The Great Commission Reclaimed
Bradley Jersak with Safi Kaskas
“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.” —Matthew 28:18-20
“Christ did not call the apostles to win converts to a new religion. He sent them to preach good news.” —Simone Weil (paraphrase)
During a live IRPJ.org lecture hosted by Dr. Andrew Klager, my beloved brother and Qur’anic scholar Safi Kaskas offered a striking interpretation of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and its implications for the final judgment. What impressed me was that a Muslim pluralist could offer such a clear, concise, and unapologetic affirmation of the Great Commission, deftly avoiding the perils of exclusivism that normally get read into the text by both its adherents and opponents. Indeed, as I listened, I believe I heard the illuminating voice of the Holy Spirit through my friend—and Safi knows what I mean by this.
In this post, I will cite and reflect on his statement. But first, allow me to lay out the problematic Christian readings of Matthew 28 in conjunction with Safi’s implicit reference to Matthew 25:31–46.
Historically, both conservative and progressive Christians have read the Great Commission through exclusivist lenses—as a call to proselytize that the former camp embraces and the latter rejects. In other words, both groups mistook Jesus’ words to mean something like, “Go into all the world and convert the nations to the Christian religion.” This became the model for world missions and its ugly twin, exploitative colonialism.
One feeble defense of our evangelistic malpractice is that where the Good News was actually preached, even imperfectly, a certain Light penetrated the darkness of sacrificial religion, especially child sacrifice. Tragically, history is replete with true stories of how Christian missions perpetrated its own version of humans sacrifice through a distorted or counterfeit gospel.
This exclusivist conversion model then affected our vision of the final judgment. In the name of “grace,” we reduced Jesus’ call to follow him from trusting, submitting to, and imitating his Way of being to a shallow version of belief as rational assent to our prescribed doctrines. That being the case, Jesus’ explicit criteria for the final judgment, expressed in Matthew 25, utterly befuddled us. The trickery involved to avoid the ethical aspects of Jesus’ own words in the name of a cheap “Grace alone” system is disheartening but persistent. And again, it’s entirely exclusive. “How you live doesn’t matter. The content of one’s character is worthless—dead works. Just believe right and you’re in. But believe wrong and you’re out.” Does that remotely correspond to Jesus’ words? Does that make sense of the surprises we see in Matthew 25:31–46?
For those dissatisfied with such sickly shallow or cleverly complex workarounds, I offer the wisdom of this Jesus-following Muslim:
There is this conversion thing that Muslims are obsessed with and Christians understand “the Great Commission” to be, “Go and convert people” instead of “Go and make disciples.” There is a huge difference in my own understanding of what Jesus said about it. Yes, I believe in the Great Commission. I believe he sent everybody to go and make disciples. Making disciples means, “Tell others to live as I told you to live. I spent years teaching you. Go and teach others what I taught you.”
This is making disciples. “Go and convert people to a religion” is a losing proposition for me. I don’t like it, I don’t adopt, I don’t participate in it. And I try to tell this to Muslims and to Christians. God is not running a competition between Jesus and Mohammed to see who has more converts. He’s not going to declare a winner on the day of judgment.
The only winners on the day of judgment are the servants among us. Those are the winners. Those who follow the example of the best that others have to offer, those who serve others, those who are not trying to abuse others or worship themselves, thinking they’re right and everyone should follow what they’re doing or working toward conformity—“everybody should be the same.”
I’ll give you an example. In the Qur’an, I translate Islam as a way of life while others translate it as a religion: “The true religion for God is Islam.” If we use Islam here as a noun, then it is only the follower of that religion who is acceptable to God. Then it would be a must that we go and convert others—because we love them. But when you translate the word Islam as a verbal noun—an action-oriented noun—which is “submission to God’s will, submission to the purpose God created us for,” then that submission becomes a way of life for us and for many, many people who believe in God but don’t necessarily believe in the message of Mohammed.
Let me give you a definition of how God defines Islam, as an action-oriented noun in the Qur’an. “Say, ‘It is revealed to me that God is but one God. Will you be submissive to him?’”
So, this definition makes me to reject every other definition that has to do with ritual. I don’t like the Pharisees of the Gospels and I don’t like the fanatics of Islam. But if you believe God is one and you are submissive to him, then you’re a Muslim, regardless of what you call yourself. In the eyes of God, you are one who is attempting to submit to his will.
As a Christian, I wonder how I might transpose Safi’s interpretation to my faith tradition. Let me ask the question more boldly: What if Safi Kaskas’ reading of these texts is more faithful to Jesus’ actual words and intended meaning than many Christian accounts? I hear in his words a call to read these text—Jesus’ words—more carefully and put them into practice more seriously. “Therefore, whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock (Matthew 7:24-25).
In fact, isn’t Safi living the Great Commission by calling me to a deeper commitment to following Jesus—actually trusting Jesus enough to live the way he taught and showed us to live—in the cruciform Way of self-giving, servant love? Safi is evangelizing me beyond nodding to a faith statement and into the grace-empowered imitation of Christ. And in so doing, he is clarifying my own great commission. My response to Safi is not, “convert from the religion of Islam to the religion of Christianity” but rather, “Safi, follow Jesus!” And he replies, “I do! Let us follow him together—and invite others to follow him in the love of God and the other.”
“This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.” —Dom Christian de Chergé’s Last Testament