Early in this season of Pentecost, the church remembers the cost of discipleship, and the profound concept of dying and rising with Jesus Christ. Psalm 69 is a song of lament, in which the psalmist prays for deliverance from persecution and taunts–even from family members and friends. In desperation the psalmist cries, draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies (Ps. 69:18).
Likewise, the Old Testament includes Jeremiah’s sixth lament, in which he rails against God for “enticing” him into proclaiming God’s message and then allowing him to be mocked and shamed. And in Matthew Jesus tells the Twelve that they will be received just as Jesus has been received with scorn and untold pain. Nevertheless, Jesus tells them they must “Have no fear” as they proclaim from the rooftops what he has told them privately. Yes, the world is full of hostile judgment but it is human judgment, with the transient power only to punish the body, whereas God’s judgment is eternal and it can destroy the soul.
Jesus speaks of the divisiveness that commitment to him will create, not only in communities but also in families — setting parents and siblings against each other. But commitment to Jesus Christ must prevail even over family loyalties. To be worthy of Christ, one must be willing to lose one’s life in order to find it.
So we confess in the Lord openly, honestly and with no holds barred. And if that means trouble for us in this world, which Jesus seems to think is likely, so be it. The idea is that the truth of Christ sets a soul free, and a freed soul speaking frankly and without shame about his or her freedom, will set an example that will inspire others to faith.
It is positive evangelism that believes in free will; believes in the goodness of those who may not yet have realized the truth of Jesus Christ. It is not a negative evangelism that condemns and threatens. This is the evangelical truth of Matthew, though it is a truth that is often and woefully forgotten by many modern Christians.
I’m thinking of the Southern Baptist Convention, a humming hive of Christ-confessors, which just met in St. Louis for its annual meeting. A former president of the Convention, Jerry Vines, and the current pastor of the 25,000-member First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, addressed the convention with the purpose of denouncing religious pluralism, this according to the Baptist Press News. Mr. Vines told the delegates that people promoting “religious pluralism” are responsible for many of the country’s problems. He said, “They would have us believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity. Christianity was founded by the virgin-born Son of God, Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, the last one of which was a 9-year-old girl.” Vines added that the Muslim deity is not the same God worshipped by Christians saying that, “Allah is not Jehovah. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist.”
Knowing that the Baptist Church in America was founded upon religious freedoms, I went to the Southern Baptist Convention’s website to read its summary of faith: ‘Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.”
Pastor Vines’ speech was defended by the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership and by prominent Southern Baptist theologians and seminary deans, as well as evangelical Christians like Jerry Falwell, who profess that Vines’ is being persecuted by the politically-correct mainstream press which chooses to ignore the content of the Koran. Again, curious. Now a church that heeds the Gospel of Matthew cannot abandon the evangelistic enterprise nor be suspicious of all evangelists. What is needed is discernment. From the earliest church days, the church as been aware of the need for a critical sorting out of true ministers and prophets from those who are false, even if sincere.
Indeed, the National Council of Churches, with the support of many Protestant communions, including the Episcopal Church has asked that we speak out against the SBC’s track record of denigrating and delegitimizing other religions. President Bush—who was unaware of these remarks about Muhammad when he addressed the convention the night after Pastor Vines’ address—felt compelled to issue a statement saying that our country’s war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. And that he believes Islam is a religion that teaches peace, and that he believes in religious tolerance and respect for people of all faith.
Like Jeremiah, I feel something like a burning fire within my bones, and I must speak out because I personally am offended by my Christian brethren, in their blatant efforts at blind evangelism, to use hostility, and name-calling in the spirit of Jesus, who always showed respect for others and treated them with grace and dignity. Indeed, Jesus was far kinder to those who disagreed with his views—even those whom his society held in contempt—than with the self-righteous within his own religious community. Christians who attack, insult or belittle the beliefs of any other faith miss the very heart of the gospel.
When overzealous Christians characterize Islam as a “bloody” religion, they also imply that there were no times when the Christian faith was misused to advance values far from the heart and will of Christ. History won’t let us forget the Crusades, the Inquisition, the trafficking in human slaves, the Ku Klux Klan, the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland , and the current agony of the Roman Catholic Church.
A defender of Vines in the Southern Baptist Press said that Vines’ motivation was “an attempt to speak the truth in love, believing that the truth will set people free.” He went on to say, if he, Muhammad, were a true prophet of God, “we would expect more of him, that he would have transcended the morality of his time. He should have set new standards for what godly marriage is all about,” rather than having “fallen to the low standards of his day.” From hearing this, it is my impression that this particular Christian has decided to ignore the first half of the Bible.
Take King David, for one, a great warrior King of the Jews. And also, of course, an adulterer, a murderer, and a man with more wives and concubines than you can shake a stick at. No, the God of Abraham, Rebecca, Joseph, Ruth and David—most fully revealed in the ministry of Jesus Christ and his radical generosity of spirit—finds us all still in need of many lessons about loving one another, especially when claiming to speak in the authority of God’s name.
This is where, by faith, we find ourselves. We don’t need to hold on to ours so tightly, because Christ has given us the authority to let go and to grasp on to him instead with the knowledge that if we want to build up Christianity, we can’t tear down other expressions of religious belief. There are always going to be those people on the far left and far right of any religion trying to hold the faithful hostage through fear and hateful rhetoric—it is these self-righteous people that Jesus did not tolerate. There is a cost of discipleship, and maybe Pastor Vines is paying for it now. Like Jeremiah, he is being mocked and shamed. But I’m afraid it’s not for the right reasons.