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June 7, 2014 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday in Christian churches around the world when the birth of the Church is celebrated.  Last week I observed that this celebration is not a celebration of the achievement of those first believers.  It is rather a time to thank God for the miracle of his presence and power that birthed the Church beginning at Jerusalem and moving across the Roman world in merely decades.

By the time of the close of the Book of Acts, about the year 60 AD, there were Christian congregations from Babylon to Rome and from the Roman province of Asia to Egypt and Ethiopia.  The major cities of Syria, Italy, Greece, and North Africa had been evangelized.  The Christian faith had even entered the households of Roman rulers.  This was only thirty years from the death of Jesus in Jerusalem, and is only the beginning of an astounding story of growth.

However, it needs to be understood that this amazing growth was not attributed to outstanding leaders.  It was the work of God.  From the very beginning Jesus had taught his followers that they would have a mission to take the good news of the Kingdom to the nations of the world, but that they could not accomplish it without the Holy Spirit.  It would essentially be a work of God through the obedient service of the believers.  The followers of Jesus were to tell the story.  They were to put out the invitation to believe and join the family of the forgiven.  From then on it was God’s turn.  In the words of the liturgical church, “Salvation is created.”  Those who entered the Kingdom through the new birth would be “born, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13).”

I have been reading a volume in the field of Islamic theology.  One of the values of such a pursuit is that many aspects of my own Christian faith become clearer in the contrast.

Islam was born in Mecca and Medina beginning in 610 AD.  Muhammad’s original thrust was against the idolatry of the native Arab population of Arabia.  He had exposure to Jewish and Christian populations in the area.  He was in the caravan trade and was exposed to Christian thinking over a wider area, although he himself was illiterate.  No Jew or Christian would argue over his repulsion from the paganism of Mecca.  His rejection of the gods of his culture was not well accepted in Mecca, and Muhammad was forced to flee to Medina in 622 AD.  In Islam this is remembered as the Hijara, and marks the first year on the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad was better received in Medina, and took advantage of the situation by organizing raids on caravans from Mecca.  This fits the Bedouin ethos of pillage and plunder, which was at least one of the normal ways of making a living in a desolate desert climate.  These confrontations led to a series of battles with Mecca.  He was able to return to Mecca in 628 AD. Here he was able to raise a larger army for the conquest of the entire Arabian Peninsula before his death in 632.

The beginnings of Islam were characterized by a battle with pagan idolatry.  However, the battle was fought, not with the inward persuasion of God’s Holy Spirit but with the sword.   The gracious presence of a loving God was not evident in this growth.  What was present was a brutal slaying of whole populations of those who resisted “Submission,” which is the meaning of Islam.   The “Sunna” or the “way” of Muhammad is the pattern of life pursued by each Islamic believer.  It defines our current situation.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs