Friday, May 12, 2006

Sharing the Good News With People of Other Faiths

Together with other local Christians, clergy and lay people, I find myself – from time to time – giving thought to how we share our Christian faith with people from other religious backgrounds. It is a ticklish issue, because converting from one faith to another is a huge decision to make and it may not be appropriate for everyone. Becoming a Christian is always a life changing event, but for someone from another faith background it can sometimes cause immense dislocation and hardship, including estrangement from family members and friends who cannot accept their decision. It may even cut a person off from their entire cultural heritage, so it is not something that we can expect people to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly. Nor is it likely to be easy for them to make a gradual progression or pilgrimage to Christian faith. At some point they may have to choose whether or not to make a radical break with their past, unless they decide to be secret or closet believers. And they may decide to remain within their own faith tradition, while being open to new insights and truths from our Christian heritage. That is up to them. It is not for us to decide.
Does the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch [1] shed light on this dilemma? I think it may.
First, Philip is not set on pursuing an automatic collision course with people of other faiths. At this stage in Christian history there was still much debate about whether or not Gentiles, as well as Jewish people, could actually become followers of Jesus. Philip only approaches the Ethiopian because he is guided by the Spirit. Is this a reminder of the need for sensitivity when we encounter people from other faiths? I think it is.
Second, Philip is only inspired by the Spirit to join the eunuch because the man has already embarked on a spiritual journey of discovery. He is open to new ideas and, in fact, he is actively seeking them out. He has begun to wonder whether the Jewish faith has more to offer him than his own inherited faith and culture, and so he is reading the Jewish scriptures.
To have obtained a copy of the Prophecy of Isaiah was a huge step to take, even for a wealthy person. It must have been handwritten, and therefore very expensive and difficult to obtain. And the eunuch must have been reading it in Greek, which is unlikely to have been his native language. Here was someone who was thinking very seriously about his relationship to God and whether he needed to go in a different spiritual direction to be put right with God.
He must have been introduced already to some Jewish ideas, but this passage – which was probably written about the faithful remnant of believers exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem – had not yet been explained to him. Philip is able to give it a new spin, because it doesn't take much imagination to see that it could be a very powerful and emotive description of the way Jesus' life had ended.
The eunuch is so impressed by the Gospel message that he insists on being baptised immediately. Was Philip right to agree to this sudden demand without any further preparation? We have already seen that the man must have been thinking deeply about his spiritual journey, so in a sense this is no flash in the pan. It was the right thing to do given the stage which the eunuch had reached.
People often ask for baptism, and it is tempting to play God and try to make a judgement as to whether or not they are ready. Obviously, it would be wrong to baptise someone without any preparation, especially if they are converting from another faith, but it would also be wrong to impose too many conditions on them. Sometimes baptism is a stage on their journey, and a powerful way for God to continue working in their life and influencing their spiritual growth, rather than a final destination.
So it was with the Ethiopian eunuch. He continued on his way rejoicing, but without Philip – who was snatched away by the Spirit and commanded to go to the nearby city of Ashkelon or Azotus, which is its Greek name.
It would have been tempting for Philip to continue with the eunuch, perhaps all the way to Ethiopia, there to found the Ethiopian Church. Instead he gives the official space to assimilate the progress he has made and decide for himself the pace and scope of any further changes in his life. No doubt, if he had wanted to, the man could have sent for Christian missionaries to come and help him later in his spiritual journey. Perhaps that is what he did. Or perhaps he decided to become a secret Christian. Or perhaps he slid back into his inherited faith and beliefs when he returned home.
It is not our task to decide how other people will come to God. Our task is to be ready to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, and to the clues that people give us, so that we may share our faith with them at the right time and in the right way.
[1] Acts 8.26—40


John said...

It is a ticklish issue, because converting from one faith to another is a huge decision to make and it may not be appropriate for everyone.

So some people are better off not becoming Christians?

Methodist Bishop said...

In principle, I agree that everyone would be better off becoming a Christian. But that is easy for me to say. If some people convert to Christianity from another faith they may put themselves in real danger. That is wrong and a breach of their human rights, but it's the way things are. I don't feel I can tell people that this is what they must do, which is why it's a ticklish issue.

Jesus told a parable about this, I think. He talked about not beginning to build a tower or invade a country if you're not ready and able to finish the job. If people wonder whether to convert to the Christian faith in threatening circumstances, they must weigh the risks for themselves and decide whether to convert publicly, secretly or not at all.