Matthew 28:16-20 – ‘Coming and going’

A reflection by Josh Olds

My earliest memory of Mother’s day is teasing my mum about not telling her what we’d gotten for her. I reveled in the fact that I knew something that she didn’t. But in my adamance to not spoil the surprise, 5 year old me outwitted myself – “I’m not going to tell you mum, doesn’t matter how much you ask, I will not tell you. Nope, I’m not telling you what we got you, uh-uh I will not tell you we got you a deck-chair, you’ll just have to wait I’m sorry, I’m not telling…” It’s funny how things change. When I was a kid, mother’s day was all care, no responsibility. My dad would organise it all – the breakfast in bed, the flowers and the rest, all I had to do was show up and celebrate, it was great! But as a parent and husband now myself, it’s now me who’s responsible for organising the breakfast in bed and the flowers. I’ve transitioned from being a mother’s day celebration apprentice, to being the event director. It’s interesting to see how much of the way my dad took care of things for mother’s day with my sister and I coming through in the way I organise things for mother’s day with my kids. Transition. We all go through it in different ways, seasons when we depend on others often eventually become seasons when others depend on us. Our gospel passage this morning is about a significant point of transition for Jesus’ close friends, the disciples, as they seemingly transition from being those who follow and learn from Jesus, to being those who are given responsibility and are sent forth by Jesus.

This transition happened in what must’ve felt like quite a chaotic time for the disciples. They had been left spinning, having just seen their friend and mentor be arrested and killed, after spending the last 3 years with him. Then seemingly out of nowhere they receive a message that Jesus was no longer dead, but had risen and wanted to meet them in Galilee. Imagine trying to process all of that! Our passage picks up the story as the disciples make their way to meet Jesus in Galilee, the same place where 3 years earlier he’d first invited them to follow him. To their astonishment, as the disciples arrive at the supposed meeting place with the risen Jesus, there he is. I really like how our passage doesn’t gloss over the ‘humanness’ in the disciples’ reaction as they see Jesus, a mix of worship and doubt, that response resonates with me!

In this reunion with Jesus, back in the place where their journey with him began a few years earlier the disciples receive another invitation. Where they were once invited to follow and learn from Jesus, Jesus now invites them to go, to transition from being observers to being participants, to play a part in God’s big story of bringing re-creation to a fractured world. But while they are invited to go and do, the invitation to come and follow remains. They are and always will be followers as we see in Jesus’ promise to always be with them as they go and do.

In light of Jesus’ call to the disciples to “go and make more disciples, baptise and teach…” this passage is generally referred to as “the Great Commission.” Many of us will have different reactions to the language and ideas associated with this passage, as Anne mentioned last week, words like ‘discipleship’ can be pretty loaded these days, not to mention ‘evangelism’ or ‘sharing your faith.’ Without careful nuance, terms like these can be unhelpful. At its core though, what this passage affirms is that the invitation to follow Jesus and the invitation to participate in the life-giving activity of God in the world cannot be separated. Like the disciples we’re all invited to come and follow, and to go and do. What I do not want to do this morning though is propose some sort of prescriptive method for evangelism, or sharing faith, but what I do want to do is offer some soundings from this passage that might help us reflect on what it means to play a part in the work of God in our contexts.

The first thing to note is that, as I’ve already mentioned, this all happened after the disciples had spent 3 years at Jesus’ side. He had invited them to follow him, to see up close how he did things and what he was all about. They had walked and talked with Jesus, eaten and laughed with him, he had given them full access to himself. By inviting the disciples close, little by little Jesus was cultivating them, tending to them like a gardener does to a cherished plant. He enabled them to see and experience God’s re-creating work themselves, which in turn prepared them to eventually perpetuate that in the lives of others.

So when we read this passage and the call to “go and make disciples” it’s important that we read it in its wider context, which is that the disciples’ call to go and do, was preceded by an invitation to come and dwell. The disciples’ going and doing was the natural extension of first knowing and dwelling with Jesus. It’s important we get this around the right way. The time we live in highly values efficiency. Busyness is often equated to productivity. We’re told the more we accomplish, the more successful we are. Doing is observable, it’s measurable, it gives us something tangible to tie our use of time and need for productivity to. Dwelling on the other hand can feel unnecessary as it doesn’t accomplish anything measurable, or observable. Therefore it’s easy to skip the dwelling part and just get stuck into the ‘good works.’

We actually see this scenario play out in an earlier time in Jesus’ life. Jesus goes to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary sat and chatted with Jesus to the dismay of her sister Martha who was bustling about the house trying to get all of the necessary jobs done to accommodate a guest. When she complains about the lack of initiative from her sister, Jesus replies that actually Mary’s choice to sit and dwell with him was the right choice. It’s easy to be like Martha, to get caught up in the doing at the expense of the dwelling. But like he did with the disciples, Jesus’ invitation to us to join in the ‘going and doing’ comes out of the context of first being invited to come and follow. What are the ways that you are dwelling with Jesus?

The second thing worth noting is that the doubt of the disciples’ didn’t preclude them from being called to go and do. The wording of our passage seems to indicate that only some disciples doubted, while the rest worshipped when they first saw Jesus in Galilee. However, New Testament scholar Stanley Saunders highlights that this may actually be more naturally translated to suggest that the whole group of disciples both doubted and worshiped.[1] Either way, whether some or all, what we do know is that Jesus doesn’t just invite the perfect disciples, otherwise none would have made the cut! I’m sure we could all think of reasons why we’re not up to scratch for playing a part in God’s re-creating work. I’m sure we too all have moments of doubt. But it’s worth remembering that when Jesus first called the disciples’ to come and follow him, they were a pretty rag-tag bunch. They weren’t the scholars of the day, or prominent figures in society; in fact the gospel accounts’ highlight the disciples’ fair share of failings and blunders during the 3 years they spent alongside Jesus. No, the original disciples that Jesus invited to come and follow him weren’t the wise or experienced, but they were those who were willing. Therefore, it is not our confidence or abilities or experience that qualify us to go and do, but it’s our willingness. Just as the disciples were, if we are willing to come and follow Jesus, to dwell with him, there is a part for us to play in life-giving work of God in our contexts – our homes, our neighbourhoods, our workplaces and wherever else we find ourselves.

The final aspect of our passage that I want to highlight is Jesus’ promise to be with the disciples as they go, in verse 20. Having come full circle, returning to the place they were first invited to follow Jesus 3 years earlier, the disciples are now invited to be sowers of re-creation beyond themselves, to follow Jesus by going and doing. But in their going they go with, not from, as Jesus’ promises to accompany them. In the first chapter of Acts, which gives a similar account of the events in our passage this morning, Jesus specifically mentions the Holy Spirit, the life-animating presence of God, as being with the disciples as they go. Therefore in their going, they continue to dwell, they continue to be connected to the source of re-creation, they aren’t tasked with having to muster that themselves. Their task is to allow others to see and experience God’s life-giving presence that dwells within them. If you’re anything like me, this is a huge relief. It broadens what the going and doing might look like, not always having to involve soapboxes and street corners. It might look like a cuppa with a neighbour, or a drink after work with a colleague, it might be reading a story with kids or grandkids before bed or taking the time to really find out how a friend is doing. It’s about sharing our lives with others, allowing the presence of God within us to be known by those around us.

God has long been inviting people to participate in his work of re-creation – the Israelites were blessed to be a blessing to all nations, the disciples were invited to follow and to go, as well as countless other figures and communities over the centuries. The invitation remains open for us here today in our context, to come and dwell with God, and join in the re-creation.

[1] Commentary on the Revised common lectionary. Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20, Saunders, Stanley.