Text: Matthew 28:16-20
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.
Go with Trust & Doubt
We have reached the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew moves from the resurrection of Jesus straight into this scene on a mountain, where Jesus claims his authority then passes it on to his disciples as a commission, a sending out. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has tried to give a picture— through parables, through miracles, and through his own embodied action—as to what the Kingdom of Heaven is like— what God’s Kingdom, which Jesus says is near, and that he will rule over in the world, will look like. Each time the Kingdom is described or hinted at or embodied, it is a surprise. It completely redefines what the word “kingdom” means.
Some contemporary theologians and church folks have begun using the word kin-dom because 2000 years later we still struggle to allow the mental picture of Kingdom to be transformed enough by Jesus. You would think that when Jesus, the “king,” went without violence and retribution to the cross then was raised from the dead— that would be the culmination of this king and kingdom being different. That would be the big reveal, no more surprises. But the way of the Kingdom of God goes even further than non-violence to the grave and the divine love of God conquering sin and death in the resurrection. Christ as King, as conquerer of death and sin and violence, as the firstborn among the dead, as a force stronger than the strongest Empire— He claims his authority on the mountain, then hands it over.
The disciples had begun to worship him. This verb looks different than our modern worship services. It is physical. They bow to him. They treat him as King and Lord. They are ready for the next step of the Kingdom coming. But the next step is Jesus sending them. The next step is Jesus physically leaving, and the Spirit empowering them. Jesus will be with them, as he says, but in a very different way.
The Gospel of John comes at this same reality through a conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a gardener, which is a beautiful image, and when Jesus says her name, she realizes it’s him. And his first response seems so harsh. She’s been morning his death, remaining with him as he was tortured and executed and buried. Standing by the tomb. And Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to me.” Don’t hold on. The next thing won’t look like the last thing. Jesus isn’t going to be an emperor, even a really good and compassionate one. He’s again laying down his authority to empower others because that’s how the Kingdom is built.
Clinging always comes from a place of needing some control. We cling when we are fearful. We cling when we just want some security. I hate haunted houses and that’s what came to mind as soon as I thought of the word cling. The times I have gone to a haunted house, I have dug into the shoulders of the person in front of me with all my strength. Clinging for protection and control. Back seat drivers do this, airplane passengers do this. It’s instinct to cling. It is much harder to let go. But don’t hold on. The next thing won’t look like the last thing, so you have to loosen your grip.
Jesus tells his disciples to go, to make new disciples, to baptize them in the name— under the authority—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to teach others the way of the Kingdom, as he taught them. To not cling to him, but to go. And in their letting go and going out, he will be present with them. This Scripture, the Great Commission, has been used as justification for all sorts of abuse. It has been grounds for forced conversions, to persecute those of other faiths, as a way to justify genocide and stealing children from their parents, as a reason for war. It has acted more like a mirror held up to those who read it than anything else throughout history. What do we think it means to go and make disciples? To go and baptize? To teach all that Jesus commanded? What authority do followers of Christ believe they have been given? And how do they think they are to yield it? We can see the ugliness throughout the Church’s history that has looked back in that mirror, as the authority of God’s Kingdom has been immersed in the authority of worldly Empire.
These verses can and have been dangerous taken out of the rest of the Gospel. If we are not formed by the Kingdom that Jesus describes and embodies throughout the Gospel story, the “Great Commission” becomes something entirely different than Christ’s commission. The text itself, though, gives us a way to approach it, understanding the abuse, while not throwing away Jesus’ final words to his disciples. “When they saw him,” the Gospel says, “they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them…” Of the eleven disciples, some in their worship doubted. They internally shifted between positions. What exactly did they doubt? I’m not positive, but in their worship they were claiming Jesus as King, as Lord, as God. They were aligning themselves to him and his Kingdom. And it had been a really weird few days, and they doubted. They weren’t so sure about that. They definitely weren’t sure what was coming next. And they were hesitant.
What if we, too, hear the words of Jesus with a spirit of worship (obedience and conviction) AND doubt (humility and hesitancy)? Jesus commissions the disciples TOGETHER. They were not meant to take this authority and message out alone. They were not meant to teach others alone. It was not stronger to be worshipful than it was to be doubtful— both were needed to carry out this commission.
It is when we get too worshipful, too convicted, too certain, Scripture becomes nothing more than a mirror, than justification to do the things we were already going to do. It is a form of clinging. Yet, if we only doubt, we become paralyzed, stuck in the place of deciding between multiple positions. We let go in order to take the next step. To experience and participate in what God is doing now.
The commission of Jesus requires our both trust in Christ and the Kingdom of God, and humility and doubt about what God is up to. That is what we are invited into, and that is what we invite others into. We will continue to find Christ there.