Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our resurrected Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago, there was a book that was very popular, entitled, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Any of you remember it? Well, if you’re even a bit of a punctuation nerd as I am, it’s probably sitting at home on your bookshelf. Its author, Lynne Truss, a former editor seriously concerned about the current grammatical state of our world, defended proper punctuation. Stressing how important a correctly placed comma or semicolon or apostrophe or question mark could be for our understanding. And for world peace!
Punctuation is really important. So important that, in fact, there is a huge subculture of people who write punctuation jokes. Here’s a couple for you. Why did the comma break up with the question mark? Because it questioned everything. (I promise, they get better!) Why did the comma break up with the apostrophe? Because it was too possessive. (One more.) Why did the comma break up with the exclamation point? Because it was always yelling!
Okay, so what does punctuation have to do with today’s reading? If you remember, last week, after Mary heard from the angel that Jesus was risen, she was told to go back to the disciples and tell them to meet their risen Lord in Galilee. Then, on her way, she ran into Jesus, and, after she fell at his feet and worshiped him, he, too, told her to go back to the other disciples and to direct them to Galilee.
When we started reading the Gospel of Matthew at the beginning of this year, do you recall where Jesus started his ministry? He’d been baptized by John at the Jordan in Judea. Then tempted in the Judean wilderness. It was after those two events that he began his ministry. But, not in Judea. Because he heard that John had been arrested, he moved to Galilee. It was there, in Galilee, where he began. Matthew points out that this move fulfilled a scripture from the prophet Isaiah. That the people who lived in the dark - in the Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles - that these people living in the shadow of death had seen a great light. In the Galilee of the Gentiles.
Jesus healed and taught in the Galilean countryside, moving ever and ever closer to Jerusalem. Where the conflict with the religious and political leaders would escalate to the point that Jesus would be crucified. Then to Golgotha, the hillside outside of Jerusalem, where he would be crucified and buried. And then, on this same hillside where Jesus would rise from the dead. The conclusion of Jesus’ mission on earth. Marked - and here’s the punctuation part - marked with a huge exclamation point!
And now, with today’s story, we are back once again in Galilee. And beginning a new phase in the mission of Jesus. Marked with a different punctuation marked. With a colon. A punctuation mark that is not an ending. But that points us forward into another phase. An unfinished phase. A phase in which we are still taking part. The unfinished story of the church.
But, let’s look a little closer at today’s story. Notice that Matthew writes that the eleven disciples meet Jesus on a mountain. The curious thing about this is that there are no mountains in Galilee. By including this in the story, the gospel writer is reminding us of all of the mountaintop revelations we have witnessed before. Think of them. (I once wrote an entire research paper on these mountaintop experiences.) There is the mountain where Noah’s ark rested after the flood, where he offered a sacrifice to God and where God made a new covenant with creation. Then, there is Mount Horeb where God called Moses, speaking to him from the burning bush and revealing God’s name, and calling Moses to deliver God’s people out of bondage. Then, there is Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb), where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, after Israel had been freed, and where God and Israel entered into covenant.
Then, there is the New Testament. Think about Jesus’ own story. He was tempted on a mountain in the wilderness. His first teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, was on a small mountain. Jesus was transfigured. On a mountaintop. And it was on a mountaintop, where Jesus had risen in glory. By including this, by making reference to this simple location, Matthew is recalling for us all of the salvation story, from one revelation to the next. The first phase of a story that has been marked with an exclamation point. And the second phase that is about to begin.
So, the disciples meet Jesus. Like the two Mary’s, they fall at his feet and worship their risen Lord. Did you catch the entire phrase there, in verse 17? “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The word for “doubt” used here - distazo - is used only one other place in all of the New Testament. In a story we heard a few weeks ago, when Peter jumped out of the boat and began to walk on water towards Jesus. Matthew 14:29. “Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. He distazo. He doubted.
These disciples. As they greet their risen Lord, who they are seeing alive with their very own eyes and who they now fully understand - at least some of them understand - that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Even then, some doubt.
Have you ever doubted in Jesus? Has something ever happened to you that put a big question mark there in your life right in place of your faith? Perhaps it was an unexpected and tragic death in your family. Or an illness. Or perhaps it was the loss of a job. Or a divorce. When it seems that this resurrection stuff is just too much to believe in. When it feels as if we, just like the Galileans, live in the shadow of death. And we, too, like the disciples, doubt.
In Matthew, though, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Instead it is an inevitable part of a life of faith and discipleship. Peter, who, as he was walking on water and then heard the wind and became afraid and doubted - that same Peter would become the “rock” on whom the church would be built. As Wes Allen notes, doubt does not preclude the disciples from being entrusted with the ongoing work of the mission of Jesus. With God’s mission. Because even in the midst of their doubt, they are being sent out into the world. Sent to share the joy of Jesus’ resurrection to all nations through the full authority of God, given in its entirety to Jesus. Because it is in raising Jesus, that God has vindicated his life and mission. It is in raising Jesus, that God has demonstrated power and authority that is greater than that of any human ruler. It is in raising Jesus, that God has shown power and authority that is greater than the forces of evil and death. It is with this authority, given fully by God to Jesus, that the disciples are sent into the world. To make disciples by baptizing them - welcoming them into God’s family just as we welcomed Marcus a little over a week ago - and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus had taught and commanded them. It is with the full authority of Jesus Christ that the disciples will go out into the world. Even in the midst of their doubt and fear. Because it is not the disciples’ power and authority that will accomplish this second phase of Jesus’ mission. It is God’s power and authority in Jesus Christ that will accomplish their mission. That will accomplish our mission.
That’s right. Our mission. This is our mission, too. Our mission as the church. Our mission as God’s people here at Grace & Glory. Because this mission is not simply for those who are called to full-time ministry or mission work in the church. This mission is your mission as disciples of Jesus Christ. Just like those first disciples, you are sent with the same power and authority in Jesus Christ. To witness. And to share where Jesus has met you. To share even in the midst of your doubt and your sense of unworthiness and your fear that you won’t have the right words to say. You are called. And you are sent. Just as the early disciples, to witness to the love of Christ with God’s full authority behind you.
That, my friends is our mission statement here at Grace & Glory. A mission statement that belongs to each and every one of us. To gather as God’s people. To grow in faith and the love of God. To go out into the world to share God’s love with others. And to give to others what God has first given to us.
Finally, if all of this feels way too overwhelming, may you remember what Jesus told the early disciples in the midst of their own fear and doubt and unworthiness. What Jesus tells us in the last verse of Matthew. “And, remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
May you journey with joy, walking with the courage that Jesus is beside you as you share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. Amen.
Preached April 28, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday of Easter (Holy Hilarity Sunday)
Readings: Matthew 28:16-20, Psalm 40:9-10