“A Piece of My Mind”
April, 2016 Newsletter from
Advancing Christian Faith and Values,
Defending Religious Liberty for All,
Supporting Civility and the Common Good
through Preaching, Teaching, Writing,
Activism and Reasoned Conversations
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
– The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
In this Issue, the very timely question – “What Do Christianity and Islam Teach about Jesus?”
What Christianity and Islam Teach about Jesus
Jesus Christ and his life and death as highlighted by Good Friday and Easter are critical parts of the faith Christians confess.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into Hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.
– The Apostles Creed (early Christian confession)
The question of what Christianity and Islam share in common versus what separates them came to a head at Wheaton College, a prominent Christian higher education institution in Illinois. Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton, will be leaving the institution following months of controversy. She had donned a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims. But the main controversy was her statement that Christianity and Islam worship the same God.
In my talks on Christian social activism one key word of advice I give is:
“Get the facts, get the facts, get the facts!”
Without “the facts” you are flailing at the wind, missing the key issues, knocking down “straw men”, accepting fictions. Perhaps feeling good about it.
A commitment to accuracy is absolutely essential if there is to be honest communication between people of differing faiths. Not the only essential, but without it there is little to be said between us. I should be able to express the beliefs of another person with such accuracy that the other person will say, “Yes, that is what I believe.”
It is important for Muslims and Christians to understand each other because we must learn to inhabit this finite world together in shalom-salaam and because many of us live together in America. Christians must relate to Muslims as those who share the likeness of God through our common humanity (Genesis 1:27; Acts 17:28-29) and, if we share a common American citizenship, as those who possess with us the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the free exercise of religion (without having an established religion).
Now, what can we say about Christianity and Islam?
These two common grounds are shared by the two faiths and also by Judaism:
- Monotheism – the belief there is only one true God.
- Abrahamic Roots – Judaism, Christianity and Islam trace their origin to the biblical Abraham.
But Christianity must be distinguished from Islam on several critical points, especially those that relate to what orthodox Christianity teaches about Jesus. I will limit my comments to this subject, with the caveat that what one teaches about Jesus influences what one teaches about God. When I use the word “Christianity” I am referring to the Christian faith as it embraces the teachings of the New Testament and the confessions of the ecumenical creeds, not to everything that might wear the title.
Both religions teach that Jesus was born to Mary who was yet a virgin. And Jesus performed many miracles, as the Christian Gospels state. Interestingly, the Qur’an (19:27-33) goes further by actually having Jesus speak from the cradle somewhat in defense of his mother (this may be seen as a prolepsis).
Both religions believe Jesus was a prophet. Islam sees Jesus as a prophet in a long tradition of prophetic voices culminating in Mohammed. Christianity sees Jesus himself as the culmination of the prophetic office—the Second Moses, God’s Final Word (see the quotation from Hebrews 1, below).
While Christianity sees Jesus as a prophet (and while the ethical teachings of Jesus can be a great starting point for discussions with non-Christians), Christians confess Jesus to be more than a prophet. He is, according to the Bible’s best-known verse (John 3:16), God’s “only begotten son.”
Islam cannot accept this. Its belief in God’s absolute uniqueness abhors any notion of him having a son. This is a core understanding of Islam.
Say, “He is Allah, the One;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begets not, and neither is He begotten;
And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.” – Qur’an 112:1-4
Furthermore, according to Islam, Jesus is not “from the beginning” for he lived a finite, short life 2000 years ago. Nor should he be worshipped.
Christianity’s understanding is that Jesus, as the unique Son of God, specially revealed God to us as none other could do (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18 ESV):
In the beginning was the Word [Jesus Christ], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God; the only God*, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. [* Some Greek texts read “only begotten son”.]
Christianity teaches that Jesus died on the cross, and his death was “for our sins.” Christians debate exactly how this “works” – the doctrine of Jesus’ atoning death that removes our sins raises many points of discussion. But the fundamental confession “Christ died for our sins” is biblical, critical and non-negotiable—a sine qua non of The Faith.
Islam rejects the crucifixion of Jesus and, with it, any thought that his death was redemptive. I have read this Muslim explanation: while it appeared to many that Jesus died on the cross, in reality Jesus was miraculously protected by God and the crucifixion was the death of another.
This brief discussion scarcely does justice to the topic. And there are other important comparisons to make and issues to raise. Three examples:  the nature of Holy Scripture,  the divinely-appointed position of Isaac, son of Abraham and father of Israel as compared to Abraham’s other son, Ishmael (see Genesis 17),  the propriety and right of Arabic-speaking Christians to use the name “Allah” when referring to the Deity of Christian belief.
I conclude with an extended quotation from the New Testament’s “Epistle to the Hebrews” (1:1-12) and its classical, definitive statements about Jesus:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”?
“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.”
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
Learn from Jesus the Lessons of Palm Sunday
Our recent Palm Sunday gave me an opportunity to recall some lessons from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-19; Luke 19:28-48).
Here are three “learn about Jesus” lessons we can take from this celebratory occasion:
1. Let’s See Jesus’ Humility (Matthew 21:4-7)
“They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks and he sat on them.
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet,
“Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.”
“Triumphalism” is when Christians (or others seeking victory for their cause, for that matter) celebrate their conquest of another. It can come when Christians “claim the victory” over evil forces (oftentimes other people), or when Christians align their cause with political forces to gain worldly victory.
It’s not healthy. “Triumphalism” is not part of “The Triumphal Entry”! We learn that when we see our king on a donkey—a humble, lowly servant.
My Website opens with a quote. “God’s kingdom today is a time when we live side by side with unbelievers in charity. It is the hour of grace, not judgment.” Keep our lowly king in mind as you serve God’s kingdom today. It is a kingdom of “righteousness, joy and peace” (Romans 14:17).
2. Let’s Sing Jesus’ Praise (Matthew 21:8-9)
I love to sing good contemporary Christian songs and hymns from our rich Christian heritage. So I love Palm Sunday. I also like drama in worship, like when the crowds showed it by cutting branches and taking their cloaks and spreading these things on the road. So I love Palm Sunday.
The crowds shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Even the little children shouted praise, which troubled the religious leaders greatly (they remind me of Jesus’ disciples, who once tried to send the children away before Jesus corrected them and welcomed the children to himself—Matthew 19:13-14).
Jesus corrected these worship-stoppers by quoting scripture (Psalm 8:2):
“Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.”
Recently we visited a church that forbade families from bringing their children into the worship service. May I say, “How un-Christlike”!! My early childhood included singing Lutheran liturgy each week in “the big church service” and I really think that experience helped launch my life and ministry on the trajectory it has had, for which I am ever thankful.
3. Let’s Share Jesus’ Zeal—Passion for “God’s House” (Matthew 21:12-13)
Jesus made a whip and drove the merchants and money changers from the Temple, crying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers!”
The Gospel of John sees Jesus showing the zeal of his ancient father David: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9).
David’s zeal brought reproach and mockery against him. He said, “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” The more zealous he got for the House of God, the more he was belittled by others.
Here’s our modern application: “God’s House” today is the Holy Spirit-indwelt gathering of believers who passionately sing his praise, hear his Word, fellowship meaningfully together, and from there humbly carry his ministry and service into our needy world. We should strive for wise zeal toward “God’s House.”
The more passionate we are, the more we may be criticized—by those who reject belief in God, who abhor the influence of the church in society, or even by those who claim to follow him but who refuse to let the fire of passion burn within them.
Take the Palm Sunday message of humility and song and zeal with you through the rest of this year!
April 1 – Give Keynote Address at New Life Beginnings banquet, St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach (6:00 p.m.)
April 4+ – Jury Duty! (Yes, a ministry!)
April 9 – Sing the National Anthem prior to Seal Beach’s 5/10K race.
April 26 (6:30 p.m.) & April 29 (9:30 a.m.) – Teach lesson on Jacob’s blessing of his sons (Genesis 49) at Women’s Bible Study at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach
Religious Liberty Vigilance – Vetoed Bill in Georgia
“No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”
– Thomas Jefferson
As this newsletter nears completion, the governor of Georgia has just vetoed a bill that some strongly believe is necessary to protect religious freedom and others strongly believe would legalize discrimination.
The bill (HB 757) has wording [* see below] similar to the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” introduced in 1993 by then-Congressman Chuck Schumer and Senator Ted Kennedy, passed overwhelmingly by Congress, and signed into law by President Clinton. Those were friendlier days for religious liberty. It likely would not pass today, and if it did the president would veto it.
Here are some points I wish to make, which are not intended to be a detailed analysis of the situation or the vetoed bill. Before stating them, here is my bias: I am strongly committed to a near-absolute view of religious liberty—expressed both in church life and out in society and culture. But I don’t think this is a radical position. I think it is a very American position and is well summarized in the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What’s “radical” and new is the secular leftist disregard for religious liberty in its pursuit of its own agenda. There!
1. The claim that everyone’s religious beliefs are already sufficiently protected by the First Amendment is a tired, false claim that’s 25 years out of date. Anyone making this claim is either unaware of developments or deliberately duplicitous. Either way, a disregard for truth exists.
2. Religious liberty is often construed in a minimalist way in America today. Even groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State (superficially supportive of religious liberty) take a minimalist view, opposing government support of religion but not all that concerned about, or even supportive of, government coercion that interferes with the free exercise of religion.
3. This minimalist view is seen in proposals that would protect clergy and “Houses of Worship” against any compulsion to offer same-sex weddings, but would disallow protection to other religious institutions or to individuals who believe they should not be forced to violate their religious convictions.
4. The day will come (and the Solicitor General of the United States admitted this in oral arguments in the case OBERGEFELL ET AL. v. HODGES before the U.S. Supreme Court last year) when the tax exemptions of religious organizations may (I say “will”) be challenged over their religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
5. I haven’t heard anyone argue that a business owner should have the right to refuse service to someone because of that person’s sexual orientation. The issue is, should a business owner (say a sole proprietor) be required to personally perform services that are forms of artistic expression (such as photography, music performance, or cake decorating) contrary to the person’s religious conviction? Since these tasks are forms of artistry, I see them protected by both the free speech and free exercise of religion points in the First Amendment.
6. I am distressed by meddlesome threats by Big Business when legislation like HR 575 is debated, no matter which side the businesses are on.
7. I am a person who seeks to find common ground on issues like this and to work for a “win/win” situation if at all possible, as we live together in this pluralistic society and labor to keep it such. However, it appears to me that many opponents of bills like HB 757 are in a “take no prisoners” mode and resort to ad hominem comments about their opponents (e.g., they are “filled with hate” and “fear-mongers”), which makes meaningful communication toward common ground very difficult indeed.
* Georgia’s HB 757 (excerpt reflecting the language of the federal RFRA)
(a) Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the
burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance, or resolution of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section.
(b) Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it
demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is:
(1) In furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
NOTE: HB 757 has other statements that do not appear to me to be all that necessary.
NOTE: 21 states have laws with wording similar to the federal RFRA.