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Who Do you Say That I Am? Professing Our Faith in a Multi-faith World

San Williams

August 18, 2013
Mark 8:27-31

08-18-2013 Sermon (Introduction before scripture)  This morning we face up to yet another challenging topic that you, the church members, recommended for our sermon series this summer.  Of all the topics you mercilessly thrust upon us this summer, today’s may be the one that is the most pressing and the most perplexing in the minds of many.  Here’s how the question was posed:  “What is the balance between believing in your faith as the way of life and openness to other faiths?”

Mark 8:27-31

In a recent article in Journal for Preachers, Gene March tells about his experience on an interfaith panel.  Some of you will remember Gene March. He was a visiting Old Testament professor at Austin Seminary a few years back.  He and his wife Lynn shared in the life of our congregation during their stay in Austin.  In the article, Gene wrote that when it came his time to introduce himself to this inter-faith group he tried to be so polite, so careful, hoping not to offend anyone with his theology.  “In the middle of my stammering,” he writes, “one of the Jews—a prominent Jewish philosopher—interrupted me saying, ‘Gene, are you trying to say that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?’  I hesitated and then replied, ‘Well, yes, I am.’  To which the Jewish philosopher responded, ‘Then just say it!  I can handle it.’”

Ironically—perhaps tellingly—the first word we need to hear on this topic comes from that Jewish philosopher.  Those of us who have been baptized into the life of Christ need to say who we are and what we believe. As Christians, we believe that Jesus has revealed the full scope of God’s love for the world.  Sin is forgiven, outsiders are welcomed, God’s Kingdom has drawn near and God’s reconciling and healing of all creation has begun.  To echo Peter:  we confess that Jesus is the Christ in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  So a respectful relationship with those who are different requires, in the first place, a willingness to say what we believe. 

Of course, how we say it is critical.  I’ve always liked the verse in I Peter, which reminds us always to be ready to make an account for the hope that is in us, but to do it with gentleness and reverence.  (I Peter 3:18).  If we share our faith in Jesus as the Christ with humility and gentleness, people of a different faith, or no faith, can not only “handle it” but, in most cases, will even welcome it.  This was brought home to me several years ago.  Jan and I were on vacation in Colorado with a couple friends of ours who happen to be Jewish.  In fact, the husband is a Rabbi.  During coffee one morning in our mountain cabin, the Rabbi’s wife turned to me and said, “I’ve never understood what Christians mean by the Trinity.  Can you help me with that?”  Gulp!  Yet the conversation that ensued was instructive to both of us as we shared the central tenets of our faith.  Other personal experiences within the last decade—such as a trip to India with Austin Seminary and a few years later a trip with the Institute for interfaith Dialogue to Turkey—have confirmed my conviction that dialogical encounters with other faiths, when conducted humbly and respectfully, actually help us clarify and strengthen our own faith.

Now this is not to say that articulating what we believe is easy in a multi-faith context.  It’s one thing to pray, sing, read the scriptures and recite the creeds in the midst of Christian worship, where we’re all more or less on the same religious page, but professing our faith becomes much more challenging when we’re in the company of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on. 

Yet we should be aware that the challenge of religious pluralism is not a new one.  In fact, as we read this morning from Mark’s gospel, the very first confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ takes place in Caesarea Philippi, a setting that was noted for its religious diversity.  Caesarea Philippi was a region in the far north of Palestine, in what is today called the Golan Heights.  In this religiously diverse setting, Jesus and his disciples would have seen remnants of temples for ancient Baal worship.  They would also have passed by caves and other markers in honor of the Greek god Pan, the nature god. In addition, Jesus and his disciples would surely have noticed the magnificent white marble temple in Caesarea Philippi dedicated to the godhead of Caesar.  Such a multiplicity of religious symbols and beliefs describes the setting in which Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

Likewise, Jesus’ question comes to us today in a setting of religious pluralism.  Within shouting distance of our sanctuary is an Islamic Mosque, a Buddhist meditation center, a UT Hindu Student Association, the Jewish Hillel building, to name a few.  Of course, the world has always been religiously diverse, but never has this diversity been more visible.  People of other religions, who once lived mostly over there, are now our neighbors. 

And didn’t Jesus say:  “Love your neighbor as you love yourself?”  If Jesus is our Lord, then the religious other is the neighbor whom we are summoned to love. Thus the woman walking across campus wearing a headscarf, or the observant Jew sporting a yarmulke, or the Buddhist monk chanting his prayers, or the one who practices no faith at all are to be seen by Christians not as targets for conversion, or as practitioners of a lesser truth, or even as strangers to be tolerated.  Rather, they are neighbors whose well-being is our primary concern.

In other words, our attitude and actions toward people of other faiths, or no faith, are grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus came not to be served but to serve.  His primary concern was never for himself but always for others, especially those who were marginalized, despised, different.  In the Philippians hymn that we’ll use for our Affirmation of Faith, Paul describes Jesus as the self-emptying Christ.  Jesus emptied himself of a position of superiority and power over others, and poured out his life for others. In this same hymn, Paul declares that everyone who follows Jesus must do likewise. He writes,  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  In short, Paul concludes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, Craig Barnes, now the President of Princeton Seminary, tells about visiting a Roman Catholic School in Palestine’s West Bank. Father Emil, the priest at the school, took the visiting delegation on a tour of the school.  It became evident that at least half of the students were Muslim.  When the group arrived at the sanctuary, Father Emil told them that they offer mass every day for the students and that all were free to participate.  At that point one of the Americans blurted out, “Father Emil, are you trying to turn the Muslim children into Christians?  Doesn’t that create major social trauma for them—tearing them apart from their families?  Do their parents really know what you are doing?”  Barnes writes that the priest’s eyes grew to the size of saucers, and he responded: “I am not trying to convert anyone,” he said emphatically.  “I just want these children to know that God loves them, that their sins are forgiven on the cross of Jesus who rose from the dead, and that the Holy Spirit will keep them close to their Savior. I want them to have all the means of grace they can get because life is hard here.  But I would never ask a Muslim to become a Christian.”   

Friends, like Father Emil, we can and must share the good news that God’s love in Jesus Christ is for all the world.  But any kind of my-religion-is-better-than-your-religion-smugness has no place in the minds of those who confess that Jesus is Lord.  Once we say with Peter, “Thou are the Christ” we simultaneously identify the religious other as our neighbor–the neighbor whom we are summoned to love.