Muhammad Ali and the Peril of Religious Pluralism

June 12, 2016—The Third Sunday After Trinity

               America’s liberal faith was on proud display this week as we mourned the death of a man hailed almost universally as “the greatest.” If you did not know anything about American history but came to this country recently from another planet, you could be excused for believing that America had just lost its greatest citizen, greatest athlete and greatest man. I’m speaking, obviously, of the death of the boxer, Muhammad Ali, who called himself “the greatest” and was revered by many as being just that.

       Ali was named after his father Cassius Clay Sr., who was himself named after a civil war era Kentucky politician and plantation owner. The original Cassius Clay became a Republican and friend of Abraham Lincoln, who seriously considered putting him on the ticket as his running-mate in 1860. Like Lincoln, Clay was a man of courage who fought for the abolition of slavery. Clay published an abolitionist newspaper and was shot in the chest by Kentucky racists who opposed the abolitionist cause. Clay survived that shooting and many other physical assaults. He continued to fight for racial equality in an age when it was dangerous and violently unpopular to do so. He was no saint but he was on the right side of the abolitionist issue and he showed great courage to take the public stand he took.

       But young Cassius Clay Jr., when he grew up and became a man took a new name for himself and a new faith. He left behind the Baptist faith of his father to join the Nation of Islam, a radical anti-white, intensely anti-Jewish cult. And to further his repudiation of his Christian past he even exchanged the name his father had given him. Apparently unaware that he had been named for a courageous abolitionist; he called his name “a slave name”, and took instead the name Muhammad Ali in honor of the deeply anti-Christian leader of Islam, Mohammad. Ali was a great boxer with a big charismatic personality. His talents in the ring and before the television cameras were exceptional. He was fun and unpredictable to watch. We’ll miss him.

        But I will stop short of calling him “the greatest” or even “great” for one simple reason that should be as obvious as it is offensive to every faithful Christian. There is nothing great in a soul that renounces faith in Jesus Christ and adopts a different religion from the one that Jesus founded. There is nothing to be admired or envied in those who reject the cross of Christ and trade it in for a false symbol of salvation. Our liberal society today sees nothing wrong with doing this. So you outgrow the Christian faith; so you reject Jesus Christ as your savior and find in Mohammad a more inspirational leader; so you find the Islamic faith or Judaism or Buddhism or Bahai to be more true for you; so what of it? It’s a free country. One religion is a good as another. What difference does it make who or what or how you worship. Whoever worships God is doing good; it’s all the same.

       Religious pluralism may be the order of the day in liberal America, but it is not a teaching you will find affirmed anywhere in the Bible. Jesus came into a culture in the Roman Empire that was polytheistic. There were many religious cults worshipping many gods and goddesses. No one cared what cult you preferred. As long as you did not neglect to worship the emperor, it was socially acceptable to worship all the deities if you felt a need to. The only exception to this rule was found in the Jews who were so jealous of the Lord, their God, that they forbid the worship of other gods. The Romans were pragmatic rulers. They saw that short of committing genocide against them, the Jews were never going to change; so they left them alone, not requiring them to worship the emperor.

        Jesus, a Jew, came to Israel proclaiming the good news that in him the kingdom of God had at last come to Israel, that he was Israel’s promised redeemer- king. The Jews rejected him because he was a poor man from a poor neighborhood and his interpretation of the messianic prophecies was unorthodox. At the request of the Jewish priests, the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, crucified him, on the pretext that as a “king” he was a threat to Rome and, therefore, guilty of treason. That is where the story would have ended except that Jesus saved his greatest miracle for the end, raising himself from the dead and appearing to hundreds, winning over thousands of converts to a new faith that soon was called “Christianity.” A faith that though it had its origins in Judaism was very different from Judaism; but for one thing. The Christians were even more stubborn than were the Jews. When it came to paying respect to the deity of the emperor, they would have none of it. The Romans had made an exception to tolerate the Jews but they would not extend that exception to include the Christians. They began instead to persecute them violently trying to kill them off. The early church faced horrible trials. Many of the early bishops were murdered, young virgins were raped and and laymen were viciously brutalized for the crime of being Christian. But they bravely kept the faith knowing that Jesus had said it would be so. In the Sermon on the Mount he warned them of the consequences of following him. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” He said adding, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account; rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven.”(Mt.5.10-11). And again while preaching in the Temple he warned them that, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But those who endure to the end will be saved” (Mk.13.13). You would think that people would have run from Jesus. And yet the early Christians, not thinking of their own comfort embraced rejection and suffering when it was inflicted on them, following the example of Jesus who for the faith bore a cross.

        The conviction of the early Christians is expressed boldly in the letter to the Hebrews. The apostle writing this holy letter pulled no punches in telling the candidates for baptism what was expected of them. He warned these new converts to the faith that, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Heb.6.4-6). In other words, he told them, that being a Christian is not like being a pagan. You cannot be for Jesus one day and not be for him the next. You cannot treat the Christian religion as though it were one religion among many. When you become a Christian, you put away all other religions, recognizing how false they are (Ps.96.5), and you entrust your salvation entirely to Jesus and to no one but Jesus because Jesus alone is the Son of God (Mt.3.17); Jesus alone is humanity’s Savior (Acts 4.12), being uniquely qualified to have died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins (John 3.16). Those who turn their back on him after being baptized lose their salvation (2Pt.2.20-21).

       So the message of the Bible could not be more clear: to be a Christian means to a make a complete, lifetime commitment to Jesus Christ and to keep it. You would think that people in the ancient Roman world with its happy pluralistic paganism would have been turned off to Christianity, a religion strict in its demands, reviled by the rich and persecuted by the establishment. But that was not the case. Surprisingly, the more that Christians were violently attacked, the more people joined their ranks. There was something about Jesus that set people’s hearts on fire with love, a love that they would not compromise. The early Christians were relatively few in number, and the pagan majority looked upon them with great suspicion and hostility; but they insisted, despite the violent opposition that Jesus was the Son of God, that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself had walked this earth incarnate in a man and that he proved it by his resurrection from the dead (Acts 4.5-12). You know the rest of the story. In the year 312, after winning a battle which he believed he won with the help of the God of the Christians, the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the persecution of Christians ceased and Europe soon thereafter became a Christian continent.

       Skip ahead about 1700 years. We see that the world is now very different from what it was in Constantine’s day. Christianity has spread around the globe and everyone everywhere seems to have heard of Jesus. But also the faith of the people who call themselves Christians is not the faith of the first martyrs whose courage and uncompromising conviction won the hearts of ancient Rome. Many Christians today are very relaxed about their faith. You were raised Christian but you want to change and become a Jew or a Moslem, a Mormon or Buddhist, go ahead; what difference does it make as long as you practice charity and live in peace? The liberal attitude seems so wonderfully tolerant and open-minded but it is just the old paganism in disguise, a polytheistic faith that is determined to marginalize Jesus by treating him just like every other god or goddess. But that is the one thing that true Christians will never accept and cannot condone. Our faith is in Jesus Christ and in him alone who died on the cross for our sins (Gal.2.18-21). The way to greatness is not to renounce him but to follow him. It is so much easier to conform to the spirit of the age and be part of the liberal majority. But Jesus never said that to follow him would be easy. “Take up your cross and follow me” he said. Being faithful to Jesus means standing up for him even when everyone else is saying that he’s not really who he claims to be. Keep your faith and hold fast to the confession you made at your baptism (1Tim.6.12).  For as Jesus said,  “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk.8.38).

        If you fall away and renounce your Christian faith, you will receive accolades and kudos from the liberal world; you will be a hero to many, you will be cool and people will say, “You’re the greatest!” But Jesus had a word for those who do that: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”(Mk.8.36) he asked. That’s a question that anyone contemplating abandoning the Christian faith ought to ponder long and hard. Ask anyone who has ever jumped off a cliff; it’s a long way back after taking a drastic leap.

        Americans today are terribly confused about faith and religion. Most have a good heart, want to do right and be great in the sight of God, but few know how to achieve it. Saint Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples were similarly confused. “An argument arose among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest. But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, and said to them,  “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Lk.9.46-48). In other words, the greatest is the one who sees Jesus for who he is and humbly lives as a servant of the king.

        Keep your faith in Jesus Christ and in him alone, and do not be seduced by the liberal age that exalts the doctrine of religious pluralism. There is only one name under heaven by which we may be saved and that is the name of Jesus Christ (Phil.2.10-11). The rest are false pretenders. Jesus said without a hint of reservation, “ Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but who ever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt.10.32-33). I would humbly suggest that, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, those are not words to be casually dismissed as hyperbole.