The former Programme Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches, Clare Amos, explores what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to “the other side”.
Next Sunday’s Gospel reading set for the Common Worship lectionary used in the Church of England is Luke 8:22-25, which recounts the moment when Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go to the other side” (of the Sea of Galilee).
For all three of the writers of the synoptic Gospels (perhaps particularly Mark), Jesus’ requests to his disciples to cross the sea with him are significant points of challenge and also of discovery. It is a risky journey: a storm blows up and almost swamps the boat. Eularia Clarke’s dramatic representation of the scene in which the boat is almost invisible and the terror on the faces is palpable.
Yet it is also as a result of their being willing to accompany Jesus in “crossing to the other side” that the disciples discover something new and vital about Jesus (“Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” 8:25), and that the first tentative steps are taken to extend Jesus’ ministry beyond familiar borders – for “the other side”, in this instance, is clearly Gentile territory.
A willingness to cross to the other side, to go beyond our borders, is fundamental if we wish to share, with Jesus, in God’s mission. In May 2011 at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica, I was privileged to hear Dr Burchell Taylor, a Jamaican Baptist minister speaking about this:
“Let us go to the other side. . . The water in the passage is a troubled border that the disciples must cross in order to spread their message. It is a matter of moving across this border into a territory of strangers and aliens, with all the negative connotations that such designations represent. Life is sharply and simply filled with borders, with boundaries and with frontiers that divide people, making them strangers and aliens. Associated with this are nurtured and cultivated discriminations, mistrust and hostilities often grounded on ethnic, cultural, social, political and religious differentiation. Restoring peace in the world will depend upon peacemakers who are willing to ‘cross over’ borders, or transform their relations based on a restored humanity signalled by a new order of God’s rule in Jesus Christ.”
What is “the other side” that the disciples of Jesus need to be willing to cross to today? I expect there are many different possible answers that could be given. But I believe it is important to take seriously how this Gospel passage speaks of Jesus and his company being willing to travel outside their familiar religious comfort zone. That is part of my own motivation for the considerable number of years I have spent working in the field of interreligious dialogue.
At the beginning of this month there was a very significant interreligious gathering in Abu Dhabi in which Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, met together and signed a document on “Human Fraternity”, pledging to fight extremism and work for world peace and harmony between peoples and religions. It stated: “We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
Perhaps startling for some, the document went on to say that “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” The document is accessible on the Vatican website. It is well worth reading in full.
It was a brave step on the part of both the Pope and the Grand Imam: and not surprisingly both religious leaders have been criticised for this declaration by some of their own followers. I myself don’t agree with everything it says, and indeed, I find myself wishing that these two male religious leaders could be more sensitive to the reality that in English the very word “fraternity” chosen as the document’s title hardly feels affirming of women.
Yet whatever hesitations I have, I am also truly glad and grateful that Pope and Grand Imam had the courage to take this step forward, travelling beyond traditional borders, and in some ways indeed “crossing to the other side”.
And just as in the Gospel story the disciples’ journey to the other side led them further into the mystery of their own faith, so too I also believe that we who call ourselves Christians can indeed learn much through encounter and working together with people of other religious traditions. Certainly for me my commitment to interreligious dialogue has enabled me to wonder more deeply at the generosity – the charis ¬– that is at the very heart of the Holy Trinity.
Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), February 22, 2019