For the longest time, I resisted identifying as an evangelical Christian. I preferred to call myself a Protestant as a way to explain that I wasn’t Catholic and declined to define myself any further. Protesting is kinda cool; “evangelical” just makes secular Australians think of crazy southern Baptists.
But also, evangelising is pretty much alien to my personality. I have friends who rave about things: You have to see this movie, You’ve got to eat at this restaurant, You need to check out this YouTube video. I’m not like that. I don’t spruik shows I’ve watched, restaurants I’ve eaten at, books I’ve read, influencers I’ve discovered (in fact, the very concept of influencers rubs me the wrong way). I didn’t even feel the need to tell everyone when I got engaged.
Still, at some point in my life I realised I was indeed a Bible-believing follower of Jesus and that, in a nutshell, is one standard definition of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.
Being evangelical carries with it a certain emphasis on, well, evangelism. Alas the Great Commission of going and making disciples of the nations did not actually excite me (not one bit, would you believe), but I went to Ecuador as a matter of obedience. To be precise, I went to South America because I wanted to live in South America for a while; I went as a missionary rather than some other sort of volunteer as a matter of obedience to the Great Commission.
Matthew vs Mark: what Jesus said
The Great Commission in Chapter 28 in the Gospel of Matthew is precisely the verse that my husband’s niece had memorised and was proudly reciting to us the other day:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”Matthew 28:19-20
A few days earlier, we’d discussed a story from Mark 5. It’s when Jesus takes his disciples across the Sea of Galilee to release the man possessed by the demon(s) known as Legion. It’s a well-known episode in the Bible that involves the demons being cast into a herd of pigs.
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.Mark 5:18-20
The two commands provide an interesting contrast.
Go and make disciples of all nations / Go home and tell your own people
Baptise them and teach them to obey / Tell them how God has had mercy on you
Mercy and misery
It got me thinking about mercy. I’ve written previously about how the Spanish language has enhanced my faith and this is another word whose etymology proves to be pretty illuminating. I used to think of mercy as a person in authority letting someone who’s in trouble off the hook.
Mercy is much richer than this.
In Spanish, the connection between the words for mercy and misery is clearer: misericordia and miseria. The root word is Latin, with miser referring to misery or wretchedness, and the very similar miserere meaning to feel pity towards. Cor in Latin (from which the Spanish corazón originates) means heart. And so, misericordia is a feeling of pity in the heart, ergo mercy.
Coming back to Jesus’s command to the formerly demon-possessed man in Mark 5, it strikes me that this, and not the Great Commission of Matthew 28, is a more satisfying instruction to evangelise. It’s not about rules I have to get other people to obey. It’s simply about me sharing my own, authentic, experience of God’s goodness in my own life.
And not only his goodness in a general sense, but specifically his mercy. A recognition that I have been wretched, would be in misery, without him and that he has had compassion on me and freed me from that. This is a profoundly important part of being a follower of Jesus: the Cross would be pointless if I were not in need of mercy. I’d argue there is no point going to the nations if I cannot identify and articulate my own experience of God’s mercy.
Story as a path to authenticity
I think it should be more acceptable for Christians to not only practise but share their faith publicly. But I also think we need to internalise and reflect before externalising and projecting our message. With evangelistic devices like Two Ways to Live still circulating, I can understand some of the hostility towards Christians spreading the good news.
Evangelising or “being too preachy” is frowned upon because it’s seen as imposing personal preferences on others at best, and judging others for living the wrong way at worst. That’s a pretty natural outcome of Matthew 28. But I think in today’s society, Mark 5 is powerful. It is my story and I dare anyone to deny my story.
I ought to share it as a matter of connection, rather than obedience. I ought to share what I’ve personally experienced, rather than the rules and doctrine someone else taught me. It’s not really within my human power to make a disciple – God is the one who changes hearts. But it is within my human power to tell what God has done for me and how he has had mercy on me.
I’m not denying the truth or value in the Great Commission. It’s a tragedy that there are so many people in tribes and nations that have never heard the good news about Jesus. But for those of us who are daunted (or put off) by Matthew 28 and the idea of evangelism, Jesus’s words to the healed man in Mark 5 provide a more everyday, authentic way to share faith. Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.
It’s still a challenge, but if we have experienced God’s mercy, it’s well within reach for us to share that story. The beauty of story is how the universal finds itself embedded in the particular, how the same Gospel is made manifest in many individual lives. I wonder if this isn’t the way we speak truth in a post-truth, post-modern world.