Our Worship and Our Doubt
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I’m going to confess something to all of you this morning, and it’s something I haven’t talked about much in public before. I have a terrible and irrational fear of driving over large bridges, or even over higher elevation mountains. It isn’t a reasonable fear because I’ve never actually had an accident anywhere like that before. I’ve never had any problems, but when I have to drive in spaces like that, a kind of panic sets in.
Years ago, after Teresa and I had just gotten married, we went on a beach vacation to Tybee Island, and on our way home, it was my turn to drive. We got to that part where you have to drive over a bridge – because, you know, it’s an island – and it was at that point that I decided Tybee Island might just be a nice place to live. Maybe we’ll just turn around and stay here forever.
On another occasion, I was driving the kids home. They had been at a summer day camp in Cullowhee where I was working, and that evening I picked them up and we headed home back to Waynesville. But there was a terrible accident on the highway. Traffic was backed up for miles, and when we finally got through the traffic to where the accident had happened, they told us we’d need to turn around. The road was completely closed. We’d have to go the other way, through Cherokee and into Maggie over a curvy mountain road of terror that some people describe as scenic. I suddenly thought it might be nice for me and the kids to have a mini holiday, and maybe just stay the night in Sylva.
Of course we pushed through both times, and we made it home ok. But it happens, doesn’t it? Sometimes we have to sort of wrestle with hard or scary things, and we can be tempted to just want to avoid them and walk away, to give up because we aren’t sure we can handle it.
I think it’s true for all of us – even if it’s different for each of us – that sometimes we face tasks that are daunting. Sometimes we face challenges that seem too big for us to go through on our own, obstacles that look too tall to overcome without some help, and we begin to doubt and we start to worry and we start to feel afraid.
And we sure could use a reminder that we aren’t on our own. We sure could use some sense of hope that someone is there to help us.
The disciples faced a daunting task in the story we just read. They had just followed the resurrected Jesus up a mountain, but it wasn’t the climb or the elevation that challenged them. You see, anytime Jesus goes up a mountain, then whatever happens next is going to be extra important. This is a reminder of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s even a reminder of Moses going up Mt Sinai. And so whatever Jesus says next, we know, is going to bear a lot of weight and meaning.
But I wonder if the disciples felt ready for it. Only eleven of them followed Jesus that day. They had just lost Judas not too long ago, and I wonder if their loss weighed on them. And this moment came right after they had just witnessed Jesus’s death, and then his resurrection, and all of that was a lot for anyone to take in. Now Jesus is going to tell them something else big, and I imagine they’re feeling like they’ve gone through enough already. Haven’t we climbed enough mountains, Jesus? Haven’t we gone on enough adventures?
But they follow him anyway. And when they see Jesus at the top of this mountain, they all worship him. But, Matthew tells us, some doubted. We don’t know what or who they doubted exactly, just that they doubted. Maybe it was just like a kind of anxious worry after all they had been through. Maybe it was all so heavy that they just felt uncertain. But in the midst of their worship, there was some doubt. Sometimes that just happens. In fact, it happens multiple times in Matthew’s Gospel alone. Sometimes doubt accompanies worship.
Now, notice that there aren’t two separate groups of people here. Jesus doesn’t separate them. It’s not like: on one side you have your good and faithful worshippers, and on the other you have your doubting disciples who just want go home and Jesus chastises them for it. Actually Jesus never says anything about it. And we really don’t know who among them doubted; maybe it was all of them. They’re human, after all, and they’ve been through a lot. It happens.
The thing is, whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit to it or not, we all deal with big questions at some point. We all face doubt, especially when we have big obstacles ahead of us or when our circumstances just feel uncertain, and we don’t always know what to do about that.
I think it helps here to understand what doubt actually is. The word doubt, at its root, shares its origin with the word double. Its original definition means “being of two minds.” Being of two minds. Part of you believes, and part of you is not so sure. You kind of believe, and you kind of don’t, and you’re wrestling with that.
So that means that doubt is not the opposite of belief. It isn’t the same thing as unbelief. Unbelief is when you’ve made a decision; you’re sure that something is just not true. Doubt, though, is going back and forth. It’s in between. It’s wrestling and asking questions. You’re of two minds.
Think about it like this: Think about courage and fear. We tend to think that the opposite of courage is fear, but the opposite of courage isn’t fear; it’s giving up and running away. If you’re a mountain climber, and you’ve decided to climb this crazy, tall mountain, you’re courageous when you set out to climb that mountain. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have fear – of course you do! – but courage means you climb it anyway. The opposite of that courage wouldn’t be fear – fear would be a natural thing to feel. No, the opposite of courage would be giving up, and running away. But courage means going forward, up the mountain, fears and all.
And by the way, feeling guilty about that fear doesn’t help you get up the mountain. Thinking about whether or not that fear is bad doesn’t actually give you more courage. And the same is true for doubt.
Often, when we face doubt, and we all do, we beat ourselves up over it. We think we’re not good believers; we think we don’t have enough faith. But that just isn’t true. Doubt is like the fear you face when you’re climbing the mountain. It’s normal. And it’s ok. Would life be easier without it? Absolutely, but there it is. And you just keep climbing.
That’s what faith means. It doesn’t mean an absence of doubt just like courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear; it means you keep questioning and learning and believing and praying. It means you keep going up the mountain.
So what do we do with our doubt? How do we keep going in faith when we’re uncertain of the path in front of us? What Jesus shows us here today is that we can trust that the one who sent us is always with us.
Jesus says to the disciples, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, and now I”m sending you. And this word for authority, exousia, is important because it tells us the kind of authority and power that Jesus was talking about. When we read about Jesus’s exousia elsewhere, it’s used to describe Jesus’s power and authority to teach, and to heal, to forgive, and to care for people. This is the kind of power and authority that Jesus is talking about. It’s the power and authority to restore and renew and build up; it’s creative power.
And it’s also the kind of power and authority you give away. Because Jesus says to his followers, I have the power and authority to do these things, and now I’m empowering you to go out into the world and do the same things. I’m empowering you to go out and change the world for the better.
The task ahead of the disciples is monumental. Jesus tells them, now that I’ve empowered you, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” and that means all kinds of people in all kinds of places – people who are different from them, and people who live in places that aren’t familiar to them. Go and teach and heal and forgive and care for people in need in all of those places. And “baptize them in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Bring people into loving-relationship with God whose very nature is loving-relationship.
And then Jesus says to teach them all to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember that Jesus’s commandments, what he says are the greatest commandments, are to love God and to love each other. That’s the message Jesus sends the disciples to teach, and he says go and teach and heal and care because that’s how we’re going to change the world. And we call this moment the Great Commissioning when Jesus commissions the disciples.
Well it’s our calling too. For United Methodists, this is where we get our own mission statement from: “to go and make disciples for the transformation of the world.” When Jesus commissions his disciples, we believe that means us too. We have that same mission. That’s what commission means – co-mission – to be in mission with. We are participants in God’s mission in the world to transform the world, and it’s no small task. We face obstacles and mountains and all kinds of divisive and destructive things that lead us to have doubt and fear.
But we are reminded that the one who sent us is the one who empowers us, and the one who sent us is the one who is ever-present with us. Jesus says, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You’re not alone on the journey. You’re not alone climbing the mountain. And our invitation is to remember to trust that the one who sent us is with us.
This message is so important, it’s how Matthew ends his Gospel – with these very last words – and it’s an appropriate conclusion to a book that started out back in chapter one, telling us that Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God with us. Jesus reminds us that he is with us to the end of the age. When we doubt, when we’re afraid, when we’re uncertain, Jesus says remember that I’m with you. That’s the promise at the end of this story.
Of course we know it’s not really the end of the story. Not for the disciples and not for us. It’s all a new beginning, a sending forth, a calling to go on this mission with God because there’s a whole world of people out there who need a reminder that they aren’t alone. There’s a whole world of people who need a sense of hope that someone is there to help them. And we have been called and empowered by God to do just that.
There’s a poem that I want to share with you. Many have attributed it to Saint Teresa of Avila who lived in the 1500s and she has a fascinating story, but it’s unlikely she wrote it. In fact some have said it was partially written by a Methodist minister in the 1880s, and then a Quaker missionary added to it a few years later. But I think it’s relevant for us today.
“Remember Christ has no body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless men now, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good through His Church which is His body.” Amen.