Being a Christian in an Multi-Faith World

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Matthew 15:21-28

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written:
“I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them— to the LORD, but he did not answer…. He is the God who avenges me, who puts the Gentiles under me….Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants ; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.”

Note: The strikeouts represent the portions of the Old Testament readings that Paul omitted as he quotes them.

When we moved to Cary over 10 years ago, we visited high schools and banks and noticed women wearing scarves and signs of Muslims in the community. We began to notice people of different faiths and cultures… I remember thinking and telling Sharon, “We aren’t in Catawba County anymore””

That began a journey of asking the question suggested in the sermon title today.

This summer two experiences raised that question again as we made trips to Salt Lake City and to Turkey this summer.

We went to Salt Lake City to visit my nephew. I went to the Temple where I learned more about the Mormon faith and became engaged in some energetic and deep conversations with missionaries. They usually opened with, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?” To which I had to admit I had not… but told them that I was still trying to master my own sacred Scripture. It was clear they were trying to win me over. But when they discovered I was a preacher… they looked at me like I was a lost cause.

The more significant experience was the trip to Turkey which came at the invitation of our Muslim friends at the Divan center. Our group was interdenomational: Quaker, Baptist, Lutheran and Presbyterian. Our guides were Muslim: Fatih and Osman—both professors: one at UNCG and the other at NCSU. They were the best guides one could ever had and by the end of the week… they were our friends. Good friends.

During the week we ate with several Muslim families… which at times felt like we were with Rotarians as we talked about their business and politics. All wanted to know “What do Americans think of Turkey?” In a nice way I said, “We don’t really know much”.

Sharon asked one man, “What do you think about American Christians?” They like Americans… they simply didn’t know anything about Christians… (Sort of like we don’t really know much about Muslims)

What I did learn is that the Muslims I met in Turkey and the Muslims who guided us are more like us than not in many ways. (Not like the image of Muslims portrayed by their most radical representatives of their faith and Muslims as portrayed in many movies.) They are more like “mainline” Muslims.

Religiously speaking, after visiting the Mormons and the Muslims this summer I realized there are several things we have in common. We are all involved in helping people as inspired by our faith. (I admired our Muslim friends’ soup kitchen ministry to 4000 Syrian refugees in Kilis) We are all people of a book—though our sacred books are different. We all share the OT or Hebrew Scriptures in some form. We all honor Jesus Christ in some way… Muslims see him as a prophet…still not clear about Mormons… We all believe God has revealed himself and is a personal God vs an abstract deity.

Where we differ is in our understanding about how God has revealed himself and through whom God has revealed himself. The final revelation of God for Mormons comes through Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The ultimate speaker for God among Muslims is Mohammed… as revealed in the Koran… and for us of course… we claim that in Jesus Christ we actually meet the living God in the flesh (no other religion claims that) … and Jesus is the last one who completely reveals the nature and purposes of God.

How we handle the differences is where the difficulty arises. Brian McLaren put it this way:
Does faithfulness to Christ require that we treat others as rivals, imposters or enemies?
Does Christian love require that we believe all religions are the same—that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere? Is it okay to create a religious salad with elements of all of them? Is it possible to be both faithful to Christian faith and charitable to other faiths? How is one to be a Christian in a multi-faith world?

Here is where I look to the Scriptures for help.

It is easy to overlook the fact that relating to people of other faiths has been something God’s people have had to consistently understand. This is no new issue. Moses’ father in law was not Jewish. Jonah was mad at God for loving those Assyrian Ninevites—their sworn enemies. Ruth was a Moabite.

In the New Testament the challenge for Jewish Christians was brought to them when those pagan Gentiles began to respond to the message of Jesus. Paul and Jesus lived in a multi-faith world as well. How to respond? I look for clues Jesus offered as well as Paul and others.As one person observed:

“Look at the life of Jesus and you see he forged relationships with a stunningly diverse array of people- especially those whom many of his fellow first-century Jews considered outcasts beyond redemption, such as tax collectors, Samaritans and pagans (like that Canaanite woman)—in order to share with them the unsurpassed gift of God’s presence and healing love. As his disciples we are calledto bring our relationship with Christ into other relationships.”[1]

I think that is what Paul was doing as he reached out in his multi-faith world. He was trying to let Christ rule in his way of living with others… Did you notice (or do you remember?) what Paul picked to retain and what he chose to reject as he edits quotes from the Old Testament in writing to the Romans? (look at the insert to the bulletin)

He retains the language of divine mercy and promise. He rejects the language of violence and vengeance. In that simple move… we see a consistent pattern in Paul of reinterpreting the faith of living as Christ has taught him to live… [2]

Read other passages… and he reshapes the quotes from the OT according to the way of peace and the way of love which is the way of Christ.

So as we live as Christians in the interfaith world… how about this idea: Let’s live in loving relationships with those outside our faith even as Christ did in his life and ministry.
Let us be Christ to our neighbors.

When I was visiting the Muslim families on the trip, it dawned on me that we were likely the first Christians they had met face to face… that’s a lot of pressure. We represent our faith… Christ to them… and the spirit of Christ to them. You do too as you represent Christ to your neighbor at work or school or in the community. Imagine what the world would be like if more and more Christians lived with others as Jesus lived with others… in loving relationship… offering hospitality… and being willing to accept hospitality.

It is no small thing that a number of you accepted the invitation from our Muslim friends in Cary to break the Ramadan fast as they offered hospitality. Isn’t that exactly what Christ would do?

Imagine all the good that could happen and the evil that could be prevented from happening if more Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of all faith crossed roads in order to break barriers and discover one another as friends.

Brian McLaren has written a wonderful book on this subject called, “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” – in which he tells this story about a Methodist missionary E Stanley Jones who could be a model for how a Christian might live with integrity in an interfaith world. As a missionary to India, he wanted to bring Christ to them in a way that honored their culture and heritage… He was looking for a way of being Christian that would be a blessing to their Hindu and Muslim neighbors. Interestingly, the answer to his question came from the great Indian and Hindu leader, Gandhi.

One day Jones came to Gandhi and said, “I am very anxious to see Christianity become a (blessing to India while honoring the culture) What would you suggest we do to make that possible?” (His answers could apply to all of our relationships at home too!)

Gandhi replied, “I would suggest, first of all, that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”

Reflecting on Gandhi’s statement, Jones commented, “He needn’t have said anything more— that was quite enough. I knew that looking through his eyes were the three hundred millions of India, and speaking through his voice were the… millions of the East saying to me,… ‘If you will come to us in the spirit of your Master, we cannot resist you.’ ”

Gandhi continued , “Second, I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down.”

And again, Jones commented, “The greatest living non-Christian asks us not to adulterate or tone it down, not to meet them with an (watered down) gospel, but to take it in its rugged simplicity and high demand….[But what are we doing? As someone has suggested, we are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing.]”

Gandhi then said, “Third, I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity.”

Once more, Jones observed, “He did not mean love as a sentiment, but love as a working force, the one real power in a moral universe, and he wanted it applied between individuals and groups and races and nations, the one cement and salvation of the world.”

Gandhi concluded: “Fourth, I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”

On these four points, the Hindu leader and the Christian missionary were in full agreement. We might call them four cornerstones or four foundations for Christian identity in a multi-faith world.

Today I am blessed to live in a part of the world where I can actually meet and know people of other faiths. When I grew up the closest thing we had to interfaith relationship were Presbyterians meeting Catholics or Born Again Baptists. I never met a Muslim or a Jew until I was in college… In college, we had a Jewish couple, Mark and Leslie, who came to our Campus Ministry every week… more than most college students who said they were Christians… and we became friends. Until then, there was not much opportunity to be in relationship.

I close with a story Brian tells. He was meeting in an Afghan restaurant with a Muslim friend, Ahmad, who is an imam.Brian says,

“I asked him to tell me how he came to be an imam, and what he loves most about Islam. He shared from his heart and I was deeply moved. Then he asked, “How would you respond to that same question? How did you become a pastor and what do you love about Christianity?” I followed his example and shared from my heart too, starting like this:“Well, I could began by telling you what I love about Jesus?” When I paused a few minutes later, our eyes met and I could see my friend was uncomfortable. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did I say something that offended you?”“Oh, no,no, no, no, “he said.

“I suddenly realized that everything I have heard about Christianity until now I learned from my fellow Muslims and they passed on to me the misunderstandings they learned from other Muslims. Until now I have never listened to a sincere Christian explain his faith as a love for Jesus, peace and blessings be upon him. I have been so terribly misinformed and I have likewise misinformed others. I feel so sorry, so sorry. From now on, I will more adequately share with my congregation what Christianity truly is, because now I have learned it from a Christian who knows firsthand, not a Muslim who only passes on what he has heard.”

He paused and added, “When you say you love Jesus, it fills my heart with joy. We Muslims love Jesus, too. We believe Jesus is a great prophet and we love him dearly. So you and I- we have this in common. We both love Jesus”

As Christians who want to know how to live in a multi-faith world… perhaps we can start by actually listening to one another… let’s be Christ to our neighbor– loving others as Christ would love… and as a result… we will be a blessing and we will be blessed as we bear witness to the Christ of our faith. Amen.

[1]P 152 On our Way- Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life edited by Dorothy Bass and Susan Briehl