This week, Faith in Real Life discussed the story of the Great Commission from the book of Matthew. The disciples last encounter with Christ had been the crucifixion and burial. Now, they are instructed by the women who had seen the risen Lord to travel many miles to the top of a mountain, where they are told Jesus will meet them. As Vernon writes, this story typifies the nature of the life of faith in a broad sense. The instruction opens wide the doors to doubt and uncertainty. Give in to the doubt, and you’re sure to miss out. Live with the uncertainty and trust anyway, and you may encounter the very reason for it all.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This passage is traditionally called the ‘Great Commission’ and it contains Jesus’ last instructions to the disciples—and by extension, to us. I think the passage gains depth if we look at the context. In Matthew’s narrative, prior to meeting Jesus on the mountain, the disciples had had no prior experience of the risen Lord. Jesus’ only appearance had been to the woman at the tomb.
The woman had been told by an angel to tell the disciples that ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Then, on the way to tell the disciples, Jesus himself appeared and repeated the instruction to ‘…go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” But the disciples last experience of Jesus was of him dead and buried.
Put yourself in the disciples shoes. Can you imagine watching someone you loved and depended upon, die—and then, three days after the burial, being told you would see them again— if you walked 60-70 miles to a mountain top? Sounds pretty unlikely to me.
On the one hand, you could not not go. If there is a chance, any chance, you could actually see your spouse or child again, you’d have to start walking. But on the other hand, you would have to wonder if you were on a fool’s errand. Every step would include anxiety and uncertainty. No matter what Jesus promised in his lifetime or what the women testified, seeing him again would not seem very rational.
The next verse reports that “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” I’m surprised it doesn’t read ‘and they all doubted”. It points out again, that even after walking, climbing the mountain and having Jesus speak, the experience was not so convincing that all who saw were convinced. The risen Lord was different than what the disciples expected. The same is true for us. When we hear the promise that where two or three are gathered in my name—it doesn’t mean a bearded man in a long white robe is going to appear. If that is what you are looking for, you will probably miss him.
Doubt was present but it did not keep the disciples from walking. Nor did the doubt of the disciples keep Jesus from giving his instructions to them. Jesus did not ask for a loyalty oath.
Doubt and worship often go together. If you are among the many of us who both doubt and worship, you are in very good company. The founders and leaders of our faith consistently struggled with God’s word. Sarah literally laughed at the impossibility of God’s promise (and who could blame her), Jonah and Moses argued with God about their mission. Even Jesus prayed for another way. Over and over in the biblical record, followers (disciples) just start walking. Honoring God’s call has meant relying upon and obeying God’s authority. It has meant stepping outside of our comfort zones. It has meant living on a promise. It has meant living in obedient reliance upon God.
Craig Koester, in one of the ‘Working Preacher’ blogs on this passage says: “True authority is what gives people the confidence to follow. And this is what Jesus says about himself.” Jesus claims ultimate authority, ultimate followability. And he asks us to be followable.
Parents can get away with ‘Because I said so’ for only so long. Finally the parental commands must make sense to the child in order for the parent to be followed. When sufficient experience is built up, children are more willing to follow—even when they can not understand the ‘why’. ‘Don’t play in the street’ turns out to be a pretty good rule—even if, at three years old, it was just an imposition. The same process must occur as we consider going where Jesus would send us.
Secularly, authority is more likely based in position or power but God’s authority has a more reliable base. I am a Christian because as I understand Jesus’ teaching, he tells the truth about the world. There is a congruence between what he teaches and how I have experienced the world. So much so, that now when I do not understand (as is often the case), I wait. Sometimes I set it aside. Often I argue. But I have come to expect that there is something valuable there—I just don’t see it yet. I am more willing to simply ‘go’, simultaneously uncertain and confident, to the place where Jesus said he would meet me.
In order to fulfill Jesus’ commission “to make disciples of all nations”, we are told to baptize and teach obedience to God’s commandments. We baptize to announce God’s love is offered before we can make choices. God’s love is offered whether or not we make choices. No one is excluded. But just as important, Jesus’ commission calls us to be obedient. His commission is about doing (following?) as much as it is talking or understanding. Followers must start walking in the direction of Love. We are commissioned, even in the midst of despair, to walk to the place where Jesus said he would meet us.
It starts with trusting that God’s promises are worthy of full acceptance and it ends with finding God in the face of your neighbor. We will almost certainly be uncertain on the journey. And even if we walk the walk, we are unaccustomed to looking for God in our neighbor. Some of our neighbors are pretty scary people. We may not even recognize Christ’s presence—but that is where God sends us. That is where we will meet Him.
But none of this is possible without the last verse–”And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We simply cannot sustain love unless we are loved. The walk is too hard and the destination too uncertain without the memory that God has been with you and will be with you— even to end of the age. If even once, you have been able to look back and wonder how you made it through, you have the beginning of an awareness of God’s presence. It is only with such an awareness, no matter how nascent, that we can stand with another when they are lost.
Sharing ‘lostness’ is in itself a statement of faith. We believe that God redeems by being present in the struggles of the world. That is the example Jesus gave us. We are commissioned to do likewise. My job and yours is to be present and to keep walking—even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. In real life, that example creates followers.
Use your memory and your community to sustain you. Doubt and worship are companions. Jesus will meet you. Let it be so.