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.” (Matthew 28:16-20 – NRSVCE)
This Trinitarian text, which ends the Gospel, is unique to Matthew.
The commissioning of the disciples, however, is found in Mark 16:16-15 (“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned’.”), Luke 26:46-49 (“He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’.” Luke repeats something similar in Acts 1:6-8: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He
replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’.”) and John 20:21-23 (“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’.”)
It is clear that the small band of disciples walking around Galilee and nearby territories, has been fired into an energetic group of missionaries who see the world as their mission field. Commenting on this text from Matthew, one scholar observes: “No part of the Bible, with the possible exception of the letter to the Romans, has done more to give Christians the vision of a world-wide church. It has sent them to all nations, bearing the message of salvation through Christ, with which are linked the responsibility and privilege of obeying his words.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, VII: S. E. Johnson, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Exegesis (Nashville, 1951))
The sentence, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted”, is intriguing. The Greek verb distazo (διστάζω) can mean “doubt” but it can also mean “hesitate” or “waiver”. “Many translations have ‘some doubted’, and this may indeed be the meaning, but ‘hesitated’ seems more likely.” (L Morris, (1992). The Gospel According to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 179-180.) Perhaps Matthew is reassuring those in his audience who hesitate to accept Jesus as the Christ. Failure to ‘recognize him’ (see Luke 24:16 and John 21:4) and failure to give assent to his risen presence (see Thomas in John 20:24-25) is clearly a fact of life in the early communities. Sometimes there is more real belief in honest doubt than there is in unexamined assent.
The meaning of the sentence concerning baptism “in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is hotly disputed. First of all, we know of no time in which the Church did not celebrate baptism, yet Jesus seems not to have celebrated it. And, Acts 8:16 and 19:5 speaks of baptism ‘in the name of Jesus’. It is impossible to come up with a definitive explanation for this.
Secondly, the Trinitarian wording probably should not be seen as a liturgical formula but a theological statement of what occurs through baptism. And we should note that the Greek word onoma (ὄνομα) meaning “name”
is singular. The God revealed to us in the Bible is a community!
Over the centuries that missionary drive has shifted from the centre to the periphery of the Church’s life. It could be argued that that was always going to be inevitable. But can we rest with that situation?
A good question arises: What does it mean for me to be part of a missionary Church?
Pope Francis offers this challenge in his Apostolic Exhortation:
“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with him. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (November 2013), #26)