I just returned from Baghdad where I chaired some of the meetings for the Arab League on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. I met several Europeans from countries like Spain and France, who were avowed atheists from these Catholic countries. You might call them Catholic Atheists. I mean, they weren't Catholic in any meaningful way, but that was their heritage.
I've recently spent time with some evangelical Christian leaders here in the West who are pretty sure the Bible is a story-book (although a very good story book) and that hell isn't real and that Jesus' death on the cross was an important point of history but maybe not entirely the event that saves us. And they still call themselves "evangelical."
Ah, the problem of words.
I've lived with and near Muslims since 1983. If you ask any Muslim, "Do you believe in Jesus?" 100 percent will say yes. Some will quickly qualify that "yes" with something like, "We believe in all the prophets." And others will note some of Jesus' great attributes found in the Quran -- he was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, worked miracles, called the Word of God and other impressive things. I have found many who will speak in hushed tones out of their great respect of this prophet and messiah -- Jesus Christ.
Some Muslims will even say they "follow Jesus." They follow his way, or his teachings or his path. There are ample scriptures in the Quran about "the straight path" and if followed carefully it's notable that they often refer to the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
One such Muslim is my friend Mo Sabri. Mo is a Pakistani-American who studies pre-medicine at university in Tennessee. He's written and performed the following song clearly entitled "I Believe in Jesus."
Some of my Christian friends have watched it and made comments like "Praise the Lord, he must now be a Christian." (He's not -- he's a Muslim). Others have said "How can he be a Muslim and say he follows Jesus?" Still others have been more challenging and say things like "He has to choose. Either he truly follows and believes in the biblical Jesus or he's a Muslim and going to hell." (Don't you love those kinds of people? At least you know where they stand!)
Language is a challenge.
When we say someone "follows Jesus," what exactly do we mean? I grew up in the church. My dad's a pastor. I've been in professional Christian leadership as a pastor or a missionary for most of my adult life. I'm ordained and all. I grew up calling myself a "Christian." If you asked me when I converted, I would proudly be able to tell you the exact moment. Our church gave altar calls regularly and people would come forward to sign up -- that way we all knew that they had made a clear and public "proclamation of faith" to become a Christian. And often these moments were very real and powerful. Even life-changing. So I don't want to totally dismiss such actions. That's how we "got saved."
But in later years, starting around 30 years old, I began to question this practice as the main or even only way of knowing, loving and following Jesus. If you asked me (and you should) "Carl, when did you actually start following Jesus?" It would be a much harder question to answer. Because it's a vague question. The problem is not with the word "Jesus," it's with the concept of "following." What does it mean to follow?
I think there are three kinds of followers. You can see them in the Scriptures and we see them today.
The Crowds. They follow at a distance. They're interested for sure. They might like God. Or maybe admire Jesus. They go to Church at Christmas and Easter or they attend the Mosque during certain festivals (Eids). Jesus loved the crowds. He didn't rebuke them. In fact, he encouraged them. He called them. He fed them, healed them and loved them.
There were also the curious. They came from the crowd, but went a little further. They snuck out at night to meet Jesus. They asked him tricky questions trying to corner him -- or maybe, just wanting to see what his answer would be -- knowing all along he couldn't be tricked. These curious were very close to the Kingdom of God.
Finally, there was (and is) the committed. They followed Jesus because they believed in him. They adored him. They were ready to stand up and say, "I am with Jesus." You know, like Peter. Oops. I mean, like Peter on a good day.
You see, even defining "following" this way isn't perfect. Peter was Jesus' Rock. The one who got the right answer just before the Cross -- that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of God (which the Quran affirms by the way). And yet after the cross Peter denies even knowing Jesus -- let alone, following him.
We like concrete answers. Especially Westerners. We want to know who is in and who is out. We love the language of "Are you saved?" It's a yes-or-no question. But Jesus seemed to handle ambiguity fairly well. He called us to follow him then and he does the same now. And where that goes -- how about we let God be the judge of that.
This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.