Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20
The concluding verses of Matthew’s gospel give a vivid glimpse into what it means to be disciples of Jesus.
The scenes that have preceded it have been filled with drama and struggle. The power of the resurrection seems clear in the account of the resurrection, as the earth shakes and an angel descends to roll back the stone. The guards are overcome, the women are terrified, and the tomb is empty.
The angel’s voice is one of command, for he tells the women to direct the disciples to Galilee where they will see Jesus for themselves. Then, before the women can follow through, the risen Jesus appears and repeats the command that the disciples should go to Galilee. The plot thickens as rumors spread that none of this resurrection news was true, and that the disciples were the ones who had stolen the body. Against this backdrop, our passage begins.
The disciples who go to the mountain have not seen any of the Easter drama. They have not seen an earthquake or the angel descending. They have not seen the risen Jesus or heard his voice. Their reputations are soon to be tarnished by rumors that they have perpetrated a hoax to get others to believe that Jesus is alive. All they have is the directive from the women, “Go to Galilee.” So they go, trudging northward from Jerusalem to Galilee, not knowing whether the women’s word is true. To set out on this journey into an unseen future with only a word–this characterizes discipleship.
Jesus does encounter the disciples as he promised, but the response is mixed. When the travelers meet the living Jesus, some worship. Others doubt. Both responses are possible from the same group. Among these disciples there is both worship and uncertainty, both devotion and hesitancy. One might expect something clearer and unequivocal. They are in the presence of the living Christ, after all. But this mixture of faith and doubt also characterizes discipleship.
We understand this from our own experience. We too are called to “go” to where Jesus will meet us. We too are called to worship. We are directed to the place where we will meet the living Christ, yet one wonders why anyone would listen. Perhaps it is the hope that the message might be true and that by coming to the community where Jesus promises to meet people, he might meet us as well. So we come to see if Christ will keep his promise.
We trust that he comes as he said he would, and for many in our community this is reason for thanks and worship. Making confession, offering prayers, voicing our faith, singing our praise–all of this is worship in the presence of the living Christ. And along with the worship, many continue to wonder whether any of this is true. Yet like the first disciples, we bring our doubts to the place where Jesus promises to meet us. And this too is discipleship.
How does Jesus respond to this mixed group of worshipers and doubters? He gives them all the same commission: “Go and make disciples.” The command to “go” is what brought these disciples here to Jesus and the command to “go” is what will take these disciples out to others. One might have expected Jesus to do something else, like calling for the uncertain to get things figured out, and for the hesitant to answer their unanswered questions. But instead, Jesus simply speaks to them all in the same way, “Go and make disciples.” They are again being called into an unseen future, since there is no guarantee that anyone will listen. Nonetheless, the word is “go.”
One wonders whether this is a good idea, to have this group of disciples who do not all have their act together going out to make other disciples. Jesus might have been more selective in whom he called and sent. But apparently Jesus sees things differently. These disciples whom he tells to “go” are in no position to make themselves the object of faith. That is part of the good news. The invitation to follow Jesus.
When I was in college, a professor made some comments in one of my religion classes that prompted me to ask what he meant by the word “authority.” Perhaps it was one of those attempts by a college sophomore to press a point in a manner that sounded profound. Perhaps it reflected a genuine desire to grasp something that I had not fully understood. But the professor responded with a single word that brought a level of clarity I have never forgotten. He said, “Authority is followability.” Followability. He probably coined the word on the spot, but it did what it needed to do. True authority is what gives people the confidence to follow. And this is what Jesus says about himself.
No one can make anyone follow Jesus. What the disciples have is the word from the living Christ that continues beckoning them to follow. What the disciples have is the word from the living Christ that beckons others to follow. His promise is that “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” How does one know in advance if this is true? The answer is that no one can know in advance. But the word keeps beckoning the worshipful and the doubtful into a path of discipleship. And it is along the way that Jesus will prove his word, his presence, to be true.