Spirit Alive: Which is More Important, Being Correct...or Learning How to Connect?


November 6, 2018

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

What's at the Heart of Christian Discipleship?

"Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?"

Matthew 22: 36

"Evil is always complex, roundabout, tangled. Goodness is always a reduction of life to simplicity....All great discoveries are a reduction from complexity to simplicity....Life for the Pharisee was very complicated. For Jesus it was very simple. The Pharisees lived by innumerable taboos, regulations, and laws. Jesus reduced these hundreds of laws to two: love to God and love to humankind. That is genius."

E. Stanley Jones

By now, we should all be aware that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world...but what kind of disciples are we trying to make? Just any old sort of disciples? Perfect disciples? Connected disciples? What is our goal here...and what does it mean to be a disciple?

Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that the central issue of the Christian life has do to with whether one is more interested in being correct about things...or in trying to connect with others. One path is incredibly complicated and forces you to be constantly observant about possible error, while the other path is rather simple-- be open to love and let it guide your interactions with others. In short, one's spiritual preoccupation is either about purity, which was embodied in the Pharisees strict focus on the law...or compassion, which is at the heart of Jesus' new Way of living.

I'm convinced that John Wesley himself struggled with this on some level as well. When you look at his life, you see a man, who on the one hand is obsessed with his understanding of true Christian living, which is portrayed in his famous sermon "The Almost Christian." But we also have Wesley's own life journey to Aldersgate, where he famously says that his heart was "strangely warmed," as he attended church the night of May 24th, 1738.

In fact, if Wesley's concern for the "almost Christian" wasn't so rooted in the relational realm of God and others, you could see him easily gravitating toward correctness rather than connection. But Wesley understood the essential nature of the Christian journey: "...Is this commandment written in your heart: That he who loves God love his brother also? Do you then love your brother as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? As Christ loved you?"

With this clear choice between purity and connection in front of us, one cannot hide in the comfort of one of Yogi Berra's most famous sayings, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," because the actual choice you make at this particular fork...the choice between correction and connection...makes a world of difference in where you end up.

Part of the religious community always seems to be preoccupied with purity, so it should not be surprising that the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" They want to get it correct! They want to test and grade the quality of his answer against ultimate truth. There is no room for error when you are trying to be pure. This path is concerned with doing right, being better, and this often leads to making sure that others get it right as well...at least according to your understanding of it. There isn't much room for mistakes...messiness...or sin here.

It isn't a bad idea to strive to be the best you can be...and move toward truth. But this approach to the religious life is often harsh and ultimately harmful, leaving broken relationships and human disconnection behind.

So it should not be surprising that Jesus' answer and corrective to correctness...is really quite simple. It  has to do with one's relationship to God and neighbor.

This is not the only time Jesus confronts religious and political leaders who want certainty, only to have Jesus respond with simple, contextual stories and sayings that remind his listeners that love and life have to do with what you do in relationship to your neighbors, strangers, those on the margins, and people who are different from you. In short, according to Jesus, the fulfillment of a life with God doesn't take place in the confines of a book...nor in a perfectly articulated argument...nor in the court of law. The fulfilled, whole life happens moment-by-moment in your interaction with the person standing in front of you. The religious life is about love not law, outreach not order, connection not correction. And...it depends on curiosity, not certainty.

It reminds me of the various times over the years when I have preached in Black church settings. I have always been moved by those situations in which someone who is leading the service is struggling with a song or having trouble finding the right words...or the person who simply gets choked up emotionally and has trouble continuing.

When something like this happens, the congregation shouts out words of encouragement..."It's alright," "Come on now," "We're with you"...and expresses various other gestures of support. The congregation doesn't cast judgement or disappointment toward the person. Instead, they connect with whoever is struggling in powerful ways...and something beautiful and unrehearsed takes place. And it is clear at the end of the service that this was a place where the spirit was truly at work within the body.

I believe that this is where Jesus' own sense of discipleship shows up as well.

Perhaps this is why Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians, that Christian discipleship is ultimately measured by the attributes of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, which embody the "fruit of the Spirit" of the Christian life. These qualities all have a relational component to them. So you can make progress and move on toward perfection, but you don't take an exam regarding these qualities and hope to get 100% on your test scores. That just isn't how it works.

Sure, correctness has its place. If I am facing heart surgery, I want a physician attending to me who is not only compassionate, but who also has studied his or her craft with great care and accuracy.

But more often than not, life is a series of imperfect encounters with others...with Pharisees, prostitutes, people from different races and cultures, Sadducees, tax gatherers, peasants, business leaders, political opponents, folks at the grocery store and in the parking lot, people who support your favorite sports team's most hated rival...and just plain old regular down-to-earth folks.

And it is always tempting in these encounters to want to be right, especially when you are convinced that the other person is clearly wrong. But as E. Stanley Jones once said, "Don't confess the other person's sins; confess your own....A strong person doesn't hesitate to confess wrong; a weak person does."

If Christian discipleship is our mission as a church, then it is important to know what it involves and remember that is a contact sport and a social endeavor. Yes, it is possible to get better at discipleship over time, but even if you think you are able to master the qualities of the Christian life...you can't follow Jesus by yourself...and you can't do it without others. You simply have to connect with folks...in fact that's where the real test comes in.

At the height of an earlier turbulent time in our nation's history, Walter Rauschenbusch said: "Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus." Friends, we have much work ahead of us regarding the "making of disciples" as a community of faith. Especially on an Election Day, when we are trying to determine our country's future direction. But thank God, we don't have to do this alone. In fact, we will ultimately need each other. See you in the neighborhood!

Let us walk in the light of God's love,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.




Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org