The Great Commission's Subversive Wisdom

Photo by  Kyle Glenn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

The Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28 is what many of us evangelical Christians point to as our motor for action. We recall how the resurrected Jesus “said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

It is a powerful conviction to any disciple of Jesus to go into the world and make disciples. This scripture is the basis for the mission statement of the UMC which says that we are “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The primary way of understanding this is that we are to go out to baptize, teach so that we may grow the number of followers of Jesus Christ.

However, the subversive wisdom of the great commission is not that other people are converted but rather that we are converted.

Before we can baptize and teach others about Jesus we have to go to all the nations. This going to all the nations has been used as a mission to conquer others. This is a misreading of the commission. We are not to conquer others. If we go into the nations then we would have to first leave our little nations - our bubbles of thought, theology, comfort etc.

To go to the nations means that we have to set aside ourselves, meet, befriend and come to love the ones who are not of our “nation”. When we leave our bubbles, when we leave our homelands of comfort, when we like Abraham set out to the lands unknown, we live by faith. Living by faith converts us.

Superficially the great commission is about spreading the message of Jesus Christ. However, the subversive wisdom in the commission is it is we who are converted because we discover how to love outside our nation (i.e. our enemies).

Christianity marked by not in how we agree

Reverend Ryan Kiblinger is a doctoral candidate for a PhD in the area of Christian catechism. He and I have known one another for a while now and we have come to engage in a handful of intellectual spats over the years. It is clear that am very much out of my intellectual league when I am in his presence. It is also clear that he and I do not agree on a number of what many might consider to be "critical aspects of what it means to be Christian". And, to be clear, every time I see him, I rejoice in our interactions and friendship. 


After a heated bit of conversation at a meeting of laity and clergy around the area I live (this meeting is called "Annual Conference"), Ryan gave me a hug.

He and I spoke with one another and I thanked him for his kind words of support. Then Ryan said what I am not smart enough to come up with on my own and was the best part of my whole three day experience. To paraphrase Ryan:

Christianity marked by not in how we agree but how we disagree.

The best part of my annual conference experience was being affirmed by someone who I disagree with and being reminded once again that they will know we are Christians by our love.

Thank you Ryan

How to debate to change the world

There are all sorts of tips and strategies about how to debate. I am not a debate coach, but from what I understand, at the cor, debates are something that is understood as something as you either win or loose. As we conclude the last Republican party debate for 2015, there is chatter about who won and who lost. The underlying assumption is that debates are to be done in a manner that if you "win" you change the minds of others and if you loose you failed to do that. 

Some in the Church feel like religion is a big debate. That is a series of conversations that happen in order to "convert" someone to their team through arguments. I have yet to meet anyone who has ever been persuaded to much of anything  though debates and arguments. And this is an unfortunate byproduct of the original goal of debates - that is to change the world.  

I would like to share with you a secret I learned from very wise clergy mentors on how to debate in order to change the world. It is easy to understand and yet perhaps the most difficult thing to do. I have learned through this practice however that this simple yet difficult act can and has changed people's minds and even the world. 

Here is what you do.

When you are in a debate with someone, stop for just one moment and try to hear what it is the other person values in their argument. Then, affirm that value. 

That is it. If you are able to affirm the value of the other person something happens. 

First, you have to listen, and I mean really listen in order to identify the underlying value. Second, you have to give your conversation partner credit for something that is, in your mind, good and valid. Giving credit to one you are in a debate with is often seen as weakness in a debate as though you are conceding the argument. Third, when you affirm the other person's value you are affirming them as a person of worth and value. You no longer see them as opposition but as equal peer. 

For instance if you are opposed to individuals owning a certain type of gun and you are en ganged in a conversation with someone who owns the exact type of gun you oppose and you wanted to create a change: try first to listen to the underlying value to their reasons for owning such a gun(s). Perhaps it is freedom or safety or a right. Whatever the value is, can you then make a statement that affirms that value. It might sound like, "I think your appreciation for personal freedom is really excellent and I wonder if you would be willing to share more about other ways you desire to safeguard freedom." 

And therein lies the way to debate to change the world. If we are able to listen to another, share in words of grace and affirm the "other" as a person and not an enemy, then the debate model is turned on its head. It no longer is about trying to get another person to come to your side as it is about you growing in empathy and compassion to try to see the world through their eyes.

And with more empathy in the world, the world will change. 

Even Jesus Could Not Convince Us

There is a story in the Bible of two disciples of Jesus walking to  town called Emmaus. These two disciples are talking about all that had happened in the following week in which their teacher was condemned and killed and apparently raised from the dead. While they were talking a third man came upon them and heard what they were talking about. This third man asked of whom they were talking about and the original disciples are floored that this stranger had not heard about what happened to Jesus over the past week. The disciples shared how they had hoped Jesus would have been a particular type of leader only to have their hopes dashed by Rome. 

This stranger then went on to talk about how the two disciples really do not understand the scriptures and how it was important for the messiah to be killed and raised from the dead. In fact the stranger goes through the entire story of the Hebrew scriptures trying to show them that in fact they have misguided expectations about the messiah. 

The two disciples are not convinced. They invite this stranger to share in a meal only to discover at the breaking of the bread that the stranger is no other than Jesus Christ himself!

There is much to talk about in this story but perhaps it is worth noting that even Jesus Christ could not convince two of his own disciples through arguments and sharing of ideas. 

If Jesus cannot convince his own disciples to change their hearts through arguments, how can any Christian expect to change the hearts of others through arguments? 

It is only in the breaking of the bread that the disciples' hearts are changed. It was only through relationship and meals and fellowship and being vulnerable that they could see Christ. 

Rational arguments are really only good to help you confirm what you already believe. Few people's minds (much less hearts) are changed from rational arguments. But the world was (and still is) changed through relationships. 

May we stop arguing and begin breaking bread.