“Jesus (peace be upon him) is unambiguously mentioned over 25 times in the Qur’an,” the young Imam explained to us at the Raleigh Islamic Center this week. “This is many more times than even the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).”
I was learning this in a very unique context – about 30 Christians and 30 Muslims got together Wednesday night for an unusual act of friendship: Sharing our distinctive understandings on Jesus, and sharing a meal.
Apparently, sharing meals in the manner of Jesus is controversial then as it is now: When I posted, later that night, on my Facebook Wall about what a great time I had, my online ‘friend’ count immediately went down. In the past, when I’d posted a positive story (or even neutral observation) regarding Islam, huge fights would break out on my Wall. Once-civilized Christians would say the most ignorant and hurtful things. I’ve had some painful-but-necessary online connection-purges since the initial e-skirmishes a year or so ago, but judging by the self-selection, it looks like I may have missed a few people.
In my more intemperate moments I get fired up – like Paul does in Galatians 2. How can these fellow-Christians and I have anything in common? “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves,” Paul states flatly of boundary-drawing, rule-imposing Christians in verse four. But! “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
For Paul the Gospel can be summed up in a word: Reconciliation. The good news is that a cantankerous humanity and a divided world has already been reconciled to God via the downward mobility of an incarnate, ascended, indwelling Christ. Now we get to actualize this divine reality as ambassadors of this reconciliation – making things on earth as they are ‘in heaven.’
What shape might the Gospel take in today’s pluralist world? How is this similar to the shape the Gospel took in Paul’s pluralist world? How does meal-sharing reflect both?
Christians interacting with the ‘wrong people’ – especially while sharing a bite to eat – seems to rankle religiously-minded people today as much as it did in Paul’s day. It reminds me of the heat Brian McLaren took a couple of years back when he decided to observe the fasting and feasting of the Muslim holy season of Ramadan; and more recently, the threats an Episcopal Priest faced who decided to observe Islamic prayer during Lent. Crossing boundaries to eat like Jesus is risky business.
Which brings me back to the Raleigh Islamic Center. The main Imam speaking that night – a young, energetic, Egyptian guy – further explained to us that his expression of Islam has a Hadith (number 7015 to be exact) which prominently features Jesus. In this end-times scenario, Jesus leads a great, disturbing battle (not unlike the great, disturbing battles contained in Christian eschatology), after which he presides over a feast with Islamic multitudes:
Allah will send rain which no house of clay or camels’ hairs would keep out; it will wash away the earth until it could appear to be a mirror. Then the earth will be told to bring forth its fruit and restore its blessing and, as a result, there would grow (such a big) pomegranate that a group of persons would be able to eat it, and seek shelter under its skin. Cows will give so much milk that a whole party would be able to drink it.
Jesus, feasting with Muslims at their great eschatological banquet!? A troubling thought to many Christians – religious folk who like to color inside the lines. But wouldn’t it be just like Jesus? The nerve of him, eating with a group that (our) organized religion deems ‘outsiders’? And yet, outsiders in Jesus’ day often became his closest friends and most dedicated followers. Jesus wasn’t picky: Sex workers, government stooges, heretics, even alleged terrorists…these are the kinds of people welcomed to Jesus’ table in the Gospels.
There’s always the question, though, of what shape a world-changing movement will take after the baton is passed from its revolutionary initiator to the next generation. We know full well that many Christians through the ages have ‘fenced’ God’s Eucharistic table, building barriers instead of bridges to an increasingly notional meal – the gradually diminishing breadcrumbs and shot glasses serving an almost prophetic witness against our religious OCD of trying to determine who’s in and who’s out of God’s New Deal.
So – what of Paul, that oft-misunderstood apostle of grace? When he’s put to the acid test in Galatians, will he dumb down Jesus’ shalom demonstration of radically-inclusive table fellowship? We gather from chapter 2 that the great Peter, tragically, already has. Peter – friend of Jesus, rough fisherman, mystic sage and mighty healer – Peter, the veritable ‘rock’ of Christendom! Peter, who was shown great grace by Jesus after his famous three-fold denial, and who was dragged kicking-and-screaming (but ultimately willingly) to inclusion of the ‘great unwashed’ Gentile Christ-followers after witnessing a dramatic heavenly vision (See Acts 10, and also Eric Elnes’ masterful interpretation of this powerful vision in chapter five of his The Phoenix Affirmations). The vision Peter saw while in a trance explicitly tied the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of faith with eating their food – food previously deemed ‘unclean’ in Jewish culture. And yet in Galatians 2, Paul sadly (and a bit snarkily) tells of Peter’s stunning culinary reversal:
But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile ‘sinners’; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul, at least in this stage of his life, called baldfaced hypocrisy when he saw it. Peter couldn’t live up to the stringent interpretations of Judaism that certain legalistic Jewish Christians were advocating – Paul excelled at this for awhile but gave it up after he saw what kind of a person it made him – why on earth would Peter now be putting this Buick-sized burden on these nice, innocent pagan folk?
Paul knew that to follow Jesus means to follow him into eating with the unlikliest of people for the sake of the gospel of reconciliation. And he also knew that the temptation to deviate from this lifestyle was great – that if Peter could turn his back on scandalous grace, any of us could! This is why Paul sees being grounded and rooted in the Spirit as far surpassing the fruit yielded by a life grounded in slavish imitation of religious standards. It is in this section of his letter to the Galatians that Paul gives his famous coda, treasured by prophets and mystics alike through the ages:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Here I like the King James translation – not only faith in Jesus, which is affirmed elsewhere, but the very faith of Jesus – the living Christ, resurrected in us as we recognized our dying in him. This is the heart of the Christian mystery: In dying before we die, we recognize an eternal kind of life that sprouts in the here and now. This new-creation life replaces our old identifications and allegiances, so that we’re empowered to follow Christ into brave new feasts with the most interesting table companions.
That’s why, after losing some online connections, I posted later that night:
A note to my Facebook peeps: I’ve been known to share meals with Muslims, Neopagans, queer folk, & even people who live outside – & I tend to ENJOY their company immensely. Because I tend to eat rather often (I mean, look at me), I find myself eating with people A LOT. There are unique blessings that flow from breaking bread with those different than us; but if this bothers you, you can ‘unfriend’ me & I won’t be offended.
A little snarky, perhaps – but in the service of wider grace and greater empathy, I’d like to think Paul would approve.