April 16, 2023
Matthew 28: 16-20
We stood with at the tomb with the two Marys last Sunday.
There an angel told them Jesus had risen and to go tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. Jesus’ mission didn’t end at the tomb … the resurrection brings his mission on earth to fuller expression.
The Marys followed the instructions and told the disciples that Jesus would meet them at the place where he first began his ministry.
That’s where we find ourselves this morning … on an unnamed mountain in Galilee. In the Bible, significant things happen on mountains … this time is no different.
Jesus is with the eleven on this mountain. The disciples worship with Jesus … even though some among them carry doubts.
Matthew has told us that the disciples had been traveling across the region … healing … and exorcising demons in Jesus’ name … now he adds to their authority.
He tells them that the authority he has received … is shared with and through them.
This morning, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to teach … the lessons are to be based on the same lessons … the same commandments … that Jesus shared with them. More than the healings he performed throughout his ministry, Jesus’ teachings prove to be the greatest gift.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” … baptize them … teach them … Jesus instructs them.
This is not necessarily baptism as we have come to know it … with font or lake or river … but rather baptism with the Spirit. To show how love changes lives.
This moment has become known as “The Great Commission.”
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t try to erase their doubts … like he does later with Thomas … Jesus allows the disciples to carry the questions within them.
The doubts didn’t stop Jesus… he didn’t make a point of them … there was no sense of shame … he didn’t send the doubters away so that only those who were rock-solid in their faith remained.
He kept them near on the mountainside … and invited them to allow their doubts to inform their faith.
Despite any doubts, we don’t hear of any of the disciples rejecting the commission to teach. The disciples all accepted the call to baptize and teach. A little later, the Holy Spirit will fill them and they will more fully enter into their call.
The Great Commission is a moment of radical inclusion. This … as one scholar puts it … is the beginning of the church as a missionary movement … a movement outwards … a movement that isn’t limited by artificial boundaries.
Over the centuries, this commission has been the impetus for missionary efforts … sending people across the nation and across the globe … to share the news of Christianity.
But too many times such efforts were aimed at converting people to a particular denomination … faith community … or belief system.
We bear witness to the effects of such actions on indigenous peoples … actions that stretch back centuries. These are actions … these are the wounds … that we are called to acknowledge and to address as a reconciling people.
That is our commission as a church.
On that mountainside … Jesus did not say go and make church members … or go convert people … it was “go and make disciples” … to go and teach about a different way of life.
Through their words and actions … through the Spirit and through love … the disciples were to be examples of the life that could come through grace.
… love God … love your neighbours as yourself … those are the two commandments Jesus placed at the top of the list when he was questioned by a lawyer earlier in Matthew’s gospel.
Those are the commandments to be taught … doubts notwithstanding.
During my seminary days, I was introduced to the writings of theologian Paul Tillich.
Tillich was a Lutheran pastor and professor in Germany a century ago.
When Adolph Hitler took power, Tillich lost his teaching position and had to relocate to the United States where he began teaching at a seminary in New York City.
Over the years, he wrote a number of essays and books that have shaped Lutheran theology and our understanding of life, Divine Spirit and of faith.
In one of his more famous books, Dynamics of Faith, Tillich wrote that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather it is an element of faith.
To Tillich, there is no faith without risk … and doubt is always present when there is risk.
The pandemic and other world events have led some congregation members to have their doubts … to have what they call a crisis of faith. They wonder where God is present in the world’s mess.
In the disciples’ doubts … in their hesitancy … after all, they are heading out into a dangerous world and an uncertain future to share the gift they received with all they meet … there was still devotion to Jesus and to his words.
This may be the concluding passage in Matthew’s gospel, but it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the lives of the disciples.
“I will be with you,” Jesus tells them.
In today’s story, the disciple’s doubts aren’t identified … they could doubt that it is really Jesus standing there … and there were likely doubts after they left the mountain.
There could be doubts about the disciples’ capabilities or effectiveness to do what is asked of them … doubts of whether or not they are up to the task before them.
The Great Commission is an invitation to practice things that bear witness to God’s actions in the world.
It’s an invitation to enter into a relationship with others … to walk with someone in their pain and stand with them in their isolation.
It’s an invitation to recognize the systems of the world and of the church that cause harm and then work to correct them by being in relationship with one another and learning through such relationships.
It is an invitation to come face to face with our own brokenness … and to work with the doubt that can arise in those moments … and strive to live a life of love.
The Great Commission asks a great deal of disciples. It calls us to change and be agents of change in the world.
It calls on people to experience a transformation … to see everyone … strangers and familiar faces alike … as neighbours … and to live lives that are filled with empathy and love for others. To practice right relationships marked by respect … dignity … and love.
Because to serve others without love at the centre would be the great omission.
It understandable that there could have been a variety of doubts among those present on the Galilean mountainside… just as there are in any faith community… including right here. It is a great responsibility that can seem overwhelming.
The commission calls us to live into our faith … to be fully committed in our engagement of the world … to use our doubts to inform the way forward.
Through grace, we can have faith in the promise Jesus made to the disciples … that God was with them … and we can have faith that God is with us … doubts and all.