Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, Cambridge on September 1st 2019
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
These are uncertain times in our household. I am about to finish my job and am currently not sure what or where my next job will be. Olga is on the hunt for a curacy which could be anywhere in the country. And on top of that, we are set to move house and so are dealing with all of the upheaval that comes with packing boxes and making our home somewhere else.
It is with excitement, then, that I heard we were looking at stories of hope—stories both about hope and stories that give us hope—in our summer series here at St Barnabas. To state the obvious, hope is tested in uncertain, seemingly hopeless times. In this last in our series, we come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to a passage commonly known as the Great Commission. This is a passage about mission, about disciple-making and discipling with those meaty commands to “move out, make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”.
So what has the Great Commission to do with hope?
Well, this morning I want to suggest that we might want to consider the central point of this passage not simply to be the Great Commission, but the Great Person of Jesus himself. I don’t want us for a minute to lose sight of the vital imperative to be those who disciple others and make disciples. Yet the centre-point of this passage is Jesus himself—the risen Lord—who empowers all disciple-making and who promises to be with us as we carry out that task. This passage is about those great commands, but it is most centrally about the Great Person of Jesus and it is this that I want to focus on today. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t focus on the content of those great and important commands here in great detail this morning. This isn’t just a pragmatic decision—I believe the essential task of disciple-making (making disciples) and discipleship (deepening the faith of those who call Jesus Lord and Saviour) is about Jesus. After all, it is the hope of Christ we are sharing and it is him we are called to desire, know and serve.
So today we’ll be looking at the person of Jesus as the hope of the disciple-maker. Verses 17 and v.20 provide the clue here, where Jesus promises his Great Power (“to me has been given all authority in heaven and earth”) and his Great Presence (“and behold, I am with you every day”).
First of all, though, we have to put this in context. Why was this hope for the disciples in the first century? Well, earlier in his gospel, the evangelist relates that the disciples were filled with great fear. To begin with, he records the gruesome execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans—an event that would have sent shockwaves to the very core of the disciples hopes and sense of identity. “Wasn’t he the one to redeem Israel?” They had heard, many of them had seen, their Lord’s body hanging limp and lifeless, very much dead on the Roman instrument of torture. Then, to make matters worse, the disciples learn from some of Jesus’s female followers that his body was no longer to be found at the tomb. These disciples made the claim that they had seen Jesus. And yet the elders and leaders of the people begin to spread false rumours that the disciples themselves had taken the body—not only would this have crushed the hopes of those one or two disciples who had seen the risen Lord (there’s nothing worse than those in power concocting a narrative that undermines what you’ve seen with your own eyes); the rumour that the disciples had snatched Jesus’s body away also would have also potentially put a price on the heads of the disciples as dishonourable grave-robbers and enemies of the state. This hopeless scene makes verse 16 read even more strikingly—”Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”. The eleven disciples limp their way to Galilee on the word of Jesus passed onto a few women. Isn’t life so often like this? We follow Jesus to the place where he has told us to go, with nothing else but his word to go on. So now, let’s go with the disciples to that mountain on Galilee to see him and to hear his fresh word to us, taking with us our fear and hopelessness.
This morning, I want to draw our attention to three things in the passage that should give us hope.
First, Jesus does not shy away from doubting-worshippers but approaches us and sends us out.
As I alluded to before, the disciples are down to 11. Not only have they lost Judas, but there’s a sense of failure and regret in the air as this ragtag bunch remember how they denied Jesus, how they left him in his hour of need and fled. As Dale Bruner beautifully comments—“the church that Jesus sends into the world is ‘elevenish’, imperfect, fallible. And yet, Jesus uses this imperfect church to do his perfect work”. It’s sometimes easy to talk about the church as imperfect, infallible and sometimes far more difficult to admit, deep down, that that includes us. We are no less part of that 11, each one of us that calls Jesus Lord.
In this short, earthy scene, the evangelist records that while the disciples worshipped, some doubted. In other words, doubt and worship live side by side in the hearts of each of these disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s true of all of us. There is an earthy, practical realism in this remark here that I love. The author acknowledges that we will have doubts. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, unbelief is. And doubt often sits alongside worship. We are doubting-worshippers, we often doubt and struggle but we worship God nonetheless. What comfort that scripture acknowledges this reality!
And then, remarkably, the author tells us how Jesus responds to these doubting-worshippers. What does he do in v. 18? Jesus does not shy away from his disciples, he does not cringe or angrily berate them. Instead, we are told, he approaches them. Jesus comes to us in our doubts, he steps forward and wants to know us. In the Great Commission, we move out as disciple makers, often faltering, often feeling hopeless but we must never forget that as we move out, Jesus moves towards us. Jesus doesn’t walk out on us, he walks towards us. What hope that should give us! God’s patience with us is also a challenge for us to worship. If we worship as best we can, despite our doubts, those doubts can be handled. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
So, the hope and comfort here is that just as Jesus uses this faltering group of 11, this motley crew of doubting-worshippers, he will use us in sharing the hope of Christ with others.
Second, we have the hope that comes from the promise of Jesus’s power
The commands that we associate with the Great Commission are preceded by a great promise in verse 18: “to me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go…”. Whenever we see a therefore, we should ask what is the therefore there for! Here, the therefore provides the hopeful basis for all of our discipling and disciple-making. It grounds all of our action in the authority of Christ himself who empowers all of our going, all of our disciple-making, all of our baptising and all of our teaching. The means of disciple-making is Jesus’s power. The all-surpassing authority and power of Jesus is absolutely central to our faith. As we have proclaimed together, Jesus is the one who was vindicated by God, the one whom God brought back from the dead in power. For some of us, this is like a burden lifted off our backs—God is in charge and he has given all authority to Christ. When we are struggling just to make ends meet—and the task of sharing Christ with others seems beyond our means and energies—we are reminded that Jesus has all authority. His resources are sufficient, indeed are infinite, and he is willing to pour them out to us. This is also an encouragement as we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in places like Sri Lanka, North Korea and China—that they would know his power in times when their hope is severely tested…even to the point of death.
For others, this is a reminder of the times we attempt to go it alone, preferring to rely on our own efforts both in getting us by in hopeless times and in sharing the hope that we have in Christ. We confessed earlier, “forgive us for trusting our own strength, rather than yours”. Let us hold to that confession and trust in the one who holds all things in his hands.
Third, we have the hope that comes from the assurance of Jesus’s presence.
Following the commands to make disciples, Jesus rounds off his speech with the following great promise: “And behold, I am with you always”. This is the assurance of Christ’s presence with us, a guarantee which Matthew opens his gospel with the promise that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. This is the good news that Jesus is quite literally in the original, with us all days. He is NOT just with us on our good days or even in the good bits of each day. No, he is with us every day and the whole of each day.
Unlike Luke-Acts, Matthew doesn’t have an Ascension narrative. And yet we can imagine that Jesus’s departure is imminent. This makes the whole scene even more poignant. How can the disciples have hope at a moment of parting? Their master and lord is leaving them, and yet they are to hope and carry that hope to others? Surely not! But that is precisely why the assurance of Christ’s presence with us—and more than that, the hope of his return at the completion of the mission—is the bedrock of our hope. He leaves to return—and in the meantime, while he is not here physically, he guarantees his presence with us by his Spirit. The hope of Christ’s presence with us therefore becomes a choice, an act of will. It is not something simply given to us, but something that we must desire and grasp hold of as best we can, even as we hold it out to others.
One final word of hope—we will shortly gather and share communion together, an embodied way of reminding us that Christ approaches us, takes away our sins and cleanses us. He then sends us out together to invite others to hear his word and approach the table of life and hope. So, let us approach that table of hope, doubting-worshippers though we are, and be in the presence once more of our loving Saviour who died for us and was raised to be our living hope. Amen.