When Religions Collide

Selected highlights from this sermon.

Christians are living in a pluralistic world.  Seen as intolerant and privileged, how should we interact with our society? Walking through church history, we observe that the controversy has ancient beginnings.    

We must engage our culture with the good news!  The church has always been an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism.  We receive blessings when we suffer with kindness and patience in the midst of persecution.  Forgoing an attitude of privilege, will we respect the opinions of others while we courageously show them the only Way to God – Jesus?

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Let’s bow our heads one more time in God’s holy presence. “Our Father, as I give the history of the struggle of the freedom of conscience and then turn to Your Word as to how we should live in a pluralistic society, make this a transforming moment. May we leave here differently because we have been in Your presence and we have learned to hide in the living God and we have worshiped. Grant that, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.”

The agenda today can be simply stated: how do we live as authentic Christians in a pluralistic society, a society of many different religions? That question was brought home to me this last week. I spent a few hours in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, last week. I flew in Monday morning and came back Monday evening.

I spoke to some pastors in a hotel and then we went over to the state capitol. It is surely one of the most beautiful in all of America. I was told that a few weeks ago there was a prayer meeting that was planned by evangelicals. Evangelical Christians went to the powers that be and said, “Can we have a commonwealth prayer meeting?” The answer was, “Yes.” So they had a prayer meeting and a Buddhist wanted to pray and was denied. That made front page news in Harrisburg. It said, “These intolerant Christians, who do they think they are by excluding others? Why are they so incredibly intolerant?”

I was also reminded of the fact that we have in our nation today a lot of questions about this topic. There was a Rabbi that wrote a letter to the newspaper in response to the controversy. He says, “We have many different faith traditions here in Pennsylvania. The Interfaith Alliance is a national network of people from 70 different faith groups. We’ve met with Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Brethren, and many other committed Protestant Christians. We’ve encountered Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Bahai, Sheiks, Unitarians, Wiccans, and Atheists.”

When I first read it I thought to myself, “Why are atheists in the community of faith?” Come to think of it, they have more faith than any of the other groups listed here because they believe that nothing times nobody equals everything, and I think that takes a lot of faith. So they belong here.

The article continues, “We’ve encountered Jains, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and others right here in central Pennsylvania and they are not guests, they are Pennsylvanian’s. Certainly our legislators must understand how insulting it is to have such a large part of their constituency unrepresented.” It would be an interesting prayer meeting to have all of those 70 groups represented.

Now there was another way that I began to realize the kind of changes that we have in America. I went in to the Supreme Court room in Harrisburg. There are seven chairs and the Justices sit beneath a picture of Moses and the Ten Commandments, very clearly spelled out. It has been there 100 years or more and has not been touched.

They hand out a Supreme Court booklet for tourists, which is also very interesting. I know you can’t see this because it is small, and if you are listening by radio you can even see less I’m sure. But on this panel on the booklet there is a picture of the seven Justices and above them are the Ten Commandments. But, they are censored out. They are out of focus and they cannot be read.

Now to be fair, in the rest of the book there is a picture of the Ten Commandments along with the other kinds of laws. There is the Law of Justinian, the Law of the Greeks and so forth. So the Ten Commandments are listed and pictured, but not above the Justices even though that is what hangs above them even as they deliberate.

Now why is it that they censored out the Ten Commandments? I can understand that there was probably opposition. They probably said, “You cannot privilege Christianity. You cannot privilege the Judeo-Christian heritage. We must be favorable to all religions and therefore the Ten Commandments have no place in hanging above the Justices as they do their work.”

Did you know that there are people who want to rewrite the textbooks in America? They want to take out references to God, the pilgrims, and the Bible. They say the reason is because it privileges one religion, namely Christianity, above the others. You are not supposed to privilege one religion above another.

Sin basically no longer exists in America. However, there are two sins left. One is eating chocolate and the other is privileging Christianity above other religions. The question is then, how do we live? That is the agenda for the next twenty minutes. By the time I am finished you are going to have an answer.

This is going to be a different kind of message. If you are visiting here at The Moody Church, I want you to understand that normally the pastor does not give a lesson in history. But we are going to look at history because it will illuminate the scripture and we will understand its importance and relevance, particularly for those of us who are Americans.

In the early days of the Christian church in Rome in the first century it was absolutely unthinkable to the Romans that one could be a good Roman citizen and at the same time be a Christian. It is not because they objected to people worshipping Jesus. All kinds of gods were worshiped and if you wanted to worship Jesus you had that freedom.

The trouble that the Roman authorities had was that there were Christians who were worshipping Jesus and claiming that He was Lord over all the other religions and that He was King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They said that could not be tolerated because if you believed that, you could not be a part of the commonwealth or be a good citizen. They said, “We have to understand that the glue that holds us together is our Roman religion, with all of its diversity and polytheism. You must be in that category to be a good citizen.” When the Christians said, “No,” they were thrown to the lions.

Later on after the time of Constantine, he crosses the Tiber River in 312 A.D. and Christianity gained a lot of power and a lot of adherence. Now Constantine and subsequent generations said, “Let us Christianize the empire.” At last the Christians were in charge and now the Christians had the ability to persecute the heretics. At first the sword belonged to the pagans. Now the sword belonged to the Christians. They made everybody become a Christian. Three thousand pagans were forced to convert to Christianity in one meeting alone! Everybody had to profess faith in the Christian God.

The pagans didn’t like it very well and some of them brought their own ideas into the church. For example, the Romans had a god if you were going to buy something and another if you were going to sell something and a god if you were going on a journey and those gods couldn’t be brought into the church. Now those assignments were given to saints within the church. What happened was the Christians were in charge. There was no freedom of religion.

You look at the history of medieval theology and the history of the church and you find martyrdom. You could deny the Trinity and be burned at the stake. There was no such thing as freedom of conscience. Just like the pagans believed that you had to be of the same religion to be a good citizen, the belief was now that you had to be a Christian in order to belong to Christendom and to be a good citizen within what was called the Holy Roman Empire.

Christendom now demanded that you be a Christian and infant baptism was proof that you were a Christian. Charles the Great said that the parents of all children who were not baptized as infants must be thrown in jail or put to death. Yet he was not interested in theology. He said this because they believed that having a similar religion held the Roman Empire together.

Now let’s go to the time of Luther. It is 1517 and he nails his 95 Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg. Four years later he is asked to go to Worms. The Pope had said that he was to be condemned and put to death. But the Emperor, Charles V, didn’t want to put him to death unless Luther was granted a hearing.

Luther comes before the Diet of Worms, and by the way this has nothing to do with losing weight or anything like that. The word diet means a synod. Luther goes there a hero. It was said that 90% of the people in Worms were shouting that they were in favor of Luther and the other 10% were shouting, “Death to the Pope!” He is asked, “Will you recount your writings?” He said, “I need to think about it,” and they said, “We will give you until tomorrow.”

I may not have another opportunity so I want to read parts of the prayer that he prayed that night because he knew that he would not recant. He also knew that if the law were followed he would be put to death instantly or within a few days. He knew that this was his death warrant.

He prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, how terrible is this world. Behold, it openeth its mouth to swallow me up and I have so little trust in thee. How weak is the flesh and Satan how strong. If it is only in the strength of this world that I must put my trust, all is over. My last hour has come, my condemnation has been pronounced. Oh God, my God, help me against the wisdom of this world. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend for with these great ones of the world. I should desire to see my days flow on peacefully and happy, but the cause is thine, and it is a righteous and eternal cause. Oh Lord help me, faithful and unchangeable God. In man I do not place my trust; it would be vain. All that cometh from man is uncertain. Oh God, where art thou? Thou canst not die; thou only hidest thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work.”

He continues to pray but I must for lack of time skip until the end. He says, “I will never separate myself from thee, neither now or throughout eternity. Though the world should be filled with devils, though my body which is still the work of thy hands should be slain or stretched out upon the pavement, be cut in pieces or reduced to ashes, my soul is thine, and thy word is my assurance of it. My soul belongs to thee and shall abide forever with thee, amen, oh help me God.”

The next day there were more people at the meeting than the previous one, including the Emperor. Luther goes before Charles V, before all of the German Princes and he is asked to recant. Luther then says these famous words: “My conscience is taken captive by the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe, so help me God, amen.” There was a hush in the hall, he was escorted out, and Charles V wrote a document condemning him to death. But through some friends Luther was able to go to the Wartburg Castle and escape and he lived a normal life and died at the age of 62.

Here is the point: the idea that one could stand up and say, “My conscience trumps church and state,” was unthinkable at that time. Let’s go eight years later to the Diet of Spire. Charles had to call the Lutherans because he needed their support in a war against the Turks. He has the Diet and basically says that in Catholic territories only Catholic services can be held and not Lutheran. But in Lutheran territories, and there were at least 14 cites that had Lutheran princes, Lutheran services can be held but no Catholic services can be held.

You can understand that the Lutherans protested and that is where we get the word Protestant. Whenever you think of the word “Protestant” you can think of the Diet of Spire in 1529. The Diet said that in matters of conscience the majority has no power. That is a good line, but the darker side is that they still condemned the Anabaptists, or the re-baptizers, which were those who were baptized as adults upon profession of faith. At the Diet of Spire, the Lutheran’s agreed that these people should be put to death if necessary to stamp out the heresy.

A few years before the Diet a man by the name of Felix Manz who was a student of Zwingli the great reformer in Zurich, was drowned because he was baptized as an adult. You couldn’t do that in those days because the whole medieval order and the unity of Christendom were going to be broken up-that was the argument. So they took him and they bound his hands and they put him in a little boat near the Rat House in Zurich. There is a friend of mine who is here today who grew up in Zurich and he knows exactly where this place is located.

They pushed him out and they let him drown in the deep, dark waters of the Lamont River. His good friend Zwingli said, “If he wishes to go under the water, well indeed, let him go under. If he wants to be baptized, then we will baptize him good and proper and let him drown.”

After this Anabaptism began to spread and many were massacred. Whole villages of men, women, and children were massacred. Why? Because they believed that the church should be distinct from Christendom and they believed one should be baptized upon profession of faith rather than as an infant. But Felix Manz was the first Protestant to be forcibly drowned by Protestants, of all things.

Now there was no freedom of religion in Europe until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Later on the Puritans come and they have a European understanding of freedom of religion. They wanted freedom of religion for themselves but not for others. That is why Roger Williams was run out of town because he was a Baptist.

But then there was the Constitution of the United States of America. The idea that a nation could be unified under a Constitution rather than a similar religion was a brand new experiment. This at the grand scale of America had never been tried before, that we could have one nation under God and we could say, “You can belong to whatever religion you like or not believe in any religion and you are a valid citizen of a great country.” This was an experiment that in history had been beyond thought. Nobody believed it could be done. Here we are in America today believing that it is possible to be a good American and belong to any faith or no faith at all.

How do we relate in a pluralistic world? In Europe and America, Christianity has always been privileged. You go to Washington and you find verses of scripture on virtually every government building. I was given a book of all the verses of scripture in the Pennsylvania State House, and it is quite a booklet. But those days are no more. The question is now, how do we live in a pluralistic world where the government may or may not favor Christianity anymore?

There are three or four possible reactions. One would be to say that we accommodate our faith and we say, “Let’s give up the distinctiveness of the Christian faith.” I was asked to pray at a political rally years ago and I prayed in the name of Jesus. One person was very incensed and said, “Why don’t you pray an ecumenical prayer?” In other words, don’t mention Jesus. I smiled very kindly and I said, “I’m really sorry but I don’t know how to pray in any other way because Jesus is the one who brings us to the father.” What we could do is we could water it all down and say, “Christianity can blend nicely with any other religion.” We just simply water it down and say that it is nothing more than a list of moral duties.

The other possibility is to privatize our faith and say, “It belongs only to me. We will go through our rituals but we aren’t going to witness to anybody in this pluralistic world.” Just the other day somebody told me about a pastor of a large church in some other state who went to get a manicure. Lay aside that for a moment and put it on the shelf. I can use a finger nail clipper myself and do pretty well.

Anyway, he was there and there was a Christian woman who recognized him. When he left, one of the women who worked there said, “You know he is the pastor of such and such church.” The other woman said, “That’s not possible because he’s been coming here for three years. If he were the pastor of that church surely that is something I would know about him.” Shame on him! He went to that place for three years and never told them the good news of the gospel? We go to church on Sunday but we don’t share Jesus Christ when we get a haircut or when we sit with people at work. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is militarism, to fight and become angry and say, “What are all these people doing with our freedoms and with our country?” We can get more angry than we are repentant. That is another option.

Another option is to engage the culture. We can say, “God, you have given us unique opportunities to prove ourselves in a different kind of environment,” and welcome the opportunity to live for Christ authentically in a pluralistic culture. With that we are turning to God’s Word.

Would you take your Bibles and turn to 1 Peter chapter three? Peter is the one, you see, who initially drew his sword. He drew his sword when they came to get Jesus, because he was a fighter. Jesus said, “Peter, my kingdom is not of this world. You can take your sword and put it into its sheath. Let’s not use a sword here.” Jesus submitted to those who were coming for Him in order to kill Him.

Peter is writing to a church that has experienced persecution. It was not the full intensity yet because that was still coming and he prepared them for it. The true church in history has always been a minority. It has always had to struggle with pluralistic religions and in this case paganism. The question is how do you live in a pagan society? This book was written to help us understand that. The church has always been an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism.

How does it engage the culture? First of all, please notice that we must live by kingdom values. Wherever God has planted us, wherever your office is, wherever your hospital is, wherever you find yourself working, in a factory or building or whatever your location is, you should live in such a way that people will say to themselves, “Why is this person different?” Notice the Apostle Paul says in verse eight of 1 Peter chapter three, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind.” That is the kind of unity of mind that is brought about through our love for Christ.

He also tells us to have sympathy. When you walk past the poor don’t simply say, “Well, that’s what they get because they are too lazy to work,” or “It’s their fault.” In many instances it is not their fault. They are locked into a system and we need to have sympathy. Can we weep with those who are weeping?

Next we need to have brotherly love, or specifically Christian love. As we have been loved so we love others. We should also be tender hearted. God has been tenderhearted toward us and tenderheartedness in Scripture is closely related to forgiveness. Ephesians chapter 4, verse 32, says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We also need to be humble. Paul says, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” Why? We are sinners and God has graciously saved us. We had nothing to do with it; we simply responded to His grace. The idea of a proud, arrogant Christian is an oxymoron. It is a square circle or a doughnut without a hole. It is a toothpick with the wood shaved from it. It simply cannot exist. The gospel, if it does anything to us, humbles us and breaks us so that we are not angry people, so that we are not the kind of people who are more concerned about what others are doing to us rather than our own humility and repentance. Peter says, “Look, what you need to do is to remember that you live with kingdom values wherever God has planted you in a pluralistic world.”

How did the Chinese church grow so much without television, without Christian radio, without tracts, and largely without books? How did the church become so big? It is the way in which Christians lived one next to another until one would say to the other, “Why are you able to endure this repression so much better than I am? What is your secret?” It was personal evangelism; one person telling another person. Like the old saying goes, “It was one beggar telling another beggar where bread can be found.”

You live with Christian values and also with a Christian perspective. We don’t have time to go through this whole beautiful text, but you can do that on your own. Let’s jump to verse 13. It says, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” America has always had a Christian consensus and we’ve always expected special privileges. Suffering to us is deemed to be fundamentally unconstitutional. We think to ourselves that there is no way that we should ever have to be challenged about our faith or have the kinds of conflicts that pluralism brings.

What he is saying is that if you have to suffer for righteousness, understand that it comes with a blessing. Notice chapter 4, verse 12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” To share the sufferings of Jesus means to endure the kind of hardship and suffering that you endure because you belong to Jesus. It isn’t because you have cancer or because things are going badly at work. We have this kind of stress and persecution because we belong to Jesus.

It goes on to say that, “You may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” What we should say to ourselves in this pluralistic world when we feel we are no longer getting a fair shake is, “Praise God! I hope that there is some persecution and some marginalization of me in the midst of it all because it comes with a blessing.” The Bible says, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.” You are blessed because that is the way the prophets before you were treated. We accept it with optimism.

Tertullian in North Africa said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. Tertullian talked about being in prison and he said, “The body is shut in but all is open to the Spirit. The Spirit may roam abroad to God. The leg does not feel the chain if the mind is in heaven.”

Now that is a very, very optimistic view of imprisonment and I do not want to glorify martyrdom because I don’t know how you and I would do if we had to die for our faith. I would hope that we would die valiantly in the name of Jesus. Let’s not criticize those who perhaps haven’t endured martyrdom too well, because we have not been there so we approach this with humility. We should be praying for our persecuted brethren and we should be lobbying for our persecuted brethren and doing all that we possibly can to change their environment and their circumstances.

But even in the midst of that there is God’s blessing because the scripture says that ultimately nothing can destroy the Christian. Like the hymn says, “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.” We approach it with a sense of perspective, hope, and optimism. We live with kingdom values. We go deep into the culture; we don’t avoid the culture. But, we remain distinct within the culture and we live with kingdom values.

Let me say also that we live understanding our testimony and being willing to share our testimony. Notice what the text says in verse 15: “But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience.”

By the way, one of the reasons that we can teach people personal evangelism and they can learn it all and still don’t evangelize or witness to people is because if Christ is not sanctified in your heart as Lord, if you’ve got other agendas that mean more to you than Jesus, it is hard to witness. If your heart is cold and you are indifferent and the passion for Jesus is gone, it is difficult to share your faith. What you want to do is retreat. Like one woman said, “I don’t want others to know at work that I am a Christian because I’ve got some issues in my life and I don’t think that I would be a good witness for Jesus.”

I understand what she is saying, but she better take care of those issues so she can sanctify the Lord as God and then give a defense. The word defense in Greek is apologia from which we get apologetics or apology. It doesn’t mean that we are apologizing for our faith–it means that we are defending it!

Are you able to defend your faith? If somebody says to you, “I think Jesus is one among many,” are you able to respond to that statement? You say, “I don’t know.” There have been so many books that have been written and a lot of sermons have been preached on those kinds of topics that can be used to study and to learn so you can say, “I need to be able to answer that so that I can give a reason for the hope that is within me and I can tell people why I belong to Jesus Christ and not to some other faith.”

And what are the roots of our faith? We learn to do apologetics by lifestyle. And when we are asked, or sometimes even if we aren’t asked but there is an open door, we share with others the reason for the hope that is within us. That is the way in which we live in a pluralistic world.

Now let me give some practical suggestions and then I’ll say like Luther at the Diet of Worms, “I’m out of here!” That is the way he ended it when it was over. First of all, respect other people’s freedom of conscience. You expect them to respect your freedom of conscience so you must respect their freedom of conscience. Notice that when you are giving a reason for the hope that is within you the text says do it “with gentleness and respect.”

You must respect other religions. Sure, there is going to be conflicts and misunderstanding. Remember that if you were born in Saudi Arabia it is entirely possible statistically that you would grow up Muslim. If you were born in China you might be Buddhist. You must realize that you are dealing with real people in real situations and in real contexts. We don’t come with an attitude of superiority and we don’t come with an attitude of anger. But we do in humility give a reason for the hope that is within us. We do it with meekness and with fear rather than judgmentalism and superiority. We respect other people’s religions.

Secondly, we dialogue and we learn from others. When I was preparing this message I thought to myself, “One of the tragedies in my own life is that I know so few of other religions in any kind of an in depth, intimate way.” I would like to get to know other religions. In the work that I do I am somewhat isolated. What an opportunity God has given us by bringing so many different people from so many different countries and so many different religions to the shores of the United States.

When it comes to other religions we should be accommodating. However, there are times when we cannot accommodate. When I was in Istanbul a few years ago I had a Muslim guide for an entire day. He met me at the hotel in the morning and we didn’t come back until after dinner that night. He was giving me a tour and we were going to all kinds of interesting places. He said that he was a very devout Muslim and because of his devoutness he would prefer if he could pray during the day. Muslims are to pray five times a day. I think there was one time in the morning and one in the afternoon.

I told him, “When it is time to pray, you simply go into the mosque, stay there as long as you want, and when you are finished come outside and I will be waiting for you.” I told him that I wanted to respect his faith. We had some very interesting conversations that I will tell you about some time in another context. But, I respected his faith.

In the afternoon he washed his feet and went into the mosque and he said, “Come in with me.” So I went into the mosque and I saw hundreds and hundreds of men bowing and saying prayers. Then he knelt and he said, “You can’t stand when you are in the mosque when everyone is praying. Why don’t you just kneel down?” I said to him, “Look, I am glad that I have the privilege of seeing everything here but I am going to go and I will meet you when you are finished,” and I went outside.

I couldn’t kneel down because even though Allah and Jehovah have some similarities, they have such radical differences and they are not the same God. There was no way that I could bow down and so I met him when he came out of the mosque. In other words, we go as far as our conscience allows us to go but then we don’t overstep that conscience. We say to ourselves, “I can do A, B, and C, but I can’t do this.” That is the way we live in a pluralistic world.

When we send missionaries to the mission field we expect them to learn the culture and the religion and what we need to do in America is to look at America as a mission field. We need to better understand other religions and then speak Jesus Christ within that context.

Finally, we have to be ready to die for our faith. It has been the whole history of the Christian Church. Who do we have for our example? Your Bible is open, isn’t it? You’ll notice it says in verse 18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

There is our example! Jesus lived when religions collided. The religion of Judaism, which had calcified and was based on the Old Testament with many traditions, conflicted with Jesus who was trying to help them to understand that He was the Son of God and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. As a result of the collision, He was crucified.
In the process of the crucifixion God accomplished His work, and it is through the suffering of Jesus that we are brought to God.

Therefore, every single believer should be willing to die for their faith and perhaps that can even happen to you and to me. The text says that He suffered and that He was righteous and we are unrighteous. When He died on the cross He got what He didn’t deserve, namely our sin and our unrighteousness. Because He died on the cross we now can get what we don’t deserve, namely His righteousness and that He died in our place to bring us to God.

As I come to the end of the message I finally come to the focal point as to why Moody Church exists and why you and I are still left on this planet. We are here to help people to be brought to God through Jesus Christ our Lord who suffered in the place of sinners. The wages of sin is death but He said, “I will take the eternal death on the cross so that you will be exempt and declared as righteous as I am.”

I mentioned that Helen Nitam died this past week. Jerry Newcomer, also a member here, died as well. When they arrived in heaven they arrived as if they were Jesus based totally upon the merit of Christ. We live differently because we have been saved differently by the generosity and the grace of God our Lord.

Let’s pray. “Our Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You will help us in the midst of a culture that is pluralistic. Help us, Father, as You have brought to America so many different religions of the world and so many different opportunities and so much for us to learn that is new and different. Help us to be humble witnesses of Your saving grace. We pray that those who listened to this message perhaps by radio or on the internet or right here at The Moody Church who never trusted Jesus Christ as Savior may see that the way to God is through Him and Him alone. Thank You that You died for sinners like us, in Jesus’ name, amen.

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