I am with you always
Over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at some, mostly quite short, readings from Matthew’s Gospel.
As I’ve said before, each of the four gospels has a very distinctive flavour that comes from the purpose and audience for which it was originally written.
Matthew is perhaps the most alien to us, written primarilly for the Church in Jerusalem, still strongly Jewish in context and culture, with an understanding of the work of Jesus as re-establishing and fulfilling the call of God through the people of Israel. That colours everything that the author writes, and informs the way we read.
Today, we hear the very final words in the gospel. And when I looked through these few verses I quickly jotted down what I noticed in them, and within two minutes I had the basic themes for seven different sermons to choose from.
And since I couldn’t choose, I’m going to do all of them. But only – I promise – very briefly. Just the Cliff Notes version – you’ll need to fill in the details for yourself.
So number one:
the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them
Other than on Easter morning, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t place any resurrection appearances in Jerusalem. When the risen Jesus meets the women, he tells them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, and that they would see him there.
Gentile believers would presumably have been “Jerusalem, Galilee, what does it matter?”, but for Jews of the age there was a world of difference. Jerusalem stood for Temple Judaism, with its formalities and sacrifices and Priests and purity; in Galilee, in the provinces, it was the Synagogue that held sway, the local community of faith. They too, of course, had their traditions and ways, and a deep desire to find the right ways to live the law of Moses, but it was the faith of the people, often flexible and creative: it was where Jesus’ words had been listened to, not where they got him killed.
Though the Church would make its home in Jerusalem, it was Galilee Judaism, not Temple Judaism, that formed its origin story.
When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.
Matthew doesn’t record the story of Thomas (which was set, after all, in Jerusalem), but it seems there is an echo of it here – that even when they saw the risen Jesus, some of those who had followed him still found it hard to believe, to trust with all their being.
I love that there is no judgement here; just a statement of fact – some doubted. And that didn’t stop what Jesus was going to say to them. So maybe our knowledge of that truth, that sometimes we find ourselves in the ‘some doubted’ camp, is ok. Maybe we can still be in the crowd who worshipped, and got the commission to go into the world for Jesus, even if we’re amongst the ‘some doubted’.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
In heaven and on earth. I guess for the Jewish beleiver it’s the first half of that that would have been a shock – all authority in heaven – given to Jesus? For the radically monotheistic Jew, the idea that any authority in heaven could lie with anyone but God was unthinkable. But Jesus claims it for himself. Any temptation to demote Jesus to the status of prophet, priest, or even king, stands in stark contrast to this clear claim of divinity.
For us, the harder one might be all authority on earth. Because we might want it to be true, but we don’t see it being true. There seems to be a lot of authority going around, and most of it not being used for the good.
But the next word is “therefore”, so we move into…
Go therefore to all the nations
All authority on earth has been given to Jesus, so his people are sent out to all of the earth. Judaism to this point, and even today, has never been a prosletysing faith – you can convert in, but it’s not in the nature of the faith to encourage it. The Jewish understanding was that they would bless the world by being God’s people and showing the nature of God.
But here Jesus changes – or perhaps fulfils – that. All authority on earth has been given to him, so his followers are to go to the whole of the world.
There’s a lesson here that is local, as well as global. We’re more comfortable, I think, in the Jewish model – live lives according to the way of God, and God worry about those who aren’t us. But Jesus’ command is to go to all people. It’s not enough to sit back and hope that they will notice us, and come to us.
make disciples of all nations, … teaching them
The command is to go, and to this end: make disciples of all nations, teaching them.
For a Rabbi of the day there were two levels, if you like, of followers. There were those who listened and learned and maybe even put into practice, perhaps alongside the teaching of all sorts of other Rabbis and gurus and wisdom.
And there were disciples – who shared the life of the teacher, watched the teacher at work, learned as an apprentice learns, working alongside and then even independent of the teacher.
Jesus doesn’t just want his disciples to make believers, or followers: he wants his disciples to make disciples, who will make disciples, who will make disciples.
Six – nearly there –
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Today is, Trinity Sunday, and while I generally follow the maxim that the only way to avoid saying something heretical about the Trinity is to say nothing at all, here it is in Jesus’ words.
It would have been such a crazy thing for a first century Jew to say or hear – but it’s of a piece with Jesus’ claim of all authority in heaven.
The Trinity – the idea that God is one God, but three persons – is (and I’m skating the edge of orthodoxy here) the least bad attempt of humanity to make sense of the nature of divinity, a nature that is surely, definitively, beyond us and our understanding and our language. The early Church recognised that they encountered God in different ways, and yet it was the same God. So without abandoning the declaration that God is one, they recognised Jesus as divine, and came up with this formulation that almost made sense.
I’ll stop there on that one, because I’ve already said enough to get thrown out of the ‘preachers allowed to talk about the Trinity’ society (which is, I believe, the world’s smallest club).
And move to seven –
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age
As part of the divine reality, Jesus is always present everywhere; that, as the Psalmist wrote (paraphrasing), there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s presence, no hole we can dig which is deep enough that God is not there, no distance we can travel and not find God there before us.
But more than that, I think here we are getting Matthew’s allusion to Pentecost, and the gift of the Spirit. The gifting of the Spirit was an idea established in Judaism, but it was the exception – or rather, the exceptional – the prophets, the great leaders, the judges – not a promise for all.
I am with you always. No longer a promise just for those few, but now for all of God’s people.
No longer are there to be gatekeepers; no longer will anyone get to decide if and when you are worthy to approach the divine.
I am with you.
So there you go. Seven sermons for the price of one.
But I’m going to stay with that last one just for a moment longer. Because maybe we jump just a little too quickly to the reassurance in the words.
They are a promise of God’s presence with us, not just with a few special people, not just with the spiritual gatekeepers, but with each and every one. But they are given after the words of the great commission:
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.
Jesus’ presence with us is set in the context of us taking on Jesus’ work. It’s not just a general declaration of comfort, it’s more an assurance that we do not do Jesus’ work alone.
An assurance that as we work alongside Jesus, his presence is always working alongside us.
An invitation, perhaps, to reflect that if we want to know God’s presence with us, we would do well to be continuing the work Jesus began.