Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2023

Matthew 28:16-20 Commentary

As we begin Ordinary time with Trinity Sunday, we are reminded by Jesus’s closing words of God’s great promise and God’s great calling (or commission) for those who follow him. We know these words quite well; they have driven missions movements, been used in countless baptism liturgies, and closed many conferences, worship services and meetings. Sometimes, with something so familiar, it is necessary strip back all of the meaning we’ve built on a biblical story and try to encounter it afresh…

Because it comes from Jesus, this call to go, baptize, and teach encapsulates more than commands on what to do: it requires being disciples ourselves. To be able to baptize others into the name, or way of living that represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we need to be people in communion with the Trinity. To be able to teach others to obey what Jesus has commanded, we must have learned and be submitted to the same.

As a reminder to the textual context, this is the first time that the gospel of Matthew depicts the disciples as seeing the resurrected Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples listen to the command that came from the Jesus via the women to go to Galilee, and there, they see Jesus and are overcome with the same sort of worship that the women experienced in the garden.

This word used for worship in verse 17 is the kind of word that indicates more than the simple act—it also represents the motivation for worship. The disciples worship by falling down (lying prostrate) before someone in whom they feel a sense of complete dependence. It is a worship of devotion and submission, of awe and reliance and need.

This kind of worship is a worthy response. But it isn’t the only thing they are experiencing. As verse 17 also indicates, there was “doubt.” Though who (or how many) of the disciples are experiencing “doubt” is unclear (see the Textual Point below), it is present among them.

It’s really important to pay attention to the word that is used here as doubt, as the Greek word doesn’t have the meaning that most of us associate with what it means to doubt. In this particular Greek word, there is not a single hint that doubt is about unbelief. It might be better associated with the common anxiety response of freezing. The definition of the word refers to “wavering” or “hesitating.” So the disciples worshipped and they froze, it’s like, as biblical commentator Donald Hagner describes it, “everything is happening too fast” and what it all means is not something easily expressed.

And it is here, like we have encountered Jesus so often doing, that our God comes to them (and us), meeting his disciples where they are, lifting them to a new focus. Jesus doesn’t explain everything like he did on the road to Emmaus, but he does speak with authority and gives the disciples a driving purpose that can help them leap out of the state of hesitation and wavering. In other words, Jesus Christ gives them a task rooted in a way of being that they can return to whenever they feel stuck or hesitant about to what to do, or wavering about what is right.

This is Jesus’s gift to all of his disciples across time and place. He knows us to be people who both know we are completely dependent upon him, reliant on the gift and promise that he is with us always—especially through the presence of the Holy Spirit who is still with us—and that we get overwhelmed with both good and bad things that make us waver.

God’s promise is the solution for human wavering. Seeking the God who is with us in every circumstance, doing what it is that Christ has taught us to do, living in everyday communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can turn our wavering into moments of discerning. When we find ourselves frozen and unable to act, we can pause, reflect, and seek God and God’s wisdom. We can do that through prayer, through wise counsel, through doing our work with others. We do it as disciples who know that worshipping and wavering are not polar opposites, but what it means to be finite humans. In fact, wavering is not sinful in itself; it is perhaps better thought of as a Creator-designed gift that creates space for us to actually practice being Christ’s disciples.

The Great Commission and Promise, it turns out, aren’t for just for the big stuff like overseas missions or baptism, it’s for our everyday lives as Christ’s disciples.

Textual Point

In verse 17 the pronoun interpreted into English as “some” is ambiguous. As it is structured in the Greek, it could be referencing all of the disciples (as the 3rd person plural pronoun “they”), but it also sometimes appears as part of a construction of comparison of two things/groups—which leads to the choice of the word “some.” The heart of the matter is that, as a whole, they are both worshipping and hesitant. As people grow in emotional maturity, they are able to recognize that we can be feeling more than one thing at any specific moment and this isn’t inherently bad, but just what it means to be human.

Illustration Ideas

I know this couple who were getting ready to move into their first home together and they had a lot of cleaning to do before they could bring in their stuff. As one started mopping the dusty floors, the other seemed to be walking around the apartment aimlessly with a cleaning rag that didn’t touch a single thing. About a half hour later the aimless one came into the living room and said, “I’m useless!” It turns out that they were having a similar moment as the disciples: as they explained to their partner, they were very glad that this next stage of their lives was unfolding, but the whole thing felt surreal: were they really doing this?!?! Even good stuff causes stress and anxiety to spike, leading us to freeze in the moment. As we try to piece together a reality that seems too incredible, our brains and hearts just need a minute (or many) to adjust. Jesus knows this; the calling remains and the gift of the Spirit continues to be present, helping us put it all together so that we can actually do what God’s asking.

In the movie “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” we get a good idea of what it means to be overwhelmed with the reality confronting you: a reality that seems too big or surreal to be true (like a resurrection would be!) Evelyn Wang experiences so much at any given moment, and having to decide what to do at every turn, she often finds herself overwhelmed. Until, that is, she roots herself in relationship. Finding her purpose in her relationship with her daughter helps her know what to do, how to do it, and how to be in relation to others. I think that’s something like what the disciples experienced as Jesus comes to them in their state of worship and wavering and gives them their (our) purpose in life.


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