Does Our Circle Include or Exclude Others?

I’ve just written a blog entry which led to this sentence:

“If we Christians do not awaken soon and begin working with our Jewish and Muslim partners in the faith first seen in father Abraham, whom we all revere, we will be doing a severe disservice to our country and to our Lord.”

My thinking was that tomorrow I would follow up on that idea and explain it with some care. But perhaps it is better to write that follow up right away, since the sentence will be a shock to some.

First, some historical background. Jews and Christians alike share a sense that the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians call the Old Testament, speaks to us faithfully about the character of our Creator and about his ways of revealing himself to his people throughout the centuries. A key figure in the Hebrew Bible is Abraham, who lived nearly 3000 years ago in what we now call the Fertile Crescent. He was born and raised in the eastern end of it, not far from Baghdad, lived for a time in its north-central region, and eventually was called by God to dwell as a nomadic shepherd in Canaan, modern Israel.

He is important in the development of faith because he is the first person to whom God not only gave a call to obedience but a promise of blessing to endure throughout history.

Genesis 12:1-3  “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'”

Jews and Christians — and Muslims just as much — share the conviction that we are part of the fulfillment of that promise to Abraham. Christians are distinct from Jews in that we believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah through whom God revealed much more of himself and through whom God brought a further extension of the Abrahamic blessing.

We seek to nullify nothing of Judaism and indeed count it a miracle of God’s grace that we are allowed to share the blessing that is theirs directly through Abraham. We non-Jewish Christians, in the words of Paul in his New Testament letter to the Romans, are like a branch grafted onto the tree of Judaism. For that we need always to thank God and to thank our Jewish brothers and sisters who are, in effect, our “hosts.”

Yes, of course I know that the history of Jewish-Christian relations has often been unimaginably ugly. That’s because of something else we also share: We are feeble and fragile human beings who fall short of the glory of God. But when we each stand before God with integrity, we stand side by side in mutual respect.

And what about Islam? The Muslims also look to father Abraham as the revered beginning point of their faith. They too see themselves as the children of Abraham who are participating in the promises given to Abraham and his clan throughout the ages. Their heritage, however, comes through the first son of Abraham, Ishmael, while Jews and Christians see our line coming through the second son, Isaac.

The Scriptures of Islam, called the Quran or Koran, honor not only Abraham but Jesus Christ, considered the greatest of  the prophets before Muhammed. that means they honor Jesus more than do the Jews but less than do the Christians.

There is, then, much that we share with both Christians and Jews, even while there is much that distinguishes us from one another.

The question is, DO THE CIRCLES BY WHICH WE DEFINE OURSELVES INCLUDE OR EXCLUDE THOSE WITH WHOM WE SHARE A FAITH BUT DIFFER IN UNDERSTANDING IT?

There is,  I believe, no single “right” answer to that question, only a rather general principle. We must be as inclusive as we can be without treating our distinctives as unimportant or irrelevant.

This principle will mean something slightly different for each person, depending, I believe, on the degree of security one feels in one’s own faith. Those who are most insecure will draw the circle most tightly, protecting their distinctive faith by excluding those who differ. Those most secure will draw a large, inclusive circle, making room for others

Why would I as a Christian committed to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior want to draw a so big that I can see Jews and Muslims as brothers and sisters? The answer is simple: I’ve been studying the Gospel stories of Jesus for more than half a century and have never ceased to be amazed that Jesus, a Jew, reached out to Gentiles, blessing them without calling them to become Jews.

That this was important in the eyes of his followers is shown by the fact that the heart of the book of Acts — a book which tells the stories of the beginnings of Christianity immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus — is devoted to the question of whether one could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew. In other words, the early church face the question of whether to draw their circle large or small. Should the circle of “true believers” be wide enough to include non-Jewish followers of Jesus or should it be so narrow as to exclude, to de-legitimize them? The Jewish-Christians chose to be inclusive. Thanks be to God!

As a bit of a footnote: Our president-elect has chosen to seek the support of those who draw small circles, meaning he is empowering those who are most insecure and narrow, not empowering them to expand their circles and become more inclusive but to demand that all America draw an insecure, protective little circle around itself. This runs quite counter to the spirit which has made America great. After trump is gone, we will have to get to work to make America great again by expanding our circle.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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