Amhadiyya Muslim Elders Association
Interfaith Webinar – 25 March 2021 @ 7.00 pm
Rev’d Paul White
It is a huge honour to be invited to speak with you this evening about the Christian view of the Messiah and thank you for the kind invitation.
When speaking tonight about the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, whom I believe to be Jesus, Yeshua, Isa Ibn Maryam, the Son of Mary and the Son of God I want to be clear from the beginning that I do so from a place of love rather than division.
During my morning prayer one of the things I pray for, nearly every day, is for unity amongst Christians. Sadly, much of Christian history over the last 2000 years has been one of division between denominations: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and now many others. Sadly, that is also true within Judaism; in the NT we see the parties of the Sadducees and the Pharisees and now we have Orthodox and Reformed, both existing in lots of varieties. And, of course, no one knows better than the Amhadiyya that Islam is far from being the monolithic and uniform religion that many non-Muslims seem to think.
So, we have a paradox. On the one hand, we worship a God who is perfect in his unity. And whatever you may have heard to the contrary Christians do believe in one God and not three. And, on the other, we have a history of religion, both between us and within each of our respective faiths which speaks more of disunity.
I have no doubt that when people separate themselves from each other on religious grounds they do so with the best of intentions – they say to themselves that only ‘we’ have the whole truth, that only we understand God properly and that if we separate ourselves for the ‘others’, or convert or even kill the others who do not believe the same things we do then we will find the best favour with God.
But, and I can only pose the question this evening, is it possible that our best intentions could sometimes be tinged with motivations that are not wholly divine? Is there something in the desire to be right, the desire to be better and, dare I say it, in the desire to see ourselves spend eternity in heaven whilst seeing everyone else go to hell, which is less than Godly? The desire to be right with God must be holy but is the way we live that out amongst and between one another always holy?
So, I have long prayed for Christian unity, not least because Jesus himself prayed that all those who followed him would be one, as he and the Father are one.
But, as someone charged with the great responsibility of preaching on the scriptures week by week to my congregation, I am conscious of the deep Jewish roots of Christianity. Approximately four fifths of Christian scriptures are also Jewish scriptures. It is simply impossible to understand Jesus without seeing him in a deeply Jewish context and it is impossible to see Christianity as being Abrahamic without recognising that Christians are a branch grafted onto that root, through Jesus.
If one believes that Jesus is the Messiah, then it is impossible not to believe that he is, first and foremost, the Jewish messiah sent by God to gather and protect the people of his flock but also, as Simeon said in the Temple, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles.
So, Christians are the people who seek to follow Jesus as Christ, as he points and provides the way towards God the Father. Jesus therefore has the monopoly on Christians but, I would suggest, that Christians do not have the monopoly on Jesus, who came for the whole world.
And that became clearer to me as, in recent months, I have had the pleasure of getting to know some Amhadi personally and to look at the Qur’an and there encounter Jesus and Mary and many of the prophets with which I am familiar from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Not only was I humbled and intrigued to encounter Jesus in the Qur’an but also fascinated to learn that Muslims take Jesus so seriously that they disagree with one another about him and his coming again at the end of time, and I say that recognising the community that invited me here this evening.
Interfaith dialogue always feels more comfortable when we concentrate on the things we have in common. Despite differences of language and culture and a sometimes-troubled relationship, I hope it is reasonably uncontroversial to suggest that the three faiths represented here this evening do have a great deal in common – through Ishmael, Isaac and Jesus we are each descendants of Abraham and therefore oriented towards the same God. Our scriptures, and the prophets within them, overlap in interesting and unexpected ways.
But tonight, we are asked to concentrate on the one thing which separates us most, which is our different understandings of the Messiah. It may make some people uncomfortable to hear that those differences are real and cannot simply be glossed over in the interests of being friendly. But I hope that by being honest about our differences, and being confident enough in ourselves to discuss them peacefully, that we can get past mere friendliness and develop real mutual understanding and perhaps even some kind of unity – not necessarily a unity of theology and worship, but maybe a unity of love and service which may be even more pleasing to God. I’ll return to that in a moment.
Today is the 25th March and this is a good day to talk about Jesus as Messiah because today is the Feast of the Annunciation. It is nine months from today until Christmas Day on December 25th and it is therefore today that the church remembers the Angel Gabriel visiting the Blessed Virgin Mary and telling her that she was to conceive and bear a very special child.
I know that the Angel Gabriel holds a high place in Islam as it was he that imparted the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed, Peace be upon him. The reading from the bible set for today tells us that same Gabriel spoke these words to that young Jewish girl:
“Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” (Luke 1:30-32)
From the very beginning of the story of Jesus the Angel Gabriel tells us two clear things about him: 1. that he is a descendent of King David. This is important in relation to the Jewish expectations of the Messiah because they were, and indeed are, expecting a human king from the line of David. In addition to these words the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both contain genealogies of Jesus tracing his family lineage back to King David. As a child born to Mary Jesus was fully human and a descendent of King David. But he was also something else, which is 2. The Son of the Most High God. I appreciate that this is where Christianity departs radically from both our Jewish and Muslim brothers but there is no getting away from the fact that the Christian understanding of the Messiah is utterly grounded in these two natures of Christ – both fully human through Mary and fully divine through his conception by the Holy Spirit.
Although it took the church a couple of hundred years to work out what this meant in terms of theology, and we have the doctrines of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ and of the Trinity which maintains the unity of God in the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, nonetheless I would suggest that this is what the Angel Gabriel announced at the first Annunciation.
At Christmas, every year we don’t just read the nativity story of Angels and shepherds and mangers, which tell the shocking and unexpected story of the creator of the universe entering into the world as a baby born in the most humble of circumstances, but we also read the prologue to the Gospel of John which puts the event into a cosmic context:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, of the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1 and 1:14)
Christians believe that when Jesus was born into the world, nine months after today’s announcement, that God himself, in the person of the Son, was also stepping into his creation. This is what we call the incarnation. In Jesus, God was taking on human form. That doesn’t mean that God was pretending to be human but that in the Son of the Most High he was fully human. The creator stepped into creation.
Because, although creation had been made perfect and although humanity had been created in the image of God, both were now broken and fallen and the image of God in us marred by our distance from him. God knew that his chosen people and, indeed, the people of the whole world, needed a way to become right with him once again. He had sent long lines of prophets before Jesus, but they had often been killed or ignored by the people, he had established the Temple in Jerusalem in which the sacrifices were offered day by day. And yet the world was far from God and even the Temple had become a place of buying and selling and Jerusalem occupied by the pagan Romans. The only way God could overcome that divide was to step over that divide himself, to make himself the sacrifice to end all sacrifices and to make himself the means to lift humanity back into union with Him.
For the Christian, Jesus can never be understood simply as a holy man or even as a prophet. Jesus disappointed the Jewish expectations of a Messiah because they were looking for a human king who would liberate the people from oppression and rebuild the Temple and create a new theocracy. It is clear from the bible that many who followed Jesus had that same expectation and were disappointed that Jesus had a different agenda. And Jesus scandalised the Jews by claiming a special relationship with God and the charge of blasphemy was one of the things which took him to the cross, and I suspect that Muslims are equally shocked by that claim.
I have mentioned the cross. Although today is the Feast of the Annunciation we are also only a week and a day away from Good Friday, which is when we remember that death on the cross. An ignominious, shocking and scandalous end to the incarnation of God on earth. It looked like a failed mission to save his people, alone and defeated save for his mother and a few others weeping at the foot of the cross.
Christians believe that Jesus died on that cross and the gospel tells us that the Romans put the matter beyond doubt by driving a spear into his side. The Romans were very adept at killing people. Jesus was dead, it looked like the end and it looked like failure.
So why do we call it Good Friday?
Because it was not the end of the story. The heart of the Christian faith lies not in the Annunciation, or Christmas Day or Good Friday. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, because of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
In the resurrection Jesus defeated death and led the way to our immortal life with God, but he also defeated the pagan Romans and Rome itself would soon claim to be the centre of Christianity, and he rebuilt the Temple of God, not in stones but in his own body.
Forty days after the resurrection we believe that Jesus ascended back to take his place with the Father in heaven, and the Holy Spirit then gave life to the Church which has sought to be the body of Christ on earth ever since.
But even that is not quite the end of the story. Because the world is still broken and because people still reject God, wherever they see Him, there is injustice and evil in the world. So, we remain a Messianic people, not simply worshipping a Messiah who has been and gone again but looking forward with Messianic expectation to our own encounter with God, not in a spiritual realm but in a re-created heaven and earth in which all things are resurrected.
Yes, that Messiah, Jesus the King of Kings, does return with judgement and there is division between those who have tried to follow God and those who have rejected him.
The Nicene Creed, one of our most fundamental statements of belief, says that:
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
But what is the basis of that judgement?
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 suggests to me that the basis of that judgement and division will not be what we have called ourselves or what we have said we believe, but the way in which we have loved and served those most in need around:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Some of you are no doubt aware that these words are closely echoed in the Hadith Qudsi 18, which concludes:
‘Did you not know that one of My servants was thirsty but you did not give him a drink? If you had given him a drink, you would have found its reward with Me.’
As a Christian I believe absolutely that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Most High God, and that he is the way, the truth and the life. But I also have the humility to know that I cannot see the world as God sees it, that his ways are not my ways and that he has plans for us all I cannot comprehend.
And I suspect that whatever our differences that we will not go far wrong if we love God with all our hearts and love our neighbours as ourselves. As the Ahmadi say, Love for all, hatred for none.