I was a youth pastor for six years in East Burnswick, New Jersey. The town had a Jewish population of 40%. There were numerous Christian churches in town and four Jewish temples. There were about 10 Jewish high-schoolers in our youth group, as well as, a few Buddhists and Muslims. It was during my time as a youth pastor that I personally encountered a diverse religious population, not to mention all those who were simply indifferent towards any faith tradition or practice. It was from this context that I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on the relationship of the Christian faith to other faiths. Sunday night youth group could be very challenging as these students asked difficult questions about the Christian faith. The tone and atmosphere of the group, however, was open, friendly, and inviting. I loved the questions. The Jewish kids asked why we Christians believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. The Buddhists wanted to know what difference being a Christian would make in their life. The Muslims found Jesus very attractive, but said that the price of converting was very high indeed.
We live in a different world than the 1st Century Christians. In the letter to the Church at Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, things were not so friendly or lovely between Christians and those of other faiths, especially the Christian relationship with the Jews. NT Wright points out that at the time, Christians and Jews were not clearly distinct faiths. Christians were a sect of Judaism. The feud between Christians and Jews was a family feud. We sometimes forget that fact. Some very harsh things are said about the non-Jesus-believing Jews here. The Jewish temple in town is referred to as ‘the satan-synagogue.’ The Jews who attend that synagogue are called ‘frauds.’ Jesus says in this letter that when He comes, He will make them bow down. They will know that Jesus loves those who are not afraid to name Him as their Messiah and Lord. Jesus is confident and sends a word of triumph to those who endure to the end. It is interesting to note that Jesus does not tell the Church at Philadelphia to take up arms, form a military, or retaliate in any way. As ‘little christs,’ the Christians at Philadelphia were to lay down their lives just as Jesus had done. After receiving water baptism and baptism by the Holy Spirit, they were now to be baptized by the blood of martyrdom. How different has been the response of Christians since they rose to power in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century. Instead of being persecuted, they persecuted others. This is the checkered past of Christendom. We have much to apologize for. I wonder what our present relationship with Islam would be if instead of engaging them in war, we embraced the cross and endured the baptism of martyrdom by blood? Justin Martyr, a 2nd Century Church Father, once noted that: “The blood of martyrs is the lifeblood of the Church.” I don’t know if I possess the courage for martyrdom. Nonetheless, the promise of Jesus to the Church of Philadelphia is ours to claim: “Anyone who conquers, I will make them a pillar in the temple of my God” (v. 12).