Partaking in Each Other's Faith Journeys
by Kristyn Komarnicki
A number of years ago, I was invited to represent Christianity (as if!) to a class on faith and justice at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. The students had already hosted a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Muslim. Nervous and not at all sure how to prepare for the class, I asked God to help me articulate how my faith influences my understanding of justice and gives direction to my personal, work, and civic life. At one point, while explaining how my experience of divine forgiveness has shaped my understanding of its importance in transforming human lives, I referred (rather glibly, in retrospect) to the quintessential Christian parable of forgiveness, saying, "Now, you all know the story of the Prodigal Son, right?"
Well, as it turned out, very few of them did know the story. As I told it, the students' eyes were focused intently on me, some of them wet with tears. The room was silent, and I was struck anew at the power of the father's unconditional forgiveness and the son's shocked gratitude. Suddenly it was very clear to me that I was on holy ground. Here were Jews who loved God, sought to serve and know him, and were hearing for the first time—just as Jesus' listeners had 2,000 years ago—this poignant parable of transformation through outrageous and unmerited forgiveness. After the class one of the students asked if she and I could meet for coffee in the coming week.
That remains one of my most memorable experiences of evangelism. I went with no higher hope than to avoid making a fool of myself (and the entire Christian faith!), with no plan to persuade or dazzle my audience. And I did little more than share the words of Jesus. The result was that I myself was evangelized, right there along with my Jewish brothers and sisters, by Christ's message of eternal and soul-rocking love. By the grace of God, and in spite of my own self-centered preoccupations, hearts were touched—including mine.
I knew I was on to something—the power of examining God's truth in the presence of people whose backgrounds and spiritual training are very different from mine. So when I was offered the opportunity to participate in a Jewish/Christian study of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) at that same college a year later, I pounced on it. Seven Christians were paired with seven rabbinical students—men and women ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s. Our professors, Melissa Heller from the rabbinical college and Nigerian-born Emmanuel Itapson from Palmer Theological Seminary, instructed us to share ourselves, our stories, and our understanding of the Scriptures with our study partner and at the same time to suspend our points of view in order to truly hear the heart of our partner. We were urged not to preach to each other but to partake in each other's faith journey.
"Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths," writes Tim Keller.
At our final meeting, after sharing a meal, Scripture study, and discussion, we formed a circle. Each of us stood in turn to exchange a verbal blessing with our neighbor and to pour water over each other's hands and gently dry them. The sacredness of this joyful and tender ceremony was palpable to all of us, and it was clear by the hugs and phone number swaps at the end of our seaso together that many deep connections had been forged and that we had all been both stretched and enriched beyond our expectations.
The result of this Bible study was that what was once a small ache has become a full-blown yearning: I need to have more Jews in my life (and, by extension, more Muslims, Buddhists, atheists)! Not so that I can convince them of Christ's divinity, but so that I can learn from them and with them—so that God can transform all of us—together. (Many thanks to Samir Selmanovic for giving me the words to articulate what I had heretofore only been able to sense.)
I realize that this is not—or not yet—a popular view of evangelism! And yet it is the very view taken by the Author of our faith. As Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God, "Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths." Because Christians believe that all humans are made in the image of God, says Keller, we can acknowledge that non-Christians are capable of goodness and wisdom. Conversely, Christians know they are saved not by their superior spirituality but by grace; therefore, we do not expect ourselves to be better than others and should be disarmingly humble.
Pastor Selmanovic, who started life as an ethnically Muslim atheist, says, "I became a follower of Christ because a Christian found the footsteps of God in my story and my religion of the time. He loved me by learning about God from my story."
What does evangelism look like in the 21st century? Listening and putting ourselves in a posture to receive. Embodying the message with our very lives. And above all loving people with the scandalous love of a God who humbled himself to death just to prove it.
Kristyn Komarnicki is ESA's director of communications and facilitator of their Oriented to Love dialogues on sexual diversity in the church.