The Commissioning of the Disciples
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’*
What do you hope or imagine your last words on this earth to be? Some individuals have had the ability to make quite profound statements as they approached the end of their lives. For example, US President, Grover Cleveland said at his death in 1908, “I have tried so hard to do the right.” Dancer Isadora Duncan said, “Farewell, my friends, I go to glory!” President James K. Polk in 1849 had these words for his wife: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.” Others had words that were not quite as profound. Actor Humphery Bogart proclaimed, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis” when he died in 1957. PT Barnum – of Barnum and Bailey fame asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” Author Oscar Wilde proclaimed “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do” with his dying breath.
The last words of Jesus as he was crucified were somber– he declared “it is finished” as he took his last breath. However, those were not the last words he ever said. In our reading from today, we experience the last recorded encountered between Jesus and the remaining disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. This encounter was not a casual “Hey Jesus, welcome back” exchange. Rather, in the text for today we find the disciples in a place of disorientation and despair. This is Easter morning. They are still coping with the reality that the one they thought was going to save the world instead died a brutal death. They are mourning him, and someone they thought was one of them – Judas. Suddenly, the women appear and tell them that Jesus is not dead any longer, but has been resurrected and has commanded them to meet him in Galilee. So they make the 70-80 mile journey, and Jesus meets them there, on the mountain where he sent them. We do not know specifically what mountain, but it does not matter. Throughout the Biblical story, mountains are the places where God meets us and we meet God. Mount Arrarat is where the Ark rests when God places the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his promise. Mt. Moriah – the site of Abraham’s intended sacrifice, and the mountain on which the Temple of Jerusalem was built. Mt. Olivet – the Mount of Olives; the scene of David’s flight from Absalom; of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem; and of His Ascension. Mt. Pisgah – The headland of the Nebo range from which Moses saw the Promised Land. Mt. Sinai – The mountain where the Israelites encamped for nearly a year, and where the Law was given to Moses. There is the unnamed mountain where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered, as well as the mountain top where the disciples find themselves in the presence of the risen Christ. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and so it seems fitting that it is here it will end, in this Gospel.
But the encounter with Jesus is not an end. His last words are not “It is finished” or “I must go”, or “I wish I had turned more water into wine”. No, they were instructions to the disciples on how to continue his work, how to live, and what to do in his absence. In his words to them we find our place in the midst of faith and doubt, commands on how to be disciples, and assurances of Christ’s presence with us always.
Verse 17 is one that can be easily skipped over as we read this passage. We want to rush to the end, to see what Jesus has to say. However let’s rest here for a moment. “17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Standing on that mountain were the ones we might never expect to doubt – these were the men who knew Jesus intimately – they worked, ate, rested, and traveled together for three years. Surely, if anyone would be certain of the risen Christ, it would be them. Wouldn’t it? Across all the gospels, the ones we think would most easily accept the news of the resurrection are the ones who disbelieve it. When they saw Jesus, however, the first thing they did was worship him. Even the ones who doubted, offered worship to the risen Lord. David Lose, who holds the Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN talked about the intersections of worship, faith, and doubt. “…worship and faith go together nicely. We come together each week because, quite frankly, it’s hard to believe the nearly too-good-to-be-true news of the Gospel for more than about seven days in a row. Think about it: the confession that God not only created us and all that exists, but also knows about us, cares for us, and wants to use us to care for the world is a pretty bold affirmation. Such news needs to be repeated and shared in order for us to believe and live it.”
We come to worship in times of faith, and in times of doubt, and sometimes in times of both to worship and bear witness to the work of Jesus Christ in each of us and in the world. Even when we doubt, just as the disciples did, we still worship. We can hold faith in what we believe and doubt about it at the same time. The Greek word distazo is a word that carries with it a sense of standing in two places at the same time, a sense of being of two minds at once. The Greek can even suggest that all of the disciples were in a place of doubt – not just some of them. The response of the disciples is one of distazo – all worshipped even though they doubted in their faith.
I was asked this week to talk about what it is to be Presbyterian, and why I am Presbyterian. Reflecting on that question and this passage, I realize that one aspect of our particular faith tradition that I hold dear is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We are not expected to be people without any doubts, or looking for easy solutions. We are part of a faith tradition that says, “yes, even you who came to worship Christ though you have doubts, is welcome to be part of our community.” So often there is an expectation of being sure in the faith while we worship. That to come to worship means we have our spiritual lives all together and wrapped up and in line, and that we are “super-disciples” living and studying the Word. That’s not the expectation here. Our tradition is one that recognizes that when Jesus gave the great commission – the biggest sending out he ever did, he sent those who had doubts. As one of your pastors, I can tell you with certainty that there have been times in my career that I have had to lead worship from the place of distazo – a place of faith that was mixed with doubt. God calls all of us – yes, even the doubting and imperfect to carry out his great commission.
Which raises the question – what does it mean to be a disciple? A quick Google search, a flip through theology books or books in the “Christian” section of the bookstore, or asking people yields a variety of results. You get everything from a vague “follow Jesus” to specific three point lists with subpoints and more “don’ts” than “do’s”. In my mind, discipleship comes down to this: do what Jesus teaches and live by his example. To experience what Jesus teaches, that requires us to study scripture – both the Old and New Testaments. How can we know how to follow the example if we don’t know what it is? It is in the teaching of Christ that we learn how to care for others, how to pray, how to serve, and how to live. Living out the example of Christ is where our faith and actions come together. Disciples do what Jesus taught us to do. We worship. We pray. We care for the poor and disenfranchised. We love our neighbors. We take risks and step out in faith. We hear the words that following Jesus can be hard and dangerous, and we take them to heart.
One way I see discipleship in action is in community involvement through the churches in Bartow County. Many of you hear Pastor Ted and I talk about the Thursday Morning Coffee group that meets – not coincidentally – at Starbucks on Thursday mornings. It is a casual atmosphere where pastors in the community come together for fellowship. There is usually not an agenda – we don’t meet to do business, but to support one another and simply be together. However, through this group, amazing things are happening. And, you should know, that is rare. Many communities have “ministeriums” or pastors groups, but this is one of few I have heard of where the clergy consider themselves to be friends and community colleagues. Two weeks ago we were reflecting on the impact of this group as Eric Lee, the one who first said “we should have coffee,” prepared to leave the Bridge for his new appointment in Roswell. We shared with one another that in many ways this is a community that often lives out our faith. Sometimes it is in bold ways such as the National Day of Prayer, but other times it is in the ways we just do what we think Jesus would do. The initial conversations about Family Promise of Bartow County were held in the corner of the coffeeshop as we realized that there were children and families who could not get the services they needed to help them move to self sufficiency. While most of the planning happens at other meetings, Bartow Give a Kid a Chance is discussed as we all strive to serve the least of these in our community. So are events for the Good Neighbor Shelter, events for the Collaborative, Backpack Buddies and a whole host of other activities in our community. When people ask “who does this?” the answer is “the church”. Not “First Pres.” Or “Sam Jones” but “the church”. And by your participation in them – either by supporting financially, with prayer, or volunteering, you are part of that discipleship and witness. The congregations represented are different in theology, governance, worship style – some of us are as different as you can get. Yet we all act as disciples, and seek to model that behavior for all to see.
Jesus is telling them some hard stuff here – that not only are we to be disciples, but we are to go out into the world and make disciples. One way we do this is in how we raise our children in the faith, and in the church. When we as a congregation promise to nurture and love a child their entire life, we do that on behalf of the entire church – Christians everywhere. Raising our children as disciples means each of us modeling what that looks like. It means coming to worship even when we would rather have brunch, or going to Sunday School – both adults and children. It means talking about money and why and how we give offerings to the church. It means living our lives following the teachings of Jesus. But, Jesus doesn’t just say “make disciples of the children you have under your roof.” We are called to go out into the world – the great big world and show others what it is like to live as a disciple of Christ. I read this week that the majority of individuals and families who come to church – any church — come because they were invited to come. How many of you were invited by a friend, and met at the door when you started attending FPC? And how many of you have ever invited a friend to come worship with you? Presbyterians are not always comfortable with the “making disciples” task – it sounds too much like evangelism, which in our context evokes images of going door to door and talking to strangers. What if I said that discipleship can mean saying to a friend “have you thought about trying our church? I’d be happy to meet you and help get the kids to Sunday school. Maybe we could have lunch after?” What if I said that discipleship looks like a child asking a friend to come to parent’s night out with them, or a youth inviting a friend to Youth Group? We can do that. Just as we serve the community and love others in the name of Christ, we can tell others where our desire to serve comes from and invite them to be part of our family here.
This passage always leaves me with a sense of comfort and hope. It is here we read the words, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” The Psalm for today is Psalm 8, a Psalm praising God for the creation of the world. The beginning. God was with us at the beginning, and here we see that Jesus will never leave us. This is where we get into the tricky language of the Trinity – God as three persons who are distinct but of the same nature. For me, it is one of the great mysteries of our faith, but I find comfort that the Word was at the beginning and promises to be with us until the end of the age. We call that Alpha and Omega – The first letter of the Greek Alphabet is Alpha – You see it on the drawing on your bulletin (or on the screen). It is the letter that looks like an A. The omega is the one that looks like the w (it is lowercase) or the horseshoe. It is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. The very last thing Jesus says to his disciples – to us – in the Gospel of Matthew is that he will be with us from the alpha to the omega – from the beginning to the end, and all that comes in between. This is not a birth to death timeline, but rather an eternal timeline. From the moment the universe was created until the moment it ends, or even beyond, God is with us. Look back at the symbol. The letters in the middle are one of the monograms for Christ. It is the Chi-Rho. Chi-Rho is the oldest known monogram (or letter symbol) for Christ. Some call this symbol the “Christogram” and it dates back to the Roman Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337). Though the truth of this story is questionable, it is said that Constantine saw this symbol in the sky before an important battle, and he heard the message, “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, he adopted the symbol for his army. Chi (x = ch) and Rho (p = r) are the first three letters of “Christ” or “Christos” in the Greek language. Though there are many variations of the Chi-Rho, most commonly it consists of the overlaying of the two letters, and oftentimes is surrounded by a circle. While originally used in battle, the symbol, when surrounded by the alpha and omega takes on a different meaning. Christ is forever.
I don’t know about you, but there are periods of time when my faith is shaky. When friends battle cancer or when a colleague of mine suffered the death of her infant to SIDS. When what you thought you were certain of has been shaken. What helps me remain faithful is the knowledge that I am part of the cosmic universe that God created, and Jesus promised never to leave us. Even when life seems to be at it’s worst, we never walk alone. Always. Always and forever. The Romans thought they could put an end to that with some nails and wood, and yet, Jesus defeated them. Always – Jesus is a constant in whatever upheaveal our world may be in at ay given moment in time. Even when we doubt.
So we are sent. We, as imperfect human beings have been called by Jesus to leave our comfort zones for the uncertainty of the world. We have been called go out and tell the good news of our salvation to others. To live our lives as a witness to what we believe. It is not always easy. It is not always comfortable. But we never go alone. The God that spun the heavens is the God that sent his Son. The Son who modeled a life for us to follow promises to never leave. He is truly with us, always, and those are good last words indeed. In the name of the Father, Son , and Holy Spirit, Amen.
 Stanley Saunders: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097