Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 26 November 2017
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 2 Samuel 23.1-7; Matthew 28.16-end
The reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel which the church gives us to hear at Evensong on this feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church’s year, its culmination, is a short but densely packed one. It is both the end of the Gospel and a summary of it. It is both an end and a beginning.
It is often called the “Great Commission,” the charter of Christian mission to all the world: “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.”
It begins with the disciples going, as they had been directed – both by the angels at the tomb and by the message of the risen Jesus conveyed by the faithful women, – to Galilee; to the place where they had first been called to be disciples and where they had been formed in that discipleship by their companionship with Jesus. What they have been taught, what they have learned from Jesus, they are now to pass on to others: “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
There they reconnect with the historical, teaching, pre-resurrection Jesus, the Jesus to whom Great Commission seeks to unite new disciples. They return to their small beginnings, and in that little place their lives are now turned to a worldwide horizon. The mission of Jesus which had been confined to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” now becomes universal.
The disciples come “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” Ever since Sinai, mountains had been the places of God’s great revelations. In Matthew significant points in the life and ministry of Jesus are connected with them too. Satan takes him to a high mountain to show him the nations of the world which can be his if only he will worship him and not God. The first collection of his teaching is the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 4,000, the Transfiguration.
Now, here in Galilee, the Lord gives the final revelation of his Gospel on a mountain. Matthew’s Jesus, the new and better Moses, the one who has authority to interpret God’s law, now gives his Church her final orders from this mountain. This mountain is both a physical location and a theological symbol. All the mountains in Matthew are Sinai.
Jesus meets the disciples as a group, not as individuals, and this is significant. It points to the centrality of church’s communal life and worship – what we are doing tonight, what we do Sunday-by-Sunday, day-by-day – in our being discipled and in our making disciples of others. The risen Christ, like the historical Jesus, still meets disciples in a special way, in the fellowship of his believing people: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
“Eleven” is an imperfect number. Judas has not been replaced. The church Jesus sends is imperfect and yet used to do his perfect work. The eleven represent the whole later church – not the just the original apostles. Jesus does not wait until he has the perfect, fully-formed and trained missionary community then; nor does he now. Jesus takes the imperfect and gives it a perfect vocation. We cannot use the excuses we often come up with about being unprepared theologically of spiritually to avoid Jesus’ call.
This message in reinforced when we hear that “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
For Matthew, this worship means that Jesus really is what he had been called at the beginning of the Gospel; the name that we will hear and sing at Christmas: “Emmanuel-God with us”. Jesus is more than one teacher among others; more even than an inspired teacher. He is the supreme teacher of the ways of God, because he is the divine Lord and Son of God. As we profess in the Nicene Creed, he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Human beings are not worship another human being, but we are to worship Jesus because he is both divine and human.
“But some doubted” Even the worship of the first eleven was mixed with some doubt or some doubters. This presence of doubt helps us believe that this encounter was honestly reported. There is no editorial “spin” to remove this embarrassing detail. A resurrected person is, to say the least, “incredible” and the evangelist is not ashamed to say that some of them found it so.
Theologically and spiritually, the report that even some who worshipped Jesus also doubted is profound and of lasting importance. . By reporting worship and doubt in same sentence, Matthew shows that the structure of faith and life is bipolar. As disciples we live between faith and doubt; or with a mixture of both. Christians are both believers and doubters, adoring and wondering, trusting and questioning. That is a reality some try to deny, so it is refreshing that Matthew admits it.
To deny something all disciples experience is unhealthy. The Good News we find in the Great Commission is that Jesus addresses and uses such worshipping-doubting disciples. When Jesus does not condemn or correct this doubt, but simply overlooks it, almost as if it is normal, and gives the Great Commission any way, he shows that disciples, then and now, will overcome doubt by obedience to his command.
There has never been a worshipper of Jesus who has not doubted him. Matt’s daring inclusion of the divided mind at birth of mission is his way of saying that doubt should not be taken too tragically. “Doubt your doubts.” It is not as if doubt’s presence should paralyze Christ/Christians. Doubt simply is, a component of disciples’ little faith, their still imperfect humanity, this side of the general resurrection. Matt’s good news is that worship and doubt can and do co-exist.
Doubting worshippers are Jesus’ material in mission. This text says we must not be perfectionist about who can be used by Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed,” one commentator has said, “are those who worship the risen Lord and who still struggle with doubt; they are the people he uses in his mission to all the world.”
The disciples’ faith in Jesus is not a certainty that is superior to all questions, but it lives between trust and cowardice, certainty and doubt. Those of “little faith,” we of little faith, must turn again and again to the Lord in prayer. That little faith is not conquered by Jesus once and for all, through a miracle say, but constantly recurs. Jesus does not rid them of it on one go; he simply points them to his Word.
That the eleven on that mountain should be sent out into all the world, and that a group like us gathered in this church in the heart of a city in which the world has come to us, should be possible or even thinkable, rests first on the authority of the one who sends us: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
They and we are to draw people into the same relationship with Jesus as they and we have known. We who are allergic to forms of evangelism which stress dramatic and emotional conversion experiences should take heart to see mission defined here not in such dramatic terms but as an ongoing discipling. Here in this passage we see the centrality of both Word and Sacrament.
In the Ministry of the Word, in the Church’s regular reading of the Scriptures; its preaching and teaching of them; our meditation and reflection and internalization of them, Matthew brings us back again and again to the teaching of Jesus which he has gathered into the “sermons” of the Gospel.
The mission command which comes from the risen Christ as the Pantocrator, the ruler all, – as he is portrayed above the high altar of this church, – is then followed by that same risen Christ’s promise: “And remember. I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are not left alone as we engage with this mission. The risen Lord does not abandon us. “Remember” should remind us of the sacrament of the Eucharist in which we obey his command to “do this in remembrance of me.” This is no wistful memorial of a dead hero or lost leader, but through the Holy Spirit a real experience of his risen presence; a presence which is able to sustain and transform and empower us. It is that presence we celebrate daily in the Mass, and which, with all our mixture of faith and doubt, belief and uncertainty, we will worship in a few moments as we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. It is that presence which we are reminded of each time we come into this church as see simple white light which burns in the sanctuary that we might “remember” the presence of the risen Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle which hangs above the altar.
But perhaps it is when we seek to live in obedience to his commission to go out and engage with people in such a way as to teach them all that he commands and to incorporate them into his life, , that we will find that presence becoming more and more alive and real and life-changing to us.