1 Corinthians 13 is presented to us as an interpretive lens, a way to discern what is most important in our faith and life. As such, it is a very important passage of Scripture. Similarly, one of my professors taught us that if a story in Scripture is repeated, that is a way of signalling that it is important.
There is one story that is repeated three times in a single book of the New Testament: I don’t know of any other story of which that is true. It is told once by the narrator (Acts 10) and then Peter recounts the story twice more (Acts 11 and 15) in the context of crucial gatherings/councils of the early church. We should pay attention to this story; in some ways it is the centrepiece of the book of Acts and is the primary influence in some very key decisions of the early church.
It’s a story of Peter being called by God to break God’s laws: the purity laws that said Peter shouldn’t share a meal with Gentiles. It’s a story of the church deciding, at God’s leading, to break laws around religious identity and purity, by allowing Gentiles to be part of the church without keeping the whole of Biblical law. But maybe for our purposes here it is most importantly a story about Peter taking God and the gospel to a group of Gentiles and discovering that God was already there. The Law as Peter understood it indicated that God should only be present where the Law was acknowledged and followed – but here in Cornelius’ household God was very much present, the Spirit was very much active, even though the Law was being broken, and long before Peter arrived to preach any gospel. Sure, Peter preached his sermon (that was what he went to do) but he also paid attention, he listened to the experience of the people to whom he went, he respected the experience and spirituality of those to whom he went.
Peter went to evangelize Cornelius’ household, but it was mainly Peter and the early church that were changed. In many respects, Cornelius and his household continued as before; it was the church that changed direction – repented.
Once again, it would be a legitimate objection to say that both Peter and Cornelius acknowledged Jesus as Lord, so this is not necessarily applicable to an inter-faith situation. But at this time, Peter very likely thought of himself as a Jew who followed Jesus, so at the very least, his whole conception of what faithful religion looked like was expanded. That may not be so different from the interfaith experience after all.
Paul’s encounter at the Areopagus in Athens, though, was very definitely an interfaith experience. You can find this story in Acts 17. On the one hand, the competition of religions is clearly here: “[Paul] was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” His sermon definitely calls his hearers to a particularly Christian perspective, in asking people to acknowledge the primary importance of the resurrection of Jesus. But the sermon as a whole also places all religions and all religion on a very even footing: we all have a common ancestor, we all search and grope and perhaps find God, in God we all “live and move and have our being,” and we are all God’s offspring. And at no time can God be confined to “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” And some of our best teachers (John of the Cross, for instance) have been pretty clear that any mental image of God, including ours, is one formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
We Christians may think we are right – that we have been privileged to receive and understand the definitive revelation of God and God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But here are two key Biblical stories that remind us that God’s love, God’s revelation, God’s presence, and God’s Spirit are not confined to our religion. Anywhere we go, and anyone with whom we speak, God has always arrived first. And not simply in some proto-Christian, rudimentary way that enables a hearer to receive and accept our word. God is present at a depth that will – if we have ears to hear – teach us, change us, perhaps even cause us to repent and change direction.
How does the old proverb go? Remember that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth. Evangelism that does not use our ears and is not prepared to learn is not Christian.