Matthew 28:16-20 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There are a couple of eye popping statistics that came out recently about Christianity in South Carolina and in Aiken in particular. I was calmly drinking my coffee early one morning happily swiping and tapping my way through USA Today when an article about the state of religion in America caught my eye. There were whole bunches of the kind of statistics that I have come to anticipate and even expect in our country, but then I came across a couple of lines that made my eyeballs pop out of my head. They read, “Massachusetts is down on Catholics by 10 percentage points. South Carolina is down the same degree on evangelicals.” Did you just hear that? In a national newspaper, South Carolina was specifically named for its stunning 10 percentage point drop in its main Christian group in just seven years.
But this wasn’t going to be a single punch to my spiritual gut. It was apparently meant to be a combo. Just days later I caught a statistic from a Barna poll about Aiken specifically. I knew conceptually that there were a lot of dechurched folks here. I knew in my head that even though in many ways we’re here in the buckle of the Bible belt; that even though the Southern Baptist Convention began right across the river in Augusta; and that even though I’ve also heard (not sure if it’s true or not) that the world record for most churches on a single road is over on South Carolina 421, that there would be a few unchurched folks around. I knew that in my head, but then here I was working through Barna’s list of America’s top unchurched cities. And there it was clear as day, the Aiken-Augusta area was listed. According to Barna, we right here in the CSRA are living in one the most unchurched metro areas in the United States of America.
We might not yet realize it, but that’s what explains Matthew’s approach to Jesus’ words with his friends – words that are striking and maybe even odd when you read them. Not most of them, mind you. Just some of them. Most of them are glorious and majestic and powerful and just seem right. They really are amazing. We find out from Matthew that Jesus had said, “I want you to show up on this mountain and I’m going to have something to say to you there.” So it was a preplanned speech, which makes it all the more a big deal. And then when Jesus launches that speech, it is glorious and captivating and powerful and comforting all at once. Just amazing. Jesus just rears up with power.
There’s just one little problem in the account – one little place where everything seems to crumble and get weak and uncertain: the disciples. Did you catch that? We happily read along in Matthew’s account hearing Jesus’ big claims and we roll past words that make so much sense saying “When they saw him (Jesus), they worshiped him,” and then come the troubling words, “but some doubted.” (v. 17) Isn’t that an odd addition here? Matthew wouldn’t have had to report that to us. He could’ve skipped it and left the section whole and perfect and glorious. He could’ve avoided all the questions that it brings up like, “What exactly were they doubting? Did they doubt his resurrection? Did they doubt it was actually him? What exactly were they doubting?” Frankly, don’t you think it would’ve been better if he had just left the doubt stuff out?
Matthew didn’t think so. He thought we needed to see the weakness and the doubt of our fellow disciples. And he thought we’d especially need to wrestle with it in connection with Jesus’ command to, “Make disciples.” You know why? Perhaps nowhere else in the life of the Christian can there be so much doubt. Doubt can loom large when we share our convictions with others. It’s one thing to claim a truth for ourselves. It’s a whole other thing to stake such a firm claim to that same truth that you believe it not only can, but must be shared with another human being. And honestly, if that truth is so precious and so important as to warrant that kind of commitment, then why should it be me that shares it? Who am I? I don’t know it well it enough. I can’t explain it adequately. I don’t believe it powerfully enough. And if do share it, I have no idea it’ll actually work. Doubt. Doubt. And more doubt.
It can be so paralyzing. Even if it’s only doubt that the CSRA really is in need of being discipled, it’s paralyzing. It takes away our urgency; undermines our confidence; keeps our mouths from ever opening up; and worst of all it can turn back on us and take us away from Jesus altogether. That’s why Matthew mentions it. What’s important to notice, however, is that he only mentions it. That’s all he does. He doesn’t dwell on it. He doesn’t tell us what the doubts were or delve deeply into the spiritual or psychological aspects of it. None of that. He just mentions the doubts in passing and then moves on.
You know why he does that? It’s not because they’re not important or harmful. He does it because he knows that far more important than our doubts is Jesus’ reaction to them. That’s what forgives our doubts and makes them go away. Do you remember how the historical record says that Jesus responded to the doubt? “Then Jesus came and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” (v. 18) Please understand what Jesus is doing here. This isn’t Jesus berating them. This isn’t him hauling them into the principal’s office to browbeat them. This isn’t him saying, “Oh, you have doubts? Get over yourself and do what I say. I’m in charge.” This isn’t anything like that. This is Jesus ministering to us without skipping a beat. This is him calming our fears and disappearing our doubts. This is him saying to us, “I am who I say I am. I’m the God-man who came down here, and won the forgiveness of sins (including forgiveness of any present, past, or future doubts about me or my words). And not only are you forgiven and still loved, I’m now personally authorizing you as my representative to others.”
Which, if you think about it, is just, oh so comforting. Because it takes our understanding of how Jesus views us to a whole new level. As undeserved as it is, do you see how much love and even respect Jesus has for us? It’d be one thing if Jesus told us on that mountain, “I forgive you enough to get into heaven, but you’re still too dirty to actually get involved with my work and help me meet my goals. You’re in the family, sure, but you can’t ever represent it.” Like we’re the black sheep of the family or something. But Jesus – he treats us differently. So radically differently. He not only counts us by faith as members of his family, but also considers us so significantly and perfectly clean that we get to represent it. That’s the gospel truth that’s embedded here. Do you see that? Because Jesus’ salvation is so big for us, our doubt not only fails to disqualify us from his family, it also fails to disqualify us from representing his family.
Make no mistake about it. That’s big a deal. Maybe even a bigger deal than we’ve ever really realized. Do you remember what Jesus actually commissioned us to do? This is such a big deal that sometimes people capitalize the words and call it the Great Commission when he very pointedly and clearly said, “Go and make disciples.” (v. 19) Make disciples. Do you see how majestic and wonderful and powerful that is? Make disciples. We’re told to do that. You know why? Because apparently we can. Now before anyone gets upset by this, let me point out a few other Bible truths that give this truth some context. First of all, we all understand that finally it’s only the Holy Spirit who makes disciples. That’s ultimately his job and he alone does it. People are far too bad off spiritually to have discipleship be anything less than an act of divine power. Secondly, we also understand that the Holy Spirit uses very specific ways to do his job. Jesus here says we are to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them…” (v. 19) We believe that too. Jesus is telling us that he makes his disciples through the tools of baptizing and teaching. But none of that is Jesus’ first emphasis or command. Not here. Here Jesus is emphasizing that the Holy Spirit is going to use us to disciple. Let me say it another way. He wouldn’t claim all authority and then based on that authority tell us to make disciples unless he were actually going to use us to do it.
You know what the greatest proof of that power is? You are. Somebody or likely somebodies kept the great commission in your life. And Jesus used that to make you his disciple. I was seeing my chiropractor the other day and I asked him about this. We’re pretty open about these things so I asked him, “Who discipled you?” He didn’t even have to think about it. He said, “My grandma.” He talked about how he was off at college in that rebellious stage. His grandma would have him over. She’d make him study and then they’d talk. They’d talk and talk and talk ‘til late about Jesus. She discipled him. Jesus’ truths get spoken to another’s soul and the miracle of discipleship happens. Christian to Christian. Human being to human being. And you even in this moment are the greatest proof of that power.
That’s why it’s not wrong to see more than an earnest and urgent command here when Jesus says, “Make disciples.” Don’t get me wrong. It is that, but it isn’t just that. It’s also an implicit promise – a stunning one. When we look at Jesus’ words here, Christians have never thought that this is Jesus saying, “Give it the old college try and see if you can pull something off through baptizing and teaching.” What Christians have always believed is that when Jesus reared up and claimed authority to send us to make disciples that he wasn’t just comforting us with the idea of his power. Christians have always believed in the reality of its use as we work. Tell me that isn’t awesome! And as if that weren’t enough, Matthew closes his Gospel with even more comfort. Just amazing. He quotes Jesus as saying, “And surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (v. 20) Understand what that’s saying. Jesus isn’t inert like a rock. It would be one thing if Jesus said, “Surely this rock will be with you to the very end of the age.” Like Jesus is a rock you can get out of your pocket when you’re down, set it next to you and that’s supposed to somehow comfort you as it sits there doing absolutely nothing. Jesus isn’t an inert, inanimate, unsaving, uninterested piece of rock that offers its dead presence. Jesus is the living God-man, who is not only offering, but promising and giving his active, animate, saving, guiding, ultimately interested presence to be with us as we work his mission.
You know what also helps? We’re not alone. Jesus didn’t take Peter aside from everybody and assign the task to him. He didn’t tell James to go solo. His commissioned a whole group of disciples to do the job. And when he promised, “Surely I am with you…” that, “you” was a plural one. I know that probably sounds illogical to us English speakers because our “you” isn’t singular or plural it’s just, “you,” but when Jesus spoke this to his disciples it was a plural you. He was speaking his, “you,” to them as a group. We’re not alone. We’re to make a dent in the unchurched rate in the CSRA and we’re to go after the world not just with Jesus, but also with each other.
You know – there were just eleven disciples on that mountain. Just eleven. They weren’t particularly well educated. They weren’t particularly wealthy. They weren’t even particularly exemplary Christians. What they did have is their Jesus. They had his forgiveness. They had his authority, his word, and his promises. And they had his presence. That’s what they had. And apparently that’s all they needed. They launched the greatest movement that this world has ever and will ever see. And it moved so powerfully and so deeply that here we sit believing on the other side of the world a couple of millennia away. And there were just eleven. How many you think we’ve got in here right now? We may not all be particularly well educated. We may not all be particularly wealthy. We may not even all be exemplary Christians. What we do have is our Jesus. We have his forgiveness. We have his authority, his words, and his promises. And we have his presence. I’m staring out at the CSRA. What do you think? Amen.