I wrote the following reflection for the June edition of The Canticle, the newsletter of St. Francis Church, which you can download in PDF version here.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, â€œAll 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
–Matthew 28:16-20 (ESV)
The context of the great commission is interesting. Here we are in the last chapter of Matthewâ€™s gospel. The task is accomplished, the resurrection has occurred and Jesus has been lifted upon the cross in expectation of his exaltation at the right hand of the Father. (John 12:32).
Here, we have one of the great moments of Christian history, the drawing to a close of Christâ€™s earthly ministry and the inauguration of the Church as the sacramental and missionary body of Christ on earth.
As our reading begins, we find the disciples doing as they were instructed and returning to Galilee to await the Risen Lord. Because of this, we also know that Mary Magdalene and â€œthe other Mary,â€ (the mother of James and John), did as they were instructed by the Lord himself at the empty tomb where he greeted them saying, â€œDo not be afraid: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see meâ€ (Matt. 28:10).
In the first part of chapter 28 we see the resurrected Christ coming to his disciples in the midst of the fear brought about by the presence of the Angel and the sight of the empty tomb. In the second half we see the response of the eleven to Jesusâ€™ resurrection appearance to them on the mountain in Galilee.
And yet, in spite of these experiencesâ€”and perhaps in part because of their amazing and unbelievable characterâ€”they still doubted.
One of the most difficult things many Christians struggle with is doubt. Sometimes we believe that our doubt makes us bad Christians; some have even gone so far as to doubt their salvation because theyâ€™ve experienced moments or even seasons of doubt.
But doubt is normal. Nowhere in scripture does Christ promise us freedom from doubt. In fact, in prophesying that those who follow him will endure suffering, Jesus must have known exactly what kinds of thoughts and doubts these experiencesâ€”or life in the world generallyâ€”would produce. And yet we are not left without hope, as this text from Matthew demonstrates. Indeed, not only does it offer us a response to our doubts, but the disciples display for us the proper way to handle our doubts and concerns: through worship.
As the disciples come to the mountain and worship, with some (perhaps all) doubting or hesitating, Christ does not chastise them for either hesitating to worship or pay homage to him or doubting even in the midst of their worship (the Greek of this passage is vague and may refer to a few or to all of the disciples with various convictions).
While it may seem strange to us, coming as it does on the heels of the resurrection, the hesitance that some or all of the disciples felt only serves as greater evidence that they are ascribing to Jesusâ€”whom they know to be a man, but whom theyâ€™ve found to be much moreâ€”what had formerly been reserved only to God in heaven. This is a glimpse of the community of disciples coming to grips with the meaning of Christâ€™s divinity, with God made Man. In the midst of this transition, some doubted, but Jesus does not doubt them. As we see again and again in scripture, God is faithful in the midst of our faithlessness, doubt and confusion. And it is the midst of their confusion that Christ comes to the disciples on the mountain.
Just as he confronted the fear of the Marys at the beginning of the chapter by coming to them and saying â€œdo not be afraid,â€ so too does he confront the hesitation and doubt of the disciples on the mountain, not in anger, but through his very presence as he came to them and said, â€œAll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.â€ Jesus knows their doubts; heâ€™s known them all along! But he also knows their hearts, which they reveal by offering worship as best they know how in the context of this new revelation.
And so, Jesus comes to them. For the first time in Matthewâ€™s gospel the word â€œapproachâ€ (proselthon) is applied to Christ. While earlier it had been said that those in need of healing had approached Jesus in the hopes that he might heal them, this time Jesus approaches the disciples in the midst of their worship and in answer to their doubts, embodies hope.
They are afflicted with doubt, so he assures them with his presence and proclaims his authority, which is in fact â€œall authority in heaven and on earth.â€ This Christ who has demonstrated his authority over nature, sickness and death as well as over the supernatural and demonic forces abroad in the world, now exercises all authority. In his faithfulness, he has been exalted by the Father and the promise of earthly authority offered by the devil during his temptation in the wilderness has been revealed as the pale shadow it always was (Matt. 4:1-11).
In that episode too, it was worship that was central, as Jesus answered the temptation of the devil by proclaiming:
â€œBe gone, Satan! For it is written,
â€œâ€˜You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.â€™â€
What are we to take away from this event on the mountain? Nothing less than the fact that it is in the living of our lives, with all our doubts, fears, anxieties, frustrations and anger that God comes to us. At times we may feel overwhelmed, but if we can hit our knees and pray: pray like the psalmist, pray in calm and in anger, pray in grief and in joy, pray in thanksgiving and in frustration. Pray, in other words, â€œwithout ceasingâ€ (1 Thess. 5:17). If we can do this, if we can truly worship God, then we will find that Jesus is indeed with us until the end of the age and we will have the resources, just like those disciples on the mountain, to be faithful and to proclaim the gospel despite our human failings and sinfulness.
Perhaps we find ourselves feeling a great deal of kinship with doubting Thomas. Like Thomas, we may hear the testimony of others and declare that we will not believe until we have some proof, something to connect with our senses. Chris Thile of the band Nickel Creek put our fears into words in his song Doubting Thomas, which is one of my favorites:
What will be left when Iâ€™ve drawn my last breath,
Besides the folks Iâ€™ve met and the folks who know me,
Will I discover a soul saving love,
Or just the dirt above and below me,
Iâ€™m a doubting thomas,
I took a promise,
But I do not feel safe,
Oh me of little faith,
Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face,
Then I beg to be spared â€˜cause Iâ€™m a coward,
If thereâ€™s a master of death Iâ€™ll bet heâ€™s holding his breath,
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power,
Iâ€™m a doubting thomas,
I canâ€™t keep my promises,
â€˜Cause I donâ€™t know whatâ€™s safe,
oh me of little faith
Can I be used to help others find truth,
When Iâ€™m scared Iâ€™ll find proof that its a lie,
Can I be lead down a trail dropping bread crumbs,
That prove Iâ€™m not ready to die,
Please give me time to decipher the signs,
Please forgive me for time that Iâ€™ve wasted,
Iâ€™m a doubting Thomas,
Iâ€™ll take your promise,
Though I know nothinâ€™s safe,
Oh me of little faith.
As I wrote at the beginning, the context of the Great Commission is interesting. It is interesting because the disciples meet Christ on the mountain top and worship him, despite their doubts, and he comes to them in their worship, giving them the assurance and grace to go forth and proclaim the truth of the gospel and the power of the resurrection. We should take hope from the fact that the disciples were not a â€œfinished productâ€ before they were sent out to declare the good news of salvation: and we donâ€™t have to be either.
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham has compared Jesusâ€™ meeting with the disciples on the mountain in Galilee with the similar meeting of Moses with his followers before his death (Deut. Ch. 31-34). As Wright says, â€œ[â€¦]Jesus, like Moses, goes up the mountain and departs from his people, leaving them with a commission to go in and possess the land, that is, the entire world (Matt. 28:16-20)â€ (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 388). It is an encounter with the risen Christ that empowers the disciples to fulfill the commission, and this encounter takes place in the context of worship.
Today we too have the opportunity to encounter the risen Christ, to lay our doubts, fears, frustrations and angers at his feet and come humbly before him, confessing our sins. Thomas needed to touch Jesus in order to believe. If we, to paraphrase Thile, take Christâ€™s promise, then we can touch him when we receive his sacrament, his Body and Blood, and by that means of Grace become empowered to fulfill the task weâ€™ve been given: overcome our sinful and doubting nature through an encounter with the risen Christ and go forth and take possession of the entire earth for the Kingdom of God.