Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped 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.’
All Means All: Matthew 28:16-20
The author of Matthew must not have realized that we later Christians would want to squeeze a whole season out of the story of Easter. They must not have realized that we'd want more than one Sunday with this amazing story... that we'd need several weeks to work through the Resurrection and how it will shape our actions in our contemporary setting. No. The author of Matthew must not have realized that because they didn't write much more for us to read about after the resurrection. In chapter 28, we go quickly from Mary Magdalene and the other Mary meeting the lightning angel and running into Jesus on the road (we read that on Easter) to a story we haven't read recently about the chief priests assuming that Jesus' disciples have taken his body to today's reading, the last time Jesus' eleven disciples see him in this book. All of this story happens within the first couple hours of the day.That's not much time between the Resurrection and the ascension. Some might say it's hard to fill out a whole Easter season with so few stories. At least this last story is a really interesting one. Trust me, we have plenty to talk about in just five verses.
First, we're reminded that when the disciples do what Jesus asks them, when they go up to the mountain in Galilee, there's only eleven of them. Judas is gone. When we are reminded that he is gone, we are reminded that not everyone will hear Jesus' good news with joy. Not everyone will respond to the Gospel by aligning themselves with God. Some will turn away. Some will choose to hurt the people who trust them. Jesus' way is not always easy. We are reminded of this in the very first line of today's reading. The difficulty continues into the second line. Jesus appears to the disciples, just as he has already appeared to the two Marys. They worship him. Some have doubts. The worship and the doubts are right next to one another. We learn that to follow Jesus is to both worship and have doubts. They aren't chastised for the doubts. The doubts are simply noted. To follow Jesus does not always mean you know exactly what to do or what to believe. Even when Jesus is right in front of your face, you still may have doubts. That doesn’t stop Jesus from giving all of them a job.
Throughout the book of Matthew, people have been struggling to understand how to fit Jesus into their lives as a teacher. Jesus was a simple man, a former refugee, knowledgeable in the law but likely lacking formal education. He was a carpenter's son, so he was probably trained in building, not in interpreting Scripture and the law. And, yet, he becomes a teacher... a wise teacher familiar with the law and confident in his understanding. Can you remember back to the Sermon on the Mount? If you need a short lesson in what the Gospel is about, you can go to chapters five, six, and seven of Matthew to read what this author believed was the core of Jesus' teaching. It would be helpful for us to remember the very last part of this portion of scripture. As Jesus finished preaching, the crowds were astounded. They had heard a powerful discourse on their religious tradition, but from a surprising source, a traveling preacher. They said that he preached as one having authority, as one who knew something deeper. He preached more deeply than their other leaders. This is why people believed him.
Throughout the Gospel, when he healed people, they recognized his authority. When his followers healed people, the people recognized his authority. When he stood toe to toe with the most powerful members of his community, challenging oppressive religious practices, he did so with a deep authority that people could readily identify, even if they could not explain from where it came. Here, in the third line of today's reading, we get a little more explanation of what that authority meant. He tells his followers that he has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth. Rome can't grant him this authority. His local community can't grant this authority. It comes from somewhere else... from something greater. Probably the Holy Spirit. And, this authority wasn't stingy. Jesus could share this authority with the people he loved. Wow! Only three lines in and Jesus is sharing the Holy Spirit.
He'd already had some practice doing this in other parts of the Gospel. Working through the same Holy Spirit as his did, they have already been preaching and healing in his name. But this work was mostly in the communities from which they hailed. Now, after the resurrection, Jesus saw much greater potential for their shared ministry. Even though he would no longer be with them, they should continue to do the Gospel, but no longer be limited to the communities of their origin. God's love and mercy should be shared much more broadly. In the fourth verse of our reading, Jesus gives his followers a job that will help make sure this movement doesn't stop with his death and resurrection. He tells them to spread his authority around. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in a formula that we still use today, and teaching them.
We should take a moment and be clear. Jesus never said to go coercing people into conversion. Somewhere along the line, that part got lost on some of his followers, and a lot of damage has been done under the auspices of making more disciples for Jesus. Jesus did not spend his time threatening people into conversion or destroying communities that didn't follow him. Whenever we Christians do those things, we're not following Christ, we're following our own ego and feelings of cultural superiority. When Jesus said to make disciples, baptize people, and teach them, he wanted his followers to teach others the things he had taught them. And what had Jesus taught them?
Remember what I said earlier about the Sermon on the Mount? How it's the core of the Gospel in the book of Matthew? I'm pretty sure the Sermon on the Mount is what Jesus wanted his followers to teach other people. Jesus wanted them to tell everyone that the poor and meek are particularly beloved by God, and those who hunger, for both food and righteousness, will be filled. Jesus wanted them to comfort the mournful and to be merciful. Jesus wanted them to embody purity in heart and become peacemakers in a culture too often bent on war. Jesus needed them to remember that being reviled and being persecuted weren't necessarily signs that their ministry was ineffective. In fact, if they preached the fullness of the Gospel, they would likely find themselves in conflict with the world. But, that was ok. Because they were the salt that preserved the taste of the Holy and the light that could not be extinguished by the powerful and the violent. Jesus' own authority came with his willingness to be loyal to God's mission, even through the humiliation of the cross. Jesus needed his followers to show others that power could come from mercy, and not always from destruction.
In the fifth verse (ok, the part of the fifth verse that wasn't about teaching), Jesus reminded his followers how they would be able to accomplish all of the tasks that he had set before them. We would do well to remember the beginning of Jesus' story as we read the end of this Gospel. When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, asking him to be the father to his fiance's child, the angel said that the child would have a great purpose beyond simply being a part of their family. This child would serve humanity. This child would become a conduit through which people would encounter God. And, though they would name the child Jesus, he would be known to embody a different name, the name Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us." People would come to know and feel God's presence through their encounters with Jesus. In each healing, feeding, long conversation, and welcoming meal, people would learn that God was with them, just as Jesus was with them.
In Matthew, when Jesus needed to encourage and inspire his closest friends to continue their work, he called upon this part of his legacy. He told them, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Whenever, you feed the hungry, you are feeding me. When you visit the imprisoned, you are visiting me. Whenever you clothe the nake and care for the sick, you are tending to me. God is with you. The Holy Spirit will move through you. I am will you always. You do not do this work alone. And, that's the end... the last thing Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. That's Jesus' last word. I am with you always. I must admit. That's a pretty strong ending. Maybe the author of Matthew knew what they were doing after all.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2422
I Love to Tell the Story: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=613
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3268
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097
Fred Craddock, "What God Wants This Church to Do: Matthew 28:16-20," The Cherry Log Sermons (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2001).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.