Sharing Faith and Participating with God's Mission with People of Other Faiths

Jeff Ritchie and Jeff Horen

Jeff Ritchie and Jeff Horen

by Jeff Ritchie

My friendship with Jeff Horen goes back to our days in junior high in Louisville, Kentucky. Our birthdays are two days apart. We were inseparable in high school where we specialized in “creative play” to the consternation of our teachers. During class we surreptitiously played “dots.” In breaks between classes we played paper-wad basketball (the “goal” was the trash can in our classroom). Outside of class we had an on-going rivalry in ping-pong and backyard basketball. We had a special connection which we have kept through the years since high school.

My friend Jeff is an Orthodox Jew, and I am a Christian. We have talked about matters of faith for decades, but the past year the conversation has gone deeper. We began a year-long exploration of the metanarratives of our respective faiths; I asked him what the big story is that shapes his life as an Orthodox Jew, and he asked me to do the same for my life as a Christian. The impact of our efforts has been transformative for me, as I hope it has been for him. 

It has been quite a challenge to put down on paper a coherent narrative that could encapsulate the Christian metanarrative for a friend who has a working knowledge of the Bible but whose interpretive lens for the Christian narrative is Christians he knows and the stories he has read of how Christians have behaved toward the Jews through the centuries. Part of my journey with Jeff this year has included reading a primer on antisemitism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? Through it I was reminded that vitriolic language against Jews, forced conversions, persecution, and pogroms were not limited to “evil people” like Hitler and the Nazis but included “saints” as well – for example, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, and Martin Luther. It has been quite a humbling year for me.  

On the positive side, the year was also an opportunity for me to step inside a Jewish way of describing the world. My friend Jeff introduced me to some of the greats of the Jewish tradition, people like Maimonides from the 12th century and Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom from 2005-2013. Both men, living 900 years apart, have modeled an engagement of the distilled Jewish wisdom of the centuries and the wisdom of the non-Jewish world in their efforts to guide the Jewish people in matters of faith and practice.

Particularly impressive was the book by Rabbi Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. There were some immediate takeaways from the book, and it has inspired me to go deeper in the new year and take on the “global challenge” he offers on his website: “Join Rabbi Sacks' global challenge to inspire a new generation of Jewish leaders and deepen the conversation between Torah and the wisdom of the world.” My personal commitment for 2018 is to look at the perspectives, the lenses, through which all kinds of people see the world and engage them with the perspective of Jesus as I understand it.

One of those perspectives is regarding the multitude of ways in which followers of Jesus can participate with God who is building his kingdom on earth “as it is in heaven.” There are some things that the Church, as Church, uniquely does. We alone share the good news that in Jesus God has come to redeem the world. His life, death, resurrection and second coming are the mighty acts by which God sets the world to rights and brings the kingdom of heaven on earth.

But my journey into Judaism through reading deeply faithful people like Rabbi Sacks has reinforced what Presbyterians have long understood regarding other aspects of mission, especially missions of compassion, mercy and justice. The call to missions like these comes not only to Christians but also to people of other faiths or to people who describe themselves as non-religious. In response to God’s call, Christians and non-Christians alike may be found on Habitat for Humanity work crews, in refugee camps vaccinating children against malaria, working in homeless shelters, caring for senior citizens, and working to reform our criminal justice system. 

In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility,  Rabbi Sacks uses a phrase from the Jewish tradition to describe these “works of the kingdom.” It is “tikkun olam,” which may be paraphrased, “the mending of the torn fabric of the world.” The world as described by the Bible, which both Jews and Christians acknowledge as God’s word, is a broken, fractured world. In To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks calls on all people, beginning with his people, to participate in the mending of this world in large and small ways. 

Many Christians share this perspective as well. A document of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 2003 speaks of the value of doing mission in partnership with others who share a common vision of alleviating the suffering and brokenness in the world: 

Knowing the breadth of God’s love for the world, we affirm that there are different forms of partnership with different patterns of cooperation. We may join around a common goal with other churches, with secular organizations or with other faith communities. In any case, work for the common good extends partnership – and the service of God’s mission – to all people. (Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership, p. 2)

Christians may initiate mission partnerships with people of other faiths or no faiths, or we may add our kingdom perspective to that of others who approach a broken part of the world from a different motivation and together seek to heal that part of the human or natural fabric so that it more reflects God’s intention. As we enter 2018, may we be attentive to the Spirit of God both to hear what God is calling us to do and with whom God is calling to work, all for the sake of the prayer we pray each Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The game of "dots"

The game of "dots"

Jeff Ritchie
Mission Advocate
The Outreach Foundation

The Outreach Foundation