"We can indeed learn from the traditions of the world's faiths, not only about their beliefs, but also about our own."
When I started thinking about this sermon, it seemed to me that what the title called for was not just one, but a whole course of sermons, and that I was not qualified to preach any of them. However, I was fortunate enough to attend a special celebration, almost exactly two years ago. It was organized by Westminster Interfaith, to mark the new millennium with readings about Jesus, not from Christian sources, but from writers of other faiths: from the Qur'an to religious leaders of our own day such as the Dalai Lama. It is not only Christians who have drawn inspiration from the life of Jesus.
The secretary of an inter-faith group received a telephone call from a woman from a local church. "We don't get out much any more, we're all in our eighties, but we'd love to have a Muslim speaker who can tell us all about Islam." The secretary put her in touch with a speaker, but about a week before the date of the meeting she received another phone call. "We're really looking forward to Mrs Khan coming, but there's just one thing. We're all Church of England, but none of us believes in the Virgin birth, and we understand that Muslims do. Will she be very offended?"
The Qu'ran does indeed tell of the message of the angel to Mary. Joseph does not seem to play a part in the story; Mary gives birth alone, and when the people accuse her of having "brought an amazing thing," she points to the baby, who speaks in her defence.
They said, 'How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?' He said, 'I am indeed a servant of God. He has given me revelation and made me a prophet. He has made be blessed wheresoever I be, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He has made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again.
The Qu'ran also honours Jesus as a worker of miracles, while making it clear that his wonders are the works of God:
Then will God say: 'O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount my favour to you and to your mother. Behold! I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you did speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught you the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel. And behold! You made out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and you breathed into it, and it became a bird by My leave, and you healed those born blind, and the lepers, by My leave. And behold! You brought forth the dead by My leave. And behold! I did restrain the Children of Israel from violence to you, when you showed them the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said: "This is nothing but evident magic."'
I found that this passage helped me to come to terms with the miracles, and the key is one that it is not mentioned in the bible, though it comes from early Christian tradition. According to the story, Jesus as a little boy of 5 made sparrows out of clay and breathed into them, and they flew away. I had thought that this story showed the young Jesus as rather too much of an apprentice wonder-worker - a bit like Harry Potter. In the light of the Qu'ran, I see it, rather, as a parable of that life which was in Jesus, who came so that we might know what it is to enjoy life in all its abundance.
For all the great honour it ascribes to Jesus, the Qu'ran condemns two central teachings of Christianity: the crucifixion, and the divinity of Christ. Muslims, and Jews, have difficulty in understanding how Christians can claim to believe in one God while talking as if there are three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. According to the Qu'ran, it is absurd that God should have a son, and an offense to suggest that God would allow his prophet to suffer the shameful death of crucifixion. The Qu'ran was given to Muhammad, on its own account, because the words of Moses and Jesus had been misunderstood.
Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu, and for him the problem with Christianity was its claim of exclusivity. He could not believe that Jesus was the 'only son of God,' nor accept that 'only those who believed in Jesus would have everlasting life' For him, Jesus was a great teacher, and, in his teaching of non-retaliation, 'a beautiful example of the perfect man.' Gandhi's Christmas message has much to teach us about what it means to follow Christ:
As long as it remains a hunger still unsatisfied, as long as Christ is not yet born, we have to look forward to him. When real peace is established, we will not need demonstrations, but it will be echoed in our life, not only in individual life but in corporate life. Then shall we say Christ is born. Then we will not think of a particular day in the year as that of the birth of Christ, but as an ever-recurring event which can be enacted in every life... It consists in the living of life, never ceasing, ever progressing towards peace. When therefore, one wishes "Happy Christmas" without the meaning behind it, it becomes nothing more than an empty formula. And unless one wishes for peace for all life, one cannot wish for peace for oneself. It is a well-evident axiom like the Axioms of Euclid, that one cannot have peace unless there is an intense longing for peace all round. You may certainly experience peace in the midst of strife, but that only happens when to remove strife you destroy your whole life, you crucify yourself. And so, as the miraculous birth is an eternal event, so is the cross an eternal event in this stormy life. Therefore, we dare not think of birth without death on the cross. Living Christ means a living cross, without it life is living death.
So Gandhi accepts the crucifixion as an essential part of his understanding of Jesus. He also addresses that central tension of Christianity: God's kingdom has already come, but it has not yet come. In the words of the Lord's prayer: "Your kingdom come; For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever."
Many of the contributors to Celebrating Jesus came, like Gandhi, from the Indian subcontinent or from the Indian religious traditions. Some write of Jesus as a divine manifestation alongside Krishna and the Buddha. The Sikh statesman Dr Gopal Singh wrote an extended poem, The Man Who Never Died, which won the approval of the Pope as speaking of Christ in a way that Christians had failed to do in two thousand years. The Dalai Lama, who responded to Pope John Paul II's invitation 'to come together and pray and fast for peace' at Assisi in 1986, sees parallels in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But for my third reading I have chosen an extract from a poem by Sri Chinmoy, founder and leader of a religious tradition related to Hinduism and based on meditation, in his book Brother Christ.
I see an empty church.
Where is the Christ?
Where has he gone?
I see an empty temple.
Where is Sri Krishna?
Where has he gone?
I see an empty heart.
Where is God?
Where has He gone?
I saw the face
Of the suffering Christ.
I cried and cried.
I felt the heart
Of the forgiving Christ.
I smiled and smiled.
I clasped the soul
Of the illumining Christ.
I danced and danced.
Sri Chinmoy illuminates the paradox of our age: the abandonment of formal religion, witnessed by empty churches and death-of-God theology, while at the same time there in an intense spiritual thirst. His response in this poem, however, is not to deny the revelation of God in Jesus, but to take inspiration through meditation on Jesus.
The CMS missionary Max Warren once said that whenever you encounter anyone, of any faith or none, you are standing on holy ground; God has been there before you. The readings we have heard this morning show that we can indeed learn from the traditions of the world's faiths, not only about their own beliefs, but also about our own - sometimes because we find ourselves in agreement with them, sometimes because clarifying our disagreement helps us to understand how it is that God speaks to us. Like the pilgrim entering the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we enter into dialogue humbly and with bowed heads.
I finish with the world peace prayer, originally from the Hindu Upanishads, then popularized by Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and frequently used at interfaith gatherings.
Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.
The quotations from the Holy Qu'ran translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, from Mahatma Gandhi's The Message of Jesus Christ, and from Sri Chinmoy's Brother Christ, are taken from Celebrating Jesus, edited by Daniel Faivre et al., and published by Daniel Faivre SG, 2 Church Avenue, Southall, Middx., 1999.