The Same God?

In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus speaks some harsh words to those who would follow him and be his disciple. Jesus tells the crowd traveling with him that they need to count the cost of being his disciple. He warned them that they must hate their family members, and carry a cross. He then goes on to compare the deliberation of following Jesus to that of a builder wanting to construct a tower and to that of a king assessing whether to go to war of not. So we need to ask, “Who is Jesus that I really want to follow him, or do I want to follow someone else?”

The other scripture passage we read this morning was from the book of Hebrews. The passage talks about faith — “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I want to talk about faith and following today. What are we hoping for that we need to be assured of, and what is our conviction of what we can not see? People all over the earth have answered that question in different ways. This morning, I want to frame the question in another question.

In two days, we will be marking the anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001. Many of us vividly remember that day and the horrible events which occurred. Nearly three thousand people died in attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and on Flight 93 which crashed in Somerville, PA. And in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, people asked why. “Why did this happen? Why would people do this?” And because the people who did this were from the Middle East and claimed to be Muslim, we had a whole series of questions about the differences between Christianity and Islam. Most of us in the United States claim to be Christians and to be followers of Jesus the Christ. We tend to believe that Jesus would not approve of mass murder of the kind we experienced on 9-11. So the basic question concerned with our differences is “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” The reason for bringing up the question is not to denounce Muslims, or have a detailed examination of Islam, but to explore more deeply — and understand more fully — the cost of discipleship with Jesus.

William Willimon wrote in the periodical Pulpit Resource, “Late in 2003, as we were again making war against another Islamic country, President Bush was widely quoted as having said, “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.'” I expect that President Bush’s interest was more political than theological, but I have heard lots of theologically informed people say things like, “We all worship the same God; can’t we just get along?” or “We are all monotheists,” or “Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all children of Abraham.” (1)

The fact of the matter is that Jews, Christians and Muslims do have a common heritage. All claim Abraham — as in Abraham and Sarah — as their ancestor. Jews and Christians claim Abraham as their progenitor from the son he had with his wife Sarah when they were almost 100 years old — his name was Isaac. The Muslims claim Abraham as their progenitor through Ishmael — the child of Abraham and Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar.

By the way, giving your slave girl to have children with your husband was not uncommon or inappropriate in those days. But Sarah thought differently about the whole arrangement with Hagar when she had her own child, Isaac. She then asked Abraham to banish Hagar and her son, Ishmael, which Abraham did and thus, we have a reason why the Jews and Arabs do not get along.

But all that aside, members of each of these religions has at one time or another determined that the other two religions were corrupt and have badly misunderstood God. The Jews think that they have things right and Christianity and Islam have corrupted God true revelation. Christians think that Judaism was OK before Jesus, but God changed things when Jesus came along and the Jews were too stubborn to change and the Muslims later perverted God’s truth as Jesus as the Messiah. Six hundred years after Jesus walked the earth, a fellow by the name of Muhammad had a different revelation from God and Muslims think that Muhammad got things right while the Jews were too stubborn to change and the Christians texts — the New Testament — was corrupted in the first century. So there you have it — everybody thinks they have it right and everybody else is wrong.

Part of the trouble we all have had is when we take this belief of being right and decided that God loves only those who get things right and everybody else deserves to die. I do not think that Jesus ever said that. I do not think Jesus said we should go out and convert people or kill them. I remember him saying that we should love our enemies and be good to others, like the Good Samaritan.

But maybe I am getting too far from the discussion. If we think of God in abstract terms such as God is omnipotent (all powerful), God is omniscient (all knowing), God is loving and just, etc., then all three faiths appear to be in agreement and relating to the same God. We all believe in an all powerful, all knowing, loving and just God. The trouble with this is that these abstract ideas do not tell us much at all. It is like saying a dog is a four legged animal with fur and a tail. Well, so is a cat or a squirrel or rabbit. From that description, all we know is that a dog is not a fish or a bird. We need something more to really compare and know.

We need to look at the scriptures of these faiths. They still have a lot in common. Two third of sacred scripture for Christians comes from the Jewish Bible. But Christians interpret the Jewish scriptures differently than Jews do. So even when we have something in common, it is not really common. When it comes to the Christian Bible and the Muslim Qur’an, a Christian might be surprised to read many of the same names we are familiar with in our scriptures. Oh we might expect to see Abraham, but we would also see Jesus and his mother Mary and some others. In fact, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned more in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Muslims accept Jesus as being born of a virgin, but he is only a great prophet and not God-in-the-flesh who died on a cross to save people. Muslims hold Jesus in such high regard that it is he who will return at the end of the age to usher in God’s heavenly kingdom. But for a Muslim to believe that God could be limited to the form of a human being and could die — well, that is just too much. The Qur’an says: “Cursed be anyone who says that God has a son.”

No, for a Muslim, the prophet Mohammed has the final revelation of God and the corrected version of the truth. Mohammed got it absolutely right. A Muslim would see the Jewish and Christian Bibles as truthfully accurate as much we would see Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as history. There is a kernel of truth in it, but nothing to stake your life on, or to pass a history test.

So a reminder of the question for this morning: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” If we look at the scriptures — the Christian Bible and the Qur’an — it seems that the God of Islam and the God of Jesus Christ are quite different. I probably do not know enough about Islam to properly judge, but more importantly, I do not know enough about the God Christians worship to properly judge either. Think about the gospel lesson for today. In the light of that passage, who has fully lived up to the demands of Jesus? I know that I have quite often failed to live up to what I know about God so much, how can I condemn others for failing to live up to his demands?

Fortunately for me, my faith provides great resources to help me confess my stupidity and infidelity and make amends. So do I really know conclusively who has it right and who has it wrong? I do not think so. God only knows.

Another major stumbling block for Christians and Muslims comes when people on either side claim that their way is the only way and any other way is not only wrong, but evil or satanic. One response to the terrorist attacks on 9-11 was to simplistically state that Islam is an “evil religion.” Those Christians who professed this point of view heard that those who perpetrated this crime claimed to be doing holy work for their God in killing innocent people. Obviously, if murder of innocents is holy work for their God, then Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. But let us also remember that many have used Christianity as an excuse to kill people.

This point of view fails to recognize that even though the terrorist claimed to be Muslims, they were not representatives of most of Islam. In other words, the terrorists were radical extremists who used religion to promote and justify their political ends. The fact is that these terrorist no more represented the Muslim faith than we would accept white supremacists claiming to have the true Christian faith.

One of the biggest problems which faces us is that too many people worship their sacred scriptures rather than God — or they worship their own interpretation of the sacred scriptures. There are many Christians who worship the Bible rather than the spirit of Jesus Christ. And there are plenty of Muslims who do the same with the Qur’an. They worship their word of God, rather than God. When that happens, then the scriptures become a weapon used to hurt and kill, rather than to heal and reconcile. Have you ever been “beaten over the head with the Bible”?

We may ask: “What did Jesus say about Islam and Muslims?” Of course, the answer is nothing. Islam did not exist until six centuries after Jesus died. But even more to the point, in the teachings of Jesus there is no condemnation of other religions — well, maybe he did not like the worship of the Roman Emperor — but no other faiths are condemned by Jesus. When Jesus is most judgmental and condemning, he is speaking to his own disciples. The judgment of Jesus begins, not with other faiths, but in his own house and God’s own people. (1)

We Christians may have to concede that some Muslims have a genuine criticism of Christians. Some Muslims have seen how Christians in the West appear to have produced, or at least given in to, a godless, sex-saturated, violent and materialistic society. Muslims do not seem to despise us because we are free as some politicians have proposed, or because we are so very Christian as the late Jerry Falwell declared, but because we are so often not what we say we are — Christian. (1) They see that we, as a society, have not lived up to the demands of Jesus. They see our society as a whole, promoting more and more worship of material goods, becoming less and less moral and ethical, and becoming unspiritual. Perhaps, their view is not clouded by our good intentions and our excuses, and we should listen. They see our television and movies and what is on them. They experience Western businesses ruthlessly seeking more and more profits at the expense of workers and communities. Haven’t we all judged ourselves as lacking — as a society — in virtues?

Maybe our lack of truly being a disciple of Christ and following in the way of our savior makes them unimpressed with our God. Our money may say, “In God We Trust,” but they suspect that oil, power and wealth are our true heart’s desire and not any Christian generosity and love. Maybe Muslims think we need to look a whole more redeemed before they will believe in our redeemer.

Of course, the radical Muslims who perpetrate terrorism will probably never be convinced of our sincerity, because they do not want to be. They want to hate us because they can not tolerate anyone who is different from them — I know many Christians who would fall into this category as well. It is horribly sad how hatred is excused by religion and God is used to serve human purposes, rather than the other way around. But there are a vast majority of Muslims who would welcome Christian brothers and sisters as fellow children of the one God in peace and mutual love. And I believe that most Christians would welcome Muslims as Jesus taught us to do.

So do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? The answer is not a simple one. Beyond any philosophy, spirituality or religion, there is only one God who is the same. In ultimate reality, God is one and the same. But the truth is that we do not all worship God the same. Different religions approach God in different ways with different emphasis and focuses. So that it appears to our human perception that we do not worship the same God. But beyond our limited human senses and finite imagination, there is only one God — the same universal and eternal God of all.

The God of Islam and the Christian God look enough alike to make dialogue possible between our faiths, but the differences explain our disputes. And we will continue to be at odds with each as long as we continue to make God into our own image, rather to make ourselves into the image of God. As long as we stare at ourselves, we can not see God — or other people as our brother and sister. We must all realize that God is greater than we are and all our imaginings.

The former prime minister of Israel, Golda Mier, was asked when violence between Arabs and Jews would end. She replied that it would end when people loved their children more than hating each other. I think God would agree with that. I think it would also be true if we all loved God more than our particular way of worshipping. God is bigger than our worship.