Followers of St Francis love to tell the story of his commissioning, just a bit after he made the dramatic break from polite society and his father’s household in order to devote his life to Christ. He was wandering a bit, perhaps uncertain of what he was supposed to do next, and it was in this state of mind that he came across the little run-down church of San Damiano near Assisi, where he decided to stay and pray for direction. And there, maybe in a dream, perhaps in a vision, Francis clearly heard Jesus saying to him, "Francis, go and rebuild my church which, as you see, is falling down." Francis took it literally, and set about rebuilding the little church, setting stone on stone, carting away rubbish, and he repaired not only that church but a few others around Assisi as well before it gradually dawned on him that he was being given a vocation not as a carpenter or a stone mason but to rebuild and reform the human institution of the Church that was perilously close to falling apart.
The commission tells us what we are supposed to do - it inspires us for the long haul, and of course the Church looks to Scripture and in particular to the life-changing encounters with the risen Christ for our founding commission. One of the great commissioning moments is in the reading from St John’s gospel that we heard last week, set on the evening of the first Easter Day when Jesus blesses his astonished disciples and says to them, "As my Father sent me, so I send you". This passage is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost because it records Jesus breathing on his disciples and giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s version of the commissioning doesn’t happen till 40 days after the resurrection when he describes the Holy Spirit coming in much more exciting fashion like tongues of fire. And Matthew’s version is the passage we read this morning.
I would like to suggest Matthew’s story of the so-called Great Commission is particularly helpful for 21st century disciples in the real world. For a start, it helpfully ties together what comes next for the men and women who loved Jesus with what had gone before. For another thing, it makes the whole business of being apostles of the risen Christ - well, delightfully human.
To start with the second point - in these last verses of Matthew’s Gospel the disciples who had followed Jesus and eaten and argued with him and misunderstood and abandoned him in life and who on hearing the news of the women that Jesus was alive had gone home to Galilee to perhaps the same mountain where he had taught them - in virtually the last breath of Matthew’s whole Gospel his friends see him risen and worship him - and doubt! How wonderfully human! Incidentally the Greek in verse 17 doesn’t quite support the translation we read this morning - that ‘some doubted’ - a more literal translation is ‘having seen him they worshipped yet they doubted’. Not that some of them believed and worshipped while others weren’t so sure - the point is that worship and doubt in this verse go together.
I think this reflects the reality of our lives very well. For a start, who was there? Matthew just says the eleven, which I guess is shorthand for saying all of Jesus’ disciples except for Judas. All of them, the women as well as the men, who had loved him a little and who had let him down a lot. The Greek word, distazo, does not mean disbelief, it means to be wobbly, to waiver. The disciples are human, they don’t know what all this means for them and all their conflicting emotions and perhaps their sense of shame or guilt at having abandoned their teacher are part of this hesitation and uncertainty - and it is in this common human state that we technically call ‘being a bit iffy’ - that they worship their risen Lord. For Matthew this is very significant - as even before Jesus’ death and resurrection he has understood discipleship as having just a ‘little faith’, which is to say faith that incorporates misunderstanding and doubt. The same elements of worship, doubt and little faith characterise the Church after Easter as before. Indeed doubt is not the opposite of faith but its prerequisite - we come to faith only through struggling to understand and living in the ambiguity of mystery. Doubt is the flip side of faith with integrity.
Is it just me, or do you too find this wonderfully reassuring? Our humanness and our awareness of our own foibles and inconstancy does not disqualify us as messengers or apostles of the risen Christ. We are invited to worship, and to be transformed within and possibly even through all our contradictory levels of doubt and self-awareness. And all the contradictory and uncertain circumstances of the world around us.
But as I said, this commissioning also connects the before and after of the disciples’ experience especially well. For a start, this seems to be a pre-existing appointment. In verses 7 and 10 first the angel and then Jesus tells the women that Jesus will meet them in Galilee - then in verse 16 the disciples find Jesus on the mountain to which he had directed them. The Greek word here, tasso, means to assign or appoint. As one commentator remarks, all this seems pre-arranged. Maybe it was a spot the disciples knew well. And this same commentator suggests the reason - which is that it was the same mountain on which Jesus had taught them earlier in the Gospel. You see, Matthew unlike Luke and John, is not interested in telling the stories of how Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem. What he is interested in is connecting Jesus commissioning of the apostles after that first Easter, with what he had first taught them in the sermon on this mountain about the way of blessedness, about the richness of poverty and the wisdom of humility and insecurity, about the joy of being excluded for the sake of the kingdom of God.
And then Jesus gives his apostles with their little faith and their honest doubt a commission that will drive them through the centuries. The commision that is to go, to make disciples and to baptise.
One of my commentaries points out that "go" is not an imperative - in the Greek it is more like "as you go", or "along the way" - but the disciples are sent not just along the back lanes of Galilee but to all the nations. Jesus has healed and taught and eaten with outsiders and foreigners and the measure of our faith is that we are intended not just to keep it to ourselves or to those like us but to proclaim it, loudly and everywhere. The Church is cross-cultural. We are sent - out of our comfort zones - with the message that the kingdom of God is for all.
Secondly we are told to make disciples - a word that means learners, not just followers. We are disciples which means we responsible and active, and the faith that we pass on must also empower people to be active and responsible and thoughtful. But Jesus’ disciples are not just armchair learners because his disciples must also be prepared to persevere through suffering - to take up their cross. Something they certainly hadn’t been very good at so far but history informs us that they did. And so must we - be prepared to be thick and thin disciples not just fairweather friends.
Lastly the disciples are commanded to baptise. This is kind of surprising considering the only baptising done in Matthew’s Gospel up to then had been by John the Baptiser. We can take baptising to mean evangelising but it’s more than that because baptism is where the rubber hits the road. Baptism is about repentance and forgiveness which is also part and parcel of our discipleship and the discipleship we are commanded to pass on. And baptism - when we look back at Jesus’ baptism by John and indeed when we look at the baptismal practice of our own church is about preparation for the indwelling by the Holy Spirit. This, if you like, is Matthew’s version of Pentecost.
And so we come to the very last words of the Gospel: I am with you always. We have not been left alone. Actually we will be hearing this passage again in just a few weeks on Trinity Sunday, but what we have already seen in our mountain-top commissioning is that Jesus is worshipped as God, and we are to baptise in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit which is to say that it is the one Name, the Name that for the monotheistic Jews of Matthew’s first century community could not be uttered. There is no trinitarian theology in the New Testament but already in the final decades of the first century Christians were proclaiming the unity of Jesus with the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. That God whom we have encountered in Jesus Christ is with us always.