I had an encounter with one of my Muslim students the other day where we spoke of what we each believed about Jesus Christ.
Being a student of history, I (unlike most of the Western world it seems) have not been unaware of the inherent military nature of Islam and the eternal antagonism between it and Christendom, nor yet under the illusion that that antagonism is likely to disappear anytime soon, even if Christendom has lost its faith and the Islamic world most of its teeth. Nevertheless, it was startling to me to be brought face to face and confronted with the source of that antagonism.
There are views and groups in this world who are hostile to each other because they misunderstand each other or treated each other badly at some point. But there are other views and groups who are not hostile because of misunderstandings or maltreatment but rather because they understand each other only too well. The centuries-long conflict between Christianity and Islam is like that.
Yes, I acknowledge that we worship the same God. People who refuse to admit that are simply living in denial. But Who God is: there we fundamentally- fundamentally!- disagree.
Jesus brings this stark difference home. Even if we were to accept what Islam accepts- that He is merely a Prophet (though a great one)- we are confronted by something. Islam says (from what my student told me) that Jesus ascended before the crucifixion, and that God miraculously caused another man to look like Jesus, and it was he who was crucified in Jesus' place- and, moreover, stayed dead. Even, as I say, if we accept that Jesus was a Prophet of God, what kind of Prophet is this, and what kind of God does he represent? This Prophet takes the easy way out. He lets a (possibly innocent) third party suffer for him. God colludes with this and brings it about through miraculous means.
This sticks in my throat, not only because it seems to me unjust, but because it goes against the grain of all that has come before. Sure, there are parts of the Torah and parts of the Tradition where the message is that God will make His people victorious, that they will triumph over their enemies, that if they follow His law all will be well for them and they will prosper. But these are balanced (sometimes outweighed) by other parts, where God takes the part of the downtrodden, where He takes pity on the alien, the widow, the orphan. It flies in the face of the experience of His prophets before Jesus: Moses, who never enjoyed the fruit of his long labours but died on Mt Nebo unsatisfied, Isaiah who was sawn in two, Jeremiah who went from misery to misery and was given a mysterious sharing in the suffering of God Himself. Then (says Islam) along comes Jesus, who gets whisked out of harm's way in the nick of time, lest anything bad happen to him, and some random gets it in the neck instead. It doesn't match.
And what kind of God is this anyway? This is a God for winners only, a God who sides always with the victor against the defeated, a God of the rich, a God of the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie and the upper echelons. For this God suffering and poverty are signs of condemnation.
How different is the Gospel to this? In Christianity, God does not take the easy way out. He enters into suffering, pain, grief, loneliness, loss and death. He drinks all of human anguish and He drinks it to the dregs. He takes no shortcuts, enacts no Deus ex machina. He suffers. He dies. God dies. And then He rises, by His own power, and takes all with Him (or will, at any rate). For this God stands in communion with Man, redeems him from where he is, by being what he is and experiencing what he experiences. This God knows misery intimately. This God knows pain. This God knows what it is to be wronged, to be sinned against, to experience malice and evil. This God knows loneliness and abandonment and mortality.
This is a God worlds away from one Who smiles and sympathises only with the rich, fortunate and powerful. This God loves the powerless, the poor, the miserable, the suffering, the dying and the dead. He has Himself been one of them.
And we are asked to follow Him. Not just follow Him as a teacher, but follow Him where He went. That means we are supposed to suffer, be lonely, be poor, be miserable and powerless. And only to the extent that we are can we say that we are like Him. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9), precisely because lower. He dives deeper than we dare. Where we instinctively desire self-aggrandisement, He abases Himself. Where we hunger to be full, He empties Himself. It is on the Cross that God has delivered the most complete revelation of Himself. We shrink from lack, from loss, from loneliness, bankruptcy, dishonour and humiliation. But it is in those places that we see and know God most completely. It is in those places that He is to be found by those who seek Him. It is in those places that we really come to understand and know Who God is, Who Jesus Christ is.
How easily we miss the significance of this. Humiliation is just as divine as glory and honour. Obedience just as divine as authority. Impotence just as divine as omnipotence.
All our gains must be regarded as loss (Phil 3:7-8), as excrement, in fact (which is what scubola means in that verse). This is no idle saying. We must take it seriously if we are to be His disciples. A paradigm shift is required, against which every fibre of our being rebels and revolts (My ways are higher than your ways). I may have many good things. These indeed may be blessings, and perfectly legitimate goods in which there is no hint of illor temptation or sin. But precisely because they are good and legitimate pleasures, they stand between me and the God revealed in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus, we must give things up to receive them. He always gives them back (though not necessarily in this life), but we must give them up first, and without expecting them back.
The God revealed in Christ Jesus works through the Church throughout history and we see His mark on all things. When Christ died, He won victory over evil, sin, death and suffering and rose to a life that was greater than that in which He died. Likewise, when the Church has sought temporal goods, when things have looked favourable for her, she has tended to lose sight of her Saviour and God. But when she has been oppressed, downtrodden, discriminated against and forces have arrayed against her to destroy her utterly, then she has mirrored Him and been victorious. And new and greater life has emerged- a risen life (or a glimpse of it) to share with the risen Lord. Two recent cases. Post-Revolution French Christianity was dynamic, sent missionaries across the earth and brought forth dozens of saints, one of whom is incorrupt and another of whom is now a Doctor of the Church. Secondly, the post-Soviet Church in Russia is now going from strength to strength, from what I hear. A quote I found some years ago in a history text on Soviet Russia from one of the government officials sums it up: "[Christianity] is like a nail; the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood."
The Church, like her Lord (and this goes for the individual Christian as well), wins by losing. She is victorious only through defeat. Through His shed blood we have redemption; in losing our life, we find it; through defeat and suffering we conquer. Our soldiers are martyrs, and their blood is the seed of the Church. For she imitates her Saviour. Her life is cruciform. And so must mine and yours be.