Thought for the day
When people struggle to believe in God at all, our Christian faith in God as Trinity may seem somehow a needless complication. Yet, we do know that relationships and relationality stand at the heart of our human wellbeing. Words do fail us, of course, and yet we know that God in God’s own very being is Love. This inner love (the “immanent Trinity”) has been spoken and told, disclosed and revealed in Jesus and the Spirit (the “economic Trinity”). And yet, we affirm one God. This evident paradox must first of all be lived in prayer and only then haltingly alluded to in stumbling words.
Father, ground of our being, we know and believe that you are Love itself. Help us let ourselves be embraced by your Love, as we follow Jesus and live by the gift of his Spirit to us all. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Matt 28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Two sets of observations are necessary at the start.
(1) After the death of Jesus, the Gospels offer two kinds of stories: “Empty Tomb Proclamation Narratives” and “Resurrection Appearance Stories”. In the four Gospels, the empty tomb narratives broadly resemble each other. However, the stories of appearances of the Risen Lord are different in each Gospel. For example: Mark (none); Matthew (this scene); Luke (Emmaus and a closing scene); John (the gift of the Holy Spirit; Thomas; plus all of chapter 21). There is no point in attempting to harmonise these. They are “theological narratives”, i.e. symbolic tableaux, exploring meaning for the time of writing.
(2) All the gospels in their closing moments negotiate the discontinuity and continuity between the experience of the historical Jesus and the Risen Lord. The question in people’s minds was: how will the Lord be with us? Different answers are given and the final paragraph in Matthew’s Gospel teaches us that the Lord will be with us in the mission.
Kind of writing
This is a symbolic scene, which gathers in the teaching of Matthew’s gospel. The connection with that Gospel is clear: mountain, teachings, mission, be with you. It shares with the other Gospels that common feature of doubt when the Risen Lord presents himself as well as the idea that mission is inseparable from that reassuring appearance of the Risen Lord.
Old Testament background
(1) There is no real Old Testament background to the doctrine of the Trinity. The figure of Wisdom provides, however, some kind of parallel, which eventually found expression in the doctrines both of the incarnation and of the Holy Spirit.
(2) “I will be with you” is found very widely in the OT: Gen 26:3; 31:3; 48:21; Exod 3:12; 10:10; 18:19; Num 1:4; 14:43; Deut 31:8, 23; Josh 1:5, 17; 3:7; 7:12; Judg 6:16; Ruth 2:4; 1 Sam 17:37; 20:13; 2 Sam 14:17; 15:35; 1 Kgs 11:38; 1 Chr 22:11, 16; 2 Chr 18:3; 20:17; Isa 43:2; Amos 5:14. It finds expression in the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.
New Testament foreground
Mountains are a special feature of Matthew’s Gospel (12-7-6-4).
Authority is important in all the gospels (10-10-16-8).
“All the nations”: “nations” occurs elsewhere (10-8-4-2)
I will be with you is an echo of “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:22-24)
As well as the reading for the day, the last lines of Romans 8 offer a similar reassurance of “I will be with you”:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39 NRSV adjusted)
Verse 16 Eleven because Judas—who hanged himself in this Gospel—had not been replaced. Galilee points to the mission place of Jesus himself and the mission to the Gentiles becomes the place of encounter. The mountain is symbolic. Moses got his teaching on a holy mountain and likewise Jesus taught from a holy mountain, starting with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Matthew gives no clue as to when or even where Jesus’ directed them.
Verse 17 Doubt, sometimes presented as the lack of immediate recognition, is a reassuring feature of the Resurrection Appearance Stories. Even in late versions, the memory of initial doubt retained its force. We can probably conclude that they were not expecting such an encounter and so they did not project it or simply dream it up. Worship of Jesus— unknown, of course, in the ministry—is a feature of the earliest strands of Christianity. Somehow or other they were able to include Jesus in the worship of God without disturbing the monotheism inherited from the mother faith.
Verse 18 The extraordinary statement of Jesus is a narrative version of a new cosmic role for the Risen Jesus, developed after the resurrection and found even earlier in Paul (“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” [1Corinthians 8:6]) and in early Christian hymns such as Eph 1:3-14 or Col 1:15-20.
Verse 19 In Matthew’s Gospel, this is a big development from the earlier restriction to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Matthew 10:5-6]; “He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”” [Matthew 15:24]). The opening to the Gentiles is anticipated in the Parable of the Last Judgment (“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” [Matthew 25:31-33]). Baptism (lit. immersion) is found from earliest Christianity onwards (see Romans 6). A doctrine of the Trinity emerges fully only in the doctrinal disputes of the third and fourth centuries. However, the seeds are already present in certain New Testament formulations such as this one here. Finally, the Holy Spirit has a strong role in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 1:18, 20; 3:11; 12:32; 28:19).
Verse 20 Matthew’s Gospel is quite didactic in tone and even in layout. You have the five great blocs of teaching (5-7, 10, 13, 18; 23-25). This convenient gathering in of Jesus’ teaching made this Gospel a popular text for exposition and as a source for ethics. The final expression is immensely reassuring. When you look back into the stories of figures of the Old Testament, everyone who is anyone is told finally not to be afraid for “I will be with you” (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, the prophets and so forth). The end of the age (the word mean both age and eternity cf. Matt 12:32; 13:22, 39-40, 49; 21:19; 24:3; 28:20) is the topic of the last series of teaching in Matthew 23-25.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus meets the disciples for the last time. His final words give them direction for their future. Perhaps you can recall such parting moments in your own life – leaving home, school, college, or the death of a loved one. Was there an occasion when the words spoken to you gave you direction for the future?
2. Perhaps you can identify with Jesus in the story, when as a parent, teacher, or in some other way you sent someone on his/her way in life, knowing that you would not be with him or her as in the past. When did the way you parted help the other to make his or her way in life?
3. Despite this extraordinary encounter with Jesus some of the disciples doubted. Dealing with questions and doubt is part of an adult faith journey. How have your questions and doubts helped to shape the faith you have today?
4. Jesus commissioned this collection of believing and doubting disciples to carry on his work. We inherit that mission today. How do you see yourself as commissioned to continue the mission of Jesus?
5. Jesus told his disciples that although he would not be physically with them he would be with them in a new way right through life. Have there been times when you were reassured by the love and support of another even though s/he was not physically present with you? What are the things that help you to be aware of the presence of Jesus with you on life’s journey?
God our Father you have given us a share in the life that is yours with your Son and the Holy Spirit.
Strengthen that life within your Church, that we may know your presence, observe your commands, and proclaim the gospel to every nation.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.