prejudiced against other faiths to assert that that is still the case.

The arrest and imprisonment of a Christian girl accused of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws stoked a public furor on Monday, renewing international scrutiny of growing intolerance toward minorities in the country.

The police jailed the girl, Rimsha Masih, and her mother on Friday after hundreds of Muslim protesters surrounded the police station here where they were being held, demanding that Ms. Masih face charges under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A local cleric had said Ms. Masih had burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children.

By Monday night, as Pakistani Muslims celebrated the feast of Id al-Fitr, Ms. Masih and her mother were being held in Adiala jail, a grim facility in nearby Rawalpindi, awaiting their fate. Meanwhile, a number of the girl’s Christian neighbors had fled their homes, fearing for their lives, human rights workers said.

Senior government and police officials agreed with Christian leaders that the accusations against Ms. Masih were baseless and predicted that the case would ultimately be dropped.

Still, the case has already grabbed global headlines and inspired a hail of Twitter posts, even though several details are in dispute.

Christian, and some Muslim, neighbors said Ms. Masih was 11 years old and had Down syndrome. Senior police officers dismissed those claims; one described her as 16 and “100 percent mentally fit.”

Whatever the truth, experts said Ms. Masih’s plight highlighted a wider problem. “This case exemplifies the absurdity and tragedy of the blasphemy law, which is an instrument of abuse against the most vulnerable in society,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.

While non-Muslims have long been vulnerable to persecution in Pakistan, the state’s ability to protect them is diminishing. Last week, gunmen executed 25 Shiites after taking them off a bus near Mansehra, in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. On Saturday, Hindu leaders in Sindh called on the government to protect their community from forced conversions by Muslim extremists.

But it is the emotionally charged blasphemy issue that has most polarized society. Ever since the governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January 2011 for his support of blasphemy reforms, the space for public debate has narrowed in Pakistan.

Violent mobs led by clerics have framed the argument, as appears to have happened in Ms. Masih’s case.

Neighbors said the girl’s family were sweepers — work shunned by Muslims but common among poor Christians — and lived in a slum area in Islamabad.

Malik Amjad, landlord of the family’s rented house, said the controversy started early last week after his nephew saw Ms. Masih holding a burned copy of the Noorani Qaida. The nephew informed a local cleric, Khalid Jadoon, Mr. Amjad said.

Desecration of Muslim holy texts is illegal in Pakistan and punishable by death. But Mr. Amjad said the incident bothered few local residents initially and caught fire only at the instigation of the cleric and two conservative shopkeepers.

“He tried to shame people by saying, ‘What good are your prayers if the Koran is being burnt?’ ” Mr. Amjad said.

Mr. Amjad said he handed the girl over to the police for her own protection and criticized the cleric’s role. “He exaggerated the incident and provoked people,” he said.

It was not clear how, or even if, Ms. Masih had come across the burned religious book. One neighbor, Malik Shahid, said it might have simply become accidentally swept up in a trash pile she was collecting.

Here’s the rest of the story.

This story of Rimsha Masih in Pakistan goes underreported slash unnoticed.

Two quick responses I had to the story:

1) Islamic blasphemy laws appear vulnerable to abuse for petty alterior motives in a way that reminds me of the Salem Witch Trials, which I think illuminates not anything about Islam per se so much as it shows how sin is an ecumenical reality.

2) That Rimsha’s mental disability is not a mitigating factor for those who believe she’s committed heresy I believe illustrates just how peculiar- and sometimes forgotten- is the Christian presumption for, in favor of  the weak, vulnerable and outcast. Christianity was subversive to cultural mores in the ancient world and Christians need not be prejudiced against other faiths to assert that that is still the case.

The arrest and imprisonment of a Christian girl accused of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws stoked a public furor on Monday, renewing international scrutiny of growing intolerance toward minorities in the country.

The police jailed the girl, Rimsha Masih, and her mother on Friday after hundreds of Muslim protesters surrounded the police station here where they were being held, demanding that Ms. Masih face charges under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A local cleric had said Ms. Masih had burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children.

By Monday night, as Pakistani Muslims celebrated the feast of Id al-Fitr, Ms. Masih and her mother were being held in Adiala jail, a grim facility in nearby Rawalpindi, awaiting their fate. Meanwhile, a number of the girl’s Christian neighbors had fled their homes, fearing for their lives, human rights workers said.

Senior government and police officials agreed with Christian leaders that the accusations against Ms. Masih were baseless and predicted that the case would ultimately be dropped.

Still, the case has already grabbed global headlines and inspired a hail of Twitter posts, even though several details are in dispute.

Christian, and some Muslim, neighbors said Ms. Masih was 11 years old and had Down syndrome. Senior police officers dismissed those claims; one described her as 16 and “100 percent mentally fit.”

Whatever the truth, experts said Ms. Masih’s plight highlighted a wider problem. “This case exemplifies the absurdity and tragedy of the blasphemy law, which is an instrument of abuse against the most vulnerable in society,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.

While non-Muslims have long been vulnerable to persecution in Pakistan, the state’s ability to protect them is diminishing. Last week, gunmen executed 25 Shiites after taking them off a bus near Mansehra, in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. On Saturday, Hindu leaders in Sindh called on the government to protect their community from forced conversions by Muslim extremists.

But it is the emotionally charged blasphemy issue that has most polarized society. Ever since the governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January 2011 for his support of blasphemy reforms, the space for public debate has narrowed in Pakistan.

Violent mobs led by clerics have framed the argument, as appears to have happened in Ms. Masih’s case.

Neighbors said the girl’s family were sweepers — work shunned by Muslims but common among poor Christians — and lived in a slum area in Islamabad.

Malik Amjad, landlord of the family’s rented house, said the controversy started early last week after his nephew saw Ms. Masih holding a burned copy of the Noorani Qaida. The nephew informed a local cleric, Khalid Jadoon, Mr. Amjad said.

Desecration of Muslim holy texts is illegal in Pakistan and punishable by death. But Mr. Amjad said the incident bothered few local residents initially and caught fire only at the instigation of the cleric and two conservative shopkeepers.

“He tried to shame people by saying, ‘What good are your prayers if the Koran is being burnt?’ ” Mr. Amjad said.

Mr. Amjad said he handed the girl over to the police for her own protection and criticized the cleric’s role. “He exaggerated the incident and provoked people,” he said.

It was not clear how, or even if, Ms. Masih had come across the burned religious book. One neighbor, Malik Shahid, said it might have simply become accidentally swept up in a trash pile she was collecting.

Here’s the rest of the story.