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Decoding the Bible

Can we proclaim Jesus in a multi-faith world?

By Orville James

Deborah was a young clerk in a bookstore. Early one morning when she came to open the door, there was a man dressed in the characteristic garments of a Hasidic Jew. Deborah let him in and asked, “Would you like any help?”

Softly, and with an accent, he said, “Yes, I want to know about Jesus.” So Deborah guided the man to the books about Christianity. “No,” he said. “Don’t show me any more books. You tell me what you believe.”

“My Anglican soul shivered,” she later told Tom Long, author of Testimony, the book in which this story was first told. “I gulped and told him everything I could think of . . . as much as I could sputter out in my confusion.” Deborah recognized that her conversation partner was already a person of faith. She did not want what she said to transgress delicate interfaith boundaries, and she did not want any part of aggressive evangelistic techniques — “winning trophies for God.” The man eventually chose to be baptized and became a Christian.

Deborah’s gratitude was mixed with concern. “I am not ashamed of my faith,” she wrote. “I am and will always be a Christian. But . . . spiritual arrogance is inexcusable.” Exactly.

So the question “Can we proclaim Jesus in a multi-faith world?” is a challenge for us. On the one hand, like Deborah, none of us wants to be spiritually arrogant. We do not want to be collecting “soul” trophies for God. Yet our own United Church creed commits us: “We are called to be the church . . . to proclaim Jesus.” That is our identity statement and our action plan.

Scripture repeatedly mandates us to be witnesses to Jesus and the Christian story. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And again, “You shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Whether those commands are direct from Jesus or from Matthew and Luke, the early church understood that the risen Christ had mandated them to tell the story, far and wide. And it was a multi-faith world they spoke to. That Mediterranean world had countless religions and spiritual cults. Jesus’ first followers spread out to tell the story fearlessly and shamelessly. So should we. We can do that with a mix of curiosity and enthusiasm. We ought to learn all we can from other faiths — hear their stories, ask about their beliefs and practices. Be curious, all the while knowing what we believe, and in whom we believe, and sensitively witnessing to that with joy.

So it is really a question of tactics and methods. We all know the bad examples to avoid: the crusades and inquisitions, residential schools and aggressive confrontations at the door and on the street. Furthermore, we must not denigrate the Buddha or Muhammad; we are called only to witness to Jesus. When we do that with servant hearts, it can have great positive impact.

Recently, I heard a lecture by Princeton University professor Scott Sunquist. He spoke of a German missionary working in northern Iran with Kurdish refugees who had escaped persecution in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. They were destitute. The Christian social worker had worked with them for over a decade, finding housing, teaching a new language, raising money.

Finally, after 12 years, he was invited to a faith conversation with the Muslim Kurdish leaders. As was customary, the Kurdish men were seated at the large table, the women stood behind and the children ran and played among them. The Christian mission workers, finally being given a chance to speak of their faith, were asking themselves, “How should we start? What will we say?”

The meeting was in a church hall, and there was a picture of DaVinci’s The Last Supper on the wall. One little boy paused in his play. Pointing at Judas Iscariot, he asked his dad, “Who’s that man? He looks mean!”

So the mission worker told the story of Judas, a friend who betrayed Jesus and sent him to his execution. The Kurdish leader listened and said, “Then this Jesus will understand us. For we have been betrayed like him. . . . Tell us more about Jesus.”

Can we proclaim Jesus in a multi-faith world? Yes. We must. Let us be winsome, soft witnesses, joyously proclaiming the gracious love of God shown in Jesus, the Christ. Live and speak your faith. Scripture (I Peter 3:15) has our job description: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

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