Recently, I was delighted to attend my first Bat Mitzvah Service. Several months ago I met a woman that has quickly become a dear friend. It’s clear that God put us together and that He is at work in our friendship. I consider it an honor that she invited me to take part
in the formal recognition of her daughter fully entering into the religious heritage of the Jewish people. I found many aspects of the Shabbat Service and the Bat Mitzvah to be beautiful and full of spiritual truth. Moved by the genuine and loving community I witnessed, I found myself considering how Christians interact with others in our interfaith community and how we can make disciples within our community.
This notion may sound a bit foreign. After all, don’t we disciple those who have made a profession of faith in Christ? How can we disciple people who are firmly a part of a different faith than our own? To answer these two questions, I want to start by challenging the notion that discipleship begins with conversion.
I’ve been blessed to spend time with missionaries on multiple continents who are on the front lines of discipleship in their ministry fields. And for the most part, these Christ Ambassadors to the nations see the process of discipleship beginning with the start of relationship. Without building a good relationship with an individual, you may never have the opportunity to influence their spiritual development and help create or increase their connection with God. The foundation of a respectful, honoring, loving relationship is what enables us to function as effective ambassadors of our faith. Conversely, we build barriers to relationship with people who sense that we judge them or see them as inferior or false because of their religious beliefs. This leads me to challenge a second notion that only Christians can have a connection with God.
My Jewish friend has shared with me some spiritual truths that I believe she has come to understand through her connection with God fostered by her Jewish faith. While you might not feel challenged by this because the Bible teaches that the Jews are God’s chosen and on this basis would qualify for a spiritual connection with God, how would you feel if my friend were Sikh or Muslim or some other religion? Are you unsettled when you hear of interfaith community events where a leader of another faith is given an opportunity to pray and bless the event? Be honest. I can think of a few nationally known Christian leaders who have taken a lot of criticism for building relationship with leaders of other faiths.
Since our beliefs should be shaped by the Scriptures rather than by our experiences and observations, I’d like to share one of my favorite stories from the New Testament that clearly illustrates that people of other religions can have a connection with God and that God asks His Ambassadors to resist judging people of other faiths. The story is found in Acts 10. Up to this point, the gospel message had only been shared with those of the Jewish faith. It is this one pivotal event that opened the doors and broke down the barriers to the spread of the gospel to gentiles.
The account of this event begins with Cornelius of Caesarea. We’re told he is an Italian in the Roman army, and he is a religious man. Interestingly, he is said to be a worshipper of the true God, but he is clearly not Jewish and not Christian. Yet undoubtedly he has a connection with God, and in response to his prayers, God sends an angel to him to set up an incredible divine encounter. The angel tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to bring back Simon Peter who is staying in the house of Simon, who is a tanner, who has a house beside the sea. Meanwhile, God is giving a repeated vision to Peter to prepare his heart to respond correctly when Cornelius’ men arrive to take him back with them to Caesarea. Peter agrees to go with them, and when they arrive at the home of Cornelius, Peter has a revelation about how God views people. The New Century Version records Peter’s words like this,
“I really understand now that to God every person is the same. In every country God accepts anyone who worships Him and does what is right” (vs. 34 & 35).
Based on this revelation, Peter begins to share the gospel message, but before he can finish his message, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone in the house, and the Jewish Christians there are amazed that
“the gift of the Holy Spirit had been given even to the nations” (vs. 45).
After witnessing God pour out His Holy Spirit on these Gentiles, Peter meets with the other leaders of the early church, and they agree that the gospel message is also for the Gentiles. If not for this event, the leaders of early Christianity would have continued with the notion that God only wanted to reach the house of Israel.
What if Peter had refused to go with these Romans? What if he had judged Cornelius and built up barriers where God wanted to build foundations? What if the other early church leaders had rejected Peter’s testimony and refused to approve of the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles? What if Paul was never sent out as a missionary who embraced a call to the nations?
And what if we miss having a similar revelation to the one given to Peter? What if we build barriers instead of foundations?
If we acknowledge that we have been given the mission to make disciples in every nation, then we must recognize that effective Ambassadors of the Kingdom of God need the same revelation Peter received in the home of Cornelius. When we act on that revelation, we will need to recognize and honor the elements of truth that God has seeded in people of other faiths. We will need to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us as we build relationship so that God can cultivate those seeds into encounters that lead to greater connection with Him. When we lovingly and humbly embrace people across our interfaith community, we will be furthering the call to make disciples. This is especially important as we celebrate our religious holidays and as others in our interfaith community celebrate theirs. What better time to build the foundations of good relationship!