Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 – NRSV).
These are the last words in the Gospel of Matthew. Although this commissioning of the disciples is unique to Matthew, each of the Gospels has a “sending” passage – see for example Mark 16:16, Luke 24:48-49 and John 20:21. To be a disciple is to know yourself as one who is sent. The Church is, of its very nature, missionary. (The English word “mission” comes from the Latin word mittere meaning “to send”.)
“After his explanation of the claim circulating among the Jewish people that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, Matthew returns to his own account of what he believes actually took place. Events on Easter morning at and around the tomb give way now to a report of an encounter of the eleven disciples with the risen Jesus in Galilee, in which they are commissioned for disciple making in all the world. As he commissions them, the risen Jesus confirms the full authority he has from God and assures them that as they fulfil their discipling task, he will always be with them. The discipling role involves connecting people by baptism to the action of the Father through the Son and by means of the Holy Spirit which has been the subject of Matthew’s narrative, and passing on for their observance as well what Jesus has taught the disciples.” (J Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005, 1260-1261.)
the eleven: Matthew follows Mark here and (implicitly) notes the absence of Judas. From Matthew 10:1 (“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”) to Matthew 26:47 (“While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.”) it has been “the twelve”.
disciples: The Greek word is mathētēs which literally means “one who learns”. This designation of those who gathered around Jesus is introduced by Matthew at 5:1-2 (“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.”) Another essential characteristic is added here: Being a disciple is being sent!
Galilee: Unlike the other Gospel writers, Matthew situates much of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. This final instruction to go “to the mountain” suggests a place with which the disciples are very familiar. We are prompted to recall the discourse that so defines Jesus’ teaching in Matthew – see 5:1-7:29 – the “Sermon on the Mount”.
they worshiped him: Earlier Matthew has indicated that the women worshiped him – see 28:9. And Jesus had told the women to tell the disciples to go into Galilee where they too would see and worship him – see 28:10.
but some doubted: The Greek verb is distazō which means “doubt or “waver”. It is difficult to know precisely what this means in the context. But it is interesting that the only other occasion on which Matthew uses distazō it is also in the context of worship – see 14:31 & 33. Here, it is in reference to Peter who embodies both worship (faith) and doubt. One commentator writes: “Worship was the natural response to the realization that the Jesus who had meant so much to them throughout his earthly ministry was stronger than death and was alive again. Matthew goes on to say, but some hesitated, the meaning of which is not immediately obvious. Many translations have ‘some doubted’, and this may indeed be the meaning, but ‘hesitated’ seems more likely (so JB). It can scarcely mean that the hesitators were included among the worshipers; Matthew is saying that there were those who worshiped and there were those who hesitated. But why did they hesitate? Perhaps they were not sure that the person they were seeing was the one who was crucified. Perhaps they were not sure that Jesus really was risen; they may have wondered whether they were seeing a vision, not a real person. Perhaps they were not sure that it really was Jesus who was before them (cf. LB, ‘some of them weren’t sure it really was Jesus!’). We must bear in mind that they were not alone in having difficulty in recognizing Jesus. The two who walked with him to Emmaus did not know who he was (Luke 24:16; cf. vv. 37, 41), and the disciples in the boat did not recognize the risen Jesus on the shore (John 21:4). But in any case we may ask, Who has perfect faith? We should bear in mind that even one of the eleven, Thomas, not only doubted but roundly denied the resurrection when told about it by the ten (John 20:24–25). It is surely not surprising that when the whole body of the followers of Jesus knew that he had been crucified, that he had died, and that he had been buried in a sepulchre, some should have difficulty with the thought that now he was alive again.” ( Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 744-745.)
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”: This is a definitive statement. Jesus’ mission has been successfully accomplished. We can hear its echoes in St Paul’s statement to the Christians in Rome: “With God on our side who can be against us?” – see Romans 8:31-39. We can trust the authority of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection! Indeed, perhaps Matthew found it necessary to reiterate this precisely in the light of the Cross and the rejection of Jesus’ authority?
make disciples of all nations: In 10:5 the instruction has been to “go nowhere among the Gentiles”. Now – perhaps in the light of Jesus’ absolute authority vindicated in his resurrection – the disciples are to bear witness to the whole world. The time has come, the victory has been won! There is a difficulty here however. One commentator writes: “That the universal mission is no Matthean innovation is clear from the equivalent material in Lk. 24 and especially v. 47. But as I have said elsewhere, ‘One might suspect that if the mission to the Gentiles had been as patently obvious to the earliest disciple group as the instruction from the risen Lord should have made it, then the problems leading up to the meeting of Acts 15 would not have occurred in the way they did’. Compression is involved here: Matthew and Luke (but neither is the actual innovator here) both merge things together, some of which clearly came to be recognised as the will of the risen Jesus only with the passage of time. Acts tells us something of how this happened, and we have been able to discern various elements of Matthew’s thinking that relate to this innovation, but otherwise the development is lost from sight, and scholarly attempts to fill the gap are speculative and often represent the attempt to ground the new view in sectarian self-interest rather than in the continuing role of the risen Lord. Whatever the complexity of the actual development, it remains important that the NT widely claims the mission to all nations is grounded in a command of the risen Jesus. This suggests that it was rooted in a fresh perception of the significance of Jesus which came from post-resurrection encounters with him. Though the disciples did not see this at once, Matthew claims that what the early disciples experienced in post-Easter encounter with the risen Jesus implied the need for the mission to all nations.” (J Nolland, op cit, 1266-1267.)
baptizing them: The English word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein meaning “to immerse” or “to wash”. Ritual washing was part of the Jewish tradition. In the Sifre, a rabbinic commentary on chapters 14-15 of the Book of Numbers, we read of the practice of ritual bathing for a pagan becoming a Jew. The Qumran documents tell us of the Essenes – a group of zealots dating at least from the 1st century BC – who took baths of purification before eating or before speaking with a superior. Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptizer had belonged to the Essene community. The men who were to become the apostles of Jesus received baptism from John – a rite of purification and forgiveness of sins. Thus John had said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17) It is uncertain whether Jesus actually “baptized” anyone in this way. (See John 3:22-23; 4:1-3.)
In the apostolic community baptism of water is conferred “in the name of Jesus” (see Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; see also 1Corinthians1:13-16; 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3). The Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and referred to in this text from Matthew – does not become part of the Latin rite of baptism until the end of the 7th century.
From the very beginning, baptism is also associated with instruction so that the baptized know what they are doing. One scholar writes: “We can find a certain process of evangelization in the Acts of the Apostles. Even though in the case of the eunuch baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-39) the catechesis was very brief, we can nevertheless see a catechetical plan. For example, in Acts 10:37-43, which must be linked to Paul’s sermons (16:31-32; 17:22-31; 19:2-5), everything is centered on the person of Jesus now alive and as salvation. The emphasis is more on this salvation than on a doctrine. The wonders accomplished signify the very presence of Jesus in the community, in the midst of its members (Acts 2:14-19). He is the fulfillment of the prophets (Acts 3:18,21,24,25); he is described as the center of the world (Acts 3:20-21) and its reconstruction in its primordial unity. He is the author of life. Belief in Jesus means acceptance of the message he brought. At the heart of this message is his person, the object of faith. Therefore, to believe means to adhere to Jesus as Lord through radical conversion. This is the necessary condition for admission to baptism (Acts 2:42; 8:12, etc). Reception of baptism is a public liturgical act that expresses faith and concretizes it in the sacrament. (Adrien Nocent OSB, “Christian Initiation During the First Four Centuries” in Anscar J Chupungco, editor, Handbook for Liturgical Studies – Volume IV: Sacraments and Sacramentals, A Pueblo Book, 2000, 8.)
I am with you always: This promise recalls the theophany on Sinai – see Exodus 3:1-15. It runs like a golden thread through the entire Bible.
Muhammad Ali was talking to a group of Harvard students in 1975. One of them asked for a poem. Ali simply said: “Me. We.” Make of it what you will. I choose to believe Ali was saying something profound, something we need to recognize today more than ever. Human beings are constituted in their humanity through relationships. To be is to be with and to be part of the lives of others. The first person plural pronoun – “we” – ought to be the foundation of our being in the world and our language, not the first person singular pronoun – “I”. The individualism that dominates our thinking and behaviour and governance in the West, is destructive. It is in conflict with our true natures as social beings.
The English poet, John Donne (1572-1631), summed it up nicely: “No man is an island,/ Entire of itself;/ Every man is a piece of the continent,/ A part of the main./ If a clod be washed away by the sea,/ Europe is the less,/ As well as if a promontory were:/ As well as if a manor of thy friend’s/ Or of thine own were./ Any man’s death diminishes me,/ Because I am involved in mankind./ And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/ It tolls for thee.” Our health and well-being as individuals and as a society, depend on our ability to recover the experience of “being part of the main”.
Today is the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. It is a celebration of the Loving Community that we call God. Our Gospel text is a brief and simple one – Matthew 28:16-20: “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. The original Greek word – baptizein – carries the notion of “immersion”. We human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Loving Community we call God. “Communion” belongs to us as something natural – “Me is We”. That is who and what we are as God’s creation. It is also our destiny – yet to be realized. The realization of that destiny is made possible through the Incarnation. God’s being in the flesh through Jesus of Nazareth and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit ensures the ultimate victory of life over death, love over hatred, goodness over evil, truth over the lie.
The command to “baptize” is then much more than a command to perform the sacramental act of pouring water in the name of the Father etc. When we “baptize” someone, we commit ourselves to enabling them to be “immersed” in that Loving Communion. Eventually, the whole world will be drawn into that Communion. As disciples now, we are called to be the place where that Loving Communion begins to become real for people.
Is “baptism” an event of the past or is it an active part of my life now? Do I see myself and others in terms of a Loving Communion or has my mind been turned away by individualism?