Archives For Muslims

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,

 

Well, I tried posting reflections on Trump’s Executive Order from differing viewpoints. My aim was to offer hospitality for the ‘other’ perspective so the the Church might better be the better place God has made in the world where there is neither Democrat nor Republican.

Instead the red and blue hued views just prompted an amen chorus on either side of the field, each cheering the comments that championed their tribe. And don’t get me started on the dreadful links to absurd “news” sites some of you sent me purporting to reveal the “truth” about all Muslims every where.

Here’s an actual newsflash:

People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.

And there’s so much shouting in our culture these days. Assuming the maxim above, such shouting is a willful closing of our eyes and heart to God. How we debate, as Christians, in other words, is as important as the conclusions that we draw.

Rather than strap on my collar, hit you over the head with Matthew 18, and call you out on your sin of idolatry for putting love of party over love of the Christ-bearing neighbor, I thought instead I would offer these tips by way of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. If Christians would heed these then perhaps they could stomach social media without needing to resort to the sentimentality of puppy pics.

  1. Mill reminds us because we are fallible, if we ignore an opposing opinion we may in fact be ignoring the truth.
  2. Mill points out that even if another’s opinion is in error, it may still contain a portion of the truth.
  3. Mill reminds us even if we are entirely correct in our position that position risks becoming simple prejudice if we cease to be in conversation with those who would disagree with us.

So, before you post that self-righteous comment which only reaffirms your existing worldview remember that you are fallible, which is to say sinful. And before you dismiss your neighbor as ‘hysterical’ remember that to ignore one of your peers may be ignoring truth that the Spirit is trying to speak to you. Remember that even if you think one of your peers is wrong, it’s not likely they’re absolutely wrong. Listen for what you think is true about their perspective.

And do not forget that even if you have no intention of ever changing your mind on these issues, you owe your peers your conversation more so than you owe your party your loyalty.

“….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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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

 

I know many of the blog readers here are pastors of all sorts of denominations from all over the country. I thought it worth sharing the letter we sent out to my congregation regarding the Recent Executive Order on Refugees.

Dear Friends,

Back in November, we wrote to you, observing how it’s hard to imagine 1st century Christians caught up in whether Nero or Britannicus was the better successor to the Emperor Claudius. We may love America, but America’s politics is not the lever that turns the designs God has for this world; the Church is supposed to be the design God has for the world. The Gospel, we encouraged you to remember, is about Jesus the King who calls Kingdom citizens to live under the King in communities called Church regardless of who occupies the White House.

We wrote to you in November because many of you had expressed to us conflicting emotions and desires. Some of you were euphoric at the results and now wanted all Americans to come together behind our new President while others of you were despondent, determining the most patriotic posture towards the new President was to be the loyal opposition. We write to you again because in the days since the inauguration those emotions and the polarization between them have only grown.

Many of you have expressed to us your fear of the new administration just as many of you have expressed to us your fear of being judged for your support of it.

First–

We wish to emphasize that this diversity of views in our congregation is not an obstacle to be overcome but–we believe–is itself a sign of the Gospel. As Paul tells a congregation every bit as heterogenous as you “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, and neither is there Republican nor Democrat, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” Since its founding, Aldersgate has been a church where Goldwater Republicans have worshipped alongside Civil Rights marchers. Just this Sunday, a spokesperson for the Obama White House sang two pews in front of the kids of a Republican ad maker. In that same pew, a service later, two immigrants–refugees actually–from Africa prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

This diversity of viewpoints is true across both our campuses, Collingwood and Kingstowne, and it is reflected among our pastoral leadership as well. We do not believe this diversity of views is to be lamented, for in a time when our culture is so Balkanized by labels and loyalties we are a community where those worldly distinctions can exist in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If the Gospel creates communities where there is neither Republican nor Democrat, then to say we must be a community of only Republicans or only Democrats is to place party over Christ’s Lordship. Such a move is what the bible calls idolatry. The Gospel instead creates community that is a “fellowship of differents.”

The Church is political in that it subverts the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy so often found in our politics. Indeed in such a partisan, divided culture we believe this is the gift Aldersgate can offer the wider world. Like the community we call Trinity, we can be a community of both difference and peace, which is an ongoing–and not always easy–process that Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.

Second–

To be such a church does not mean we avoid controversial issues nor does it require that we opt out of the day’s politics when those politics encroach upon our summons as baptized Christians. In fact, the vows of our ordination require that, at times, we speak to the issues before us.

We write, therefore, to bring to your attention the concerns expressed by the wider, global Christian community over the executive order “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.”

Christian opposition to this particular policy is not about party, politics, or who is President.

From the conservative Evangelical Church to the Roman Catholic Church to the relief organization, World Vision, to our own United Methodist Council of Bishops: The consensus judgment of the Christian Church is that this executive order contradicts and impinges upon our obligation as the Body of Christ to care for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the immigrant and the refugee.

After all, as Christians we mean by the word “God” whomever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from slavery in Egypt; in other words, we profess that God sojourned with Israel when they were refugees from Pharaoh and that, in Christ, God became a refugee (from Herod) and upon setting his path for the cross he warned us that our eternal judgment will be weighed, in part, by how we care for the refugee (Matthew 25).

We bring this issue to you now because the headlines in our newspapers, the chaos in our airports, the questions in our inboxes, and the acrimony on social media make our speaking out unavoidable, while our silence would, in fact, make us outliers among the Christian community.

Here’s a sampling of the consensus from across the Body:

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President, Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church

World Relief (National Association of Evangelicals)

Christianity Today magazine

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

We understand–some of you support the executive order for commendable reasons, including concerns for national security and a desire for secure borders.

We understand–some of you oppose the executive order for commendable reasons, including fears that it undermines our national security and a desire for a more compassionate posture towards the vulnerable.

Wherever you fall on this issue, we believe there’s a place for you in this community and a way to practice your faith.

For those among you in the former category, we encourage you to support refugees around the world through other means, by giving financially to a ministry like World Vision.

For those among you in the latter category, we encourage you to advocate through groups within Aldersgate and Kingstowne and through the wider United Methodist Church such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Faithful Christians can disagree about the politics of red and blue.

Faithful Christians cannot disagree about the politics of Jesus.

That is, Christians cannot disagree about our obligation to care for and show hospitality towards–even at risk to our own expense and safety–the vulnerable.

And as the Body of Christ the scope of that compassion extends beyond our borders.

We’re a fellowship of differents, and on both sides of this issue there is scripture that challenges us:

Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, commands us to care for the refugee (Matthew 25).

Scripture also commands us “to honor and pray for the emperor” (1 Peter 2.17).

Remember, too, that when Peter issued that command he had in mind Nero–whom Revelation marks with the number 666–and not an elected president.

Christians are called not simply to make the world a better place; Christians are called to be the better place God has already made in the world. In our time and place, we believe what it means for Aldersgate and Kingstowne to be that better place is to be a place where all our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ.

We believe we are that better place God has already made in the world when we balance–in tension–those two scriptures, Matthew 25 and 1 Peter 2.

Finally–

We understand you bring a variety of lenses to bear on an issue such as this; we trust you understand it’s our calling to bring, as we’ve done here, a biblical and theological lens to your attention.

Obviously, this letter is necessarily a monologue. We invite you to make it a dialogue by sharing your questions and thoughts with us.

If you’re interested in a forum where we can all gather to share with one another our views and how we can practice them through this faith community, please let us know. We hope to offer such a venue in the near future.

We pray this letter is received in the same spirit with which it is offered.
Grace and Peace

 

 

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.

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’

And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

“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.