A friend raised the question “Does a Muslim have to stop being a Muslim in order to be a Christian?” I suppose there are two answers. In the later years of Christianity it became a political question when an Emperor said you have to choose between being a Jew and a Christian. But I think the real answer is given in the Christian Scripture’s New Testament book of Acts.
In the early part of Acts the only people following the risen Jesus where Jews. They were called the people of The Way. Every town had a main street called The Way that led to the temple where the local God was present. So the people of The Way followed Jesus’ teachings as The Way to be in God’s presence. They believed there is only one God, the God of the Jews who is the father of every nation. Jesus taught his followers to pray to “Our Father.” The followers were students, “disciples,” of Jesus’ teachings. None of the Jews stopped being Jews in order to be Jesus’ students and followers.
A few years later at Antioch outsiders began to call the people of The Way, Christians.
Calling them Christians complicated the question about identity.
About the same time, God was taking action. Peter was sleeping on a rooftop of a non-kosher home, hungry and waiting for dinner when he had an ecstatic experience. Three times he dreamed of God telling him to eat non-kosher food. Peter protested, he had never eaten food considered “unclean.” God told him that he should not call unclean that which God had called clean. Three Gentile men knocked on the door. The Holy Spirit (a gift by God to Jesus’ followers) told him to go with these men.Their employer was an Roman captain of 100 men, a Gentile. His name was Cornelius. He was a devout man who feared God, gave alms and prayed constantly. God had sent a messenger to him directing him to contact Peter in Joppa at Simon the Tanner’s house and invite Peter to his home. Peter had come with six of his Jewish friends. He had come to this Gentile home only because God told him to do so. It was against the custom of the Jews to enter Gentile homes.
Cornelius told Peter he wanted to hear what God had commanded Peter to say. Peter opened his mouth and said, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35).” He went on to tell about Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. While he was still talking, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word (Acts 10:44).” Peter and the other Jews with him were amazed that God had given the Gentiles the same gift that they had received on the day of Pentecost. They decided the Gentiles could be baptized. They went back to Jerusalem to the leadership group and reported all this to them. The leaders were glad that Gentiles could be part of The Way.
In Acts 15 we see that there were still Jewish members of The Way who thought Gentiles have to become Jews and keep the Torah Law to be part of the movement. There was a big argument about it. The matter was taken to a leadership conference in Jerusalem where it was decided, based on what God was doing among the Gentiles and on their Covenant scripture, that Gentiles do not have to become Jews, but they did ask them not to eat what has been sacrificed to idols, or blood or strangled meat and to be chaste. A letter detailing the instructions was sent to the troubled congregation.
Paul, messenger to the Gentiles, states in his letter to the Ephesian congregation in 3:14 that he “bows his knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…”
I conclude from the messages in the record of the early church that people do not have to become something that they are not, to be followers of Jesus. Jews do not have to leave Judaism to follow Jesus, Muslims do not have to leave Islam to follow Jesus, nor does anyone have to become something else before following Jesus. Each of us is accepted as we are. All of us are invited to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God as our spiritual worship or service (and) be transformed by the renewal of our minds that we may test and discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2 English Standard Version). We each become a new creation in Jesus. We all are invited to the Lord’s table as one body where there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
There is a hymn our little neighborhood congregation sang when I was a child titled “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny Crosby. It has two verses that begin with “Perfect Submission.” All who desire to submit to God as Our Father can claim Jesus and the promises God made through Jesus.
The United Methodist Hymnal Number 369
Text: Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915
Music: Phoebe P. Knapp, 1839-1908
Tune: ASSURANCE, Meter: 9 10.9 9 with Refrain
1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
angels descending bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
3. Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
watching and waiting, looking above,
filled with his goodness, lost in his love.
We do not have to change to follow Jesus. As we follow Jesus we will become more like what God wants us to be and fulfill our purpose in this life.