Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter – Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 1 May 2016
6 EASTER, 2016 EVENSONG
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-end; Matthew 28.1-10, 16-end.
As Matthew’s Gospel closes, the women who had kept faithful vigil at the cross are now, the first witnesses of the empty tomb and receive the first appearance of the risen Christ. Fidelity is rewarded.
They do not witness the actual resurrection. No one does in the gospels. What they experience – the earthquake, the appearance of the angel, the emptiness of the tomb – are the signs or traces of the divine activity that has brought it about.
The end of the Gospel has echoes of its beginning. The women’s experience recalls Joseph’s, when an angel told him not to be afraid and assured him that the “fullness” of Mary’s womb sprang not from infidelity but from a similar invasion of divine grace and power into the world. The “emptiness” of the tomb points to the raising of Jesus’ body as corresponding at the end of the Gospel, to the divine placing of the body in Mary’s womb at the beginning. The one, no less than the other, makes possible God’s being “with us” to the end of the age.
The risen Lord “meets” and accompanies them women who are already on their way to carry out the mission to deliver the angel’s message to the disciples. Matthew sees the reassuring presence in the missionary Church of the risen Christ: “I am, with you always, even to the end of the age.”
At one level, Matthew seems to make the scene as normal as possible. The risen Lord is simply “Jesus.” The exalted Lord of the Church’s faith and experience is the crucified man of Nazareth.
He repeats the angel’s commission, but with a significant difference: he now calls the disciples, who have not been seen since they deserted him, “brothers”. Their abandonment of him has been forgiven. They belong once more to the family of believers. So, the women are not only missionaries of the resurrection message, but also agents of reconciliation: the calling of all Christian people.
The women’s response, taking hold of his feet and worshipping him, is Matthew’s way of showing both the reality of the resurrection (Jesus is not a ghost) and the continuity between the pre-and post-Easter person of Jesus (they do the same things prior to Easter).
And so we come to the climactic scene of the entire gospel. In it the Lord gives his Church the instructions and assurances that will define its identity and mission until the end of time. All that has gone before – Jesus’ origins, birth, ministry, passion and death – has been leading to this.
Jesus can claim “all authority in heaven and earth” because, as obedient Son, he has fulfilled “all righteousness”. Now the preaching of the Church is to ensure that Jesus becomes, as the prophet foretold, the Messiah in whose “name the Gentiles will hope” (Isaiah 42.4, quoted in Matthew 12.21)
From the beginning of the story, when the family of Jesus, fearing the hostility of Herod’s son in Judea, chose to “withdraw” to Galilee, that region has been a place of refuge. After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus again “withdrew” to Galilee, “Galilee of the Gentiles,” causing the people who had sat in darkness to see a great light (4.16).
His appearance as risen Lord on a mountain in Galilee, following his rejection and execution in Jerusalem is simply the last instance of this pattern of “withdrawal” and the one to which all the others had pointed. “Galilee of the Gentiles” is a symbol of the entire Gentile world, now sitting in darkness but awaiting the “great light” of the Gospel.
The disciples, obedient to the word of Jesus and the message of the women, have gone to Galilee to meet their risen Lord. They have gathered on a mountain. It is not given a name: its significance is theological rather than geographical. Important things happen on mountains in Matthew:
Jesus’ rejection of Satan’s offer of world domination; his transfiguration and acknowledgement as God’s beloved Son; above all, before a great crowd humanity, his communication to his disciples of the interpretation of the Law that would make them the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”
Now, on a mountain in Galilee, the disciples are commissioned to take that instruction to the nations, “making disciples” of them so that the Church may realize Israel’s role to be the “light of the nations”.
For all the solemnity of the occasion, there is great simplicity and humanity about it as well. As in the earlier appearance to the women, Jesus does not appear in heavenly splendour: he is simply “Jesus,” the one they have known and followed. But when the disciples see him, they fall to the ground in worship, just as the Magi had at the beginning.
Some, we are told, hesitated or “doubted.” We are not told why they did so. Was it disbelief that Jesus was really raised from the dead and that this was he? Was it lingering guilt at their recent desertion? Whatever the cause, we have in this climactic scene, Matthew’s recognition that weakness and failure will persist in the Church. Yet, it is such a community, people like us, that Jesus approaches and to whom he gives his great commission.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the opposite of doubt in the Christian faith is not certainty but faith and trust in Jesus. We do not need to have answered every intellectual problem about faith before entering into his mission. Faith in him is enough.
Satan had offered Jesus an easy path to world power – at the price of falling down and worshipping him. Faithful to his mission from the Father – that he should enter into the suffering of the world and give his life as a ransom for many (20.28) – Jesus rejected that suggestion.
Now that he has fulfilled his mission in the way appointed by God, Jesus claims that “all authority in heaven and earth” has been “given” to him, given by the one to whom it truly belongs: God.
It is in virtue of this authority and in view of this role that Jesus commissions the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” His own mission had been to Israel. Now, that appeal is to be extended through the members of the Church to the nations of the world.
In this worldwide mission the disciples are commanded to do four things:
- To go out
- to make disciples of the nations
- to baptize
- to teach.
The central command is that of making disciples; baptizing and teaching them the means to this end. The members of the nations are to receive the formation the original disciples have undergone, as told in the Gospel; being personally called by Jesus, inducted by him into the family of God, learning both from his teaching and his example as healer and instrument of God’s mercy, schooled in the way of service in imitation of the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (20.28).
They are to make of the nations scribes “trained for the kingdom of heaven” (13.52), who know how to bring out the treasure chest things new (the instruction of Jesus) and things old (the Law and scriptural treasury of Israel). Matthew, which seeks to portray the life and ministry of Jesus as the fulfilment of scriptural promise, is the handbook for this process.
Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is the initiation into it. The formula recalls the “Trinitarian moment” at the outset of Jesus’ public life. Following his baptism by John “to fulfil all righteousness”, the Spirit descended upon him and he heard the Father’s affirmation “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” 3.17).
To be baptized into the name of the Trinity, is to be drawn into that same divine human communion; it is to become a beloved son or daughter upon whom the Father’s favour rests. This is not earned through personal merit but received a gift.
The final element of “discipling” the nations is teaching them to “observe” all that Jesus has commanded his own disciples: especially the teaching contained in the Sermon on the Mount, authoritative interpretation of the Law where the supreme criterion is what God wants: “mercy not sacrifice,” (Hosea 6.6; cf. Matt. 9.13), where “justice, mercy, and faith” are the “weightier matters” (23.23) and where love, in its “double direction” (love of God/love of neighbour) is the “greatest commandment” of the Law (22.34-40).
Last of all comes the solemn assurance of the Lord’s presence in the community to the end of the age. An angel had pronounced Jesus’ birth to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to be personally “with us.” His ministry has been the continual enactment of that divine presence. Now the Church is assured that, the end of time, it is to be the instrument for realizing the divine presence in the nations of the world. The Gospel’s account of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry told is no simple record of something accomplished but now over. It is an example of a teaching and healing ministry the risen Lord continues in the Church on a worldwide scale. In the stories of the disciples with the earthly Jesus the Church is to recognize its own experience with the risen Lord.
The Gospel’s conclusion is open-ended. Jesus has been raised and exalted to God’s right hand, where he enjoys “all authority in heaven and on earth,” but he is no absentee Lord. His struggle to displace the grip of Satan and reclaim the world for the rule of God continues as, clad with his authority, the disciples go out on their mission to the nations of the world.
This final scene sets out a programme for the future whose only limit is the “end of the age.” When we think of the composition of the community responsible for the gospel, of its precarious social position in a remote province of Rome’s vast empire, the boldness of the vision here is stunning.
Today the Church undertakes mission conscious that too often the “authority” with which missionaries have gone out, appealing to this Great Commission has been one modeled on or allied imperial power. It has been one insensitive to other cultures and religious traditions.
But this authority must be understood in the light of the whole Gospel: that of the Son of Man who “came not be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” It is an authority designed to liberate rather than to dominate. It makes its claim principally through the suffering plight of those whom Jesus called “the least of my brothers and sisters” (25.31-46).