Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sermon: Jesus Sends Doubters

Last weekend, I was in New Jersey and preached at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, the church where Monique and I attended and I worked during seminary. It has been my tradition to post the full text of my sermons along with the audio when it is available.

The audio may be found here.

Full text below:
"Jesus Sends Doubters"
Matthew 28:16-20
[Open with prayer]
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 28. Let’s start in verse 16: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.” We need to back up and get some context. Earlier in Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to Jesus’ tomb. There they witnessed a violent earthquake, the descent of an angel, the fainting of the guards, and as they were going away from the tomb, they ran into Jesus himself. They took his instruction to the disciples: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” And quickly they departed. At the beginning of the passage today the eleven remaining disciples are climbing the mountain to find Jesus.
Did some of the disciples’ faces radiate joy? Did others radiate hope? Did others mix the two, like the women in verse eight, who were “afraid yet filled with joy?” As the eleven climbed the mountain, each one knew that something was going to happen, even if that something was nothing at all.

According to Matthew’s telling, as they rounded the corner at the top of the mountain, they saw Jesus for the first time since Good Friday. And “when they saw him, they worshiped him.” Having no problem recognizing who Jesus was, perhaps seeing the scars in his hands, feet, and side, the disciples do what any sane person would do when he or she sees the one who claimed to be the Son of God alive after a crucifixion. They worshipped him. They all worshipped him.
“But,” the passage says, “some doubted.” The Gospel According to John highlights the doubt of Thomas, who refuses to believe in the resurrection, but with Thomas his doubt dissolves as soon as he sees Jesus. He proclaims, “My Lord and My God!” It’s a different story here in Matthew’s Gospel. The eleven come to the top of the mountain and proclaim Jesus’ deity by worshipping him. But, quite unlike Thomas, even after seeing his resurrected body, perhaps even after touching it, some still doubt.
What kind of doubt do these disciples experience? The Greek word suggests hesitancy, a not-willingness to give yourself to something. This, in other words, is not your run-of-the-mill doubt which we might call “cynicism.” Had the disciples grown cynical, when the women came to tell them of their interaction with Jesus near the tomb, they probably would have crossed their arms and stayed home. This is an altogether different kind of doubt. In John’s narrative, Thomas doubts until he sees. Here, some of the eleven doubt even though they have seen, tasted, and touched for themselves.
And we doubt, too, in both the way Thomas doubted and the way that some of the disciples doubted here. One the one hand, we have the Thomas kind of doubt that sits with arms and legs crossed and says “Prove it to me.” On the other hand, we have the doubt in our passage that doubts even with the proof in front of it. Since Matthew was there, and he wrote our passage today, let’s just call it “Matthew doubt.” This doubt refuses to trust what’s right in front of it.
Matthew doubt is very much like going through the hassle of going skydiving (buying the tickets, getting the training, getting up early, driving to the airfield, getting up in the airplane) only to refuse to jump. You were told on the ground that the parachute is top quality. It was explained that it was packed and certified by a trusted company to ensure safety. You were also told that no one has ever died because this company’s parachute refused to open. But, still, at 1,000’s of feet in the air, you balk. You refuse to jump. That’s Matthew doubt, and many of us deal with it on a daily basis.
And, I submit, Matthew doubt is far worse than Thomas doubt. Thomas doubt is sometimes nothing more than a way for some adults to refuse to deal with evidence or argument or the witness of the Spirit in their lives. Matthew doubt, on the other hand, is actual unfaithfulness. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, when we show a lack of trust in Jesus, as some of the disciples did on the mountain, we put ourselves in far more peril than the atheist who petulantly dismisses the claims of Christ. Look at the Old Testament and you will see that God is far more harsh with his children than with the other nations because God disciplines those he loves.
We show our Matthew doubt, our refusal to trust Jesus when he’s right in front of us, in at least this way. We show it when we say “no” to things that we should say “yes” to. Our child asks for something that we know we should give him or her, but we refuse because we are not in the mood. A convicting word comes from the pulpit and challenges us to a new practice or lifestyle, but we refuse it. We see someone in need on the road and, knowing that we should aid them, we refuse and keep going. This behavior evidences doubt that refuses to trust the Jesus who died and rose again and who now sits as King at the Father’s right hand. We doubt when we say “no” to the things that we should say “yes” to.
When we say “no” to the things we should say “yes” to, we see the real problem of Matthew doubt. It stops us in our tracks. We stagnate. We cease moving forward.
In our passage today, had those few disciples stagnated in verse 17, we would not have the church today. But Jesus doesn’t let their Matthew doubt deter him. He gives the Great Commission. Jesus sent doubters. We might expect for Jesus to do something to directly meet the disciples’ doubt like he did with Thomas (“Here are my hands, here are my sides. Touch, see for yourself”), but he doesn’t, does he? High up on the mountain, the disciples have the parachute of their faith on, and they’re standing on the precipice, looking out over the ground far, far below. Jesus doesn’t say to squeamish Matthew, “Now, it’s okay. The parachute was packed safely and double-checked for reliability.” Instead, Jesus is at the front of the airplane, yelling, “Go, go, go, go, go!” In effect, the Great Commission is Jesus putting his sandled foot directly in the Matthew’s backside and pushing him out the door. Jesus didn’t hold Matthew back for remedial lessons. Jesus sent his doubting disciples on a mission.
What did he kick them out the door to do? Get this irony, Jesus sent doubters to make disciples. The command is commonly translated into English as “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” but there’s a little bit of misrepresentation here. Only the phrase “make disciples” is a command. What we have as “go” is a participle that might just as well be translated, “As you are going.” The command is, then, “Therefore, as you are going, make disciples.” Jesus solution to his disciples’ doubt is to command them to make disciples. The going is assumed (Jesus is ready and willing to push them out of the plane, after all), but making disciples is the point.
And what kind of disciple making is it? Jesus is very specific. The disciples are to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. A parachute instructor doesn’t push someone out of the plane without first teaching them how the parachute works. Jesus, in the same way, doesn’t tell the eleven to make disciples without telling them how. Jesus teaches that disciples are made by baptism and teaching, an order that the disciples themselves experienced as they, more than likely, were baptized by John in the Jordan and then sat under Jesus’ teaching. Baptism comes first. It is entrance into the full life of the teaching church. The eleven will fulfill the mission to make disciples as they baptize and teach.
And what is the command to make disciples grounded in? Nothing other than Jesus himself. First, Jesus says that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and, second, that he will be with them always. In the first place, Jesus is the king who rules heaven, earth, and the church from his heavenly throne. In the second place, he is with the church in the presence of his mighty Holy Spirit. And it is this Jesus who on the mountain sent doubters by commissioning them for a mission, a mission that we now know from history resolved their doubt in action. It is in the hands of doubters that God placed the growth of his church.
And, Jesus the King, thanks be to God, still sends doubters today. He still sends you and me! For those of us who are doubting now, and for all of us who have had Matthew doubt cripple us into stagnation, this is the good news of the Gospel for us: Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, in spite of our doubt, has his sandled foot in our backs ready to kick us out of the airplane. In his life, he taught us how to live. In his death, he freed us from the weights that tied us to the ground. In his resurrection, he loaded us into a new life. In his ascension, he flew us to the heights of heaven. And, at Pentecost, Jesus gave us the gift of faith, that great parachute packed with the gospel and signed, sealed, and delivered by the Spirit of God himself.
All of us doubters are all poised on the precipice, with our Matthew doubt gripping the bar above the open door white-knuckled. We look pathetic, but Jesus calls us anyway. His Great Commission calls us to make disciples, but first we have to get out of the plane. That Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is faithful to push you out the door, and the Spirit is faithful to lead you to those places where disciples can be made. So, brothers and sisters, stop resisting, and let Jesus get you going into that Great Commission: “Therefore, as you are going, make disciples by baptizing and teaching.”
Now, pull out your planners or calendars. Hold them up. Come on, I’m serious. Hold them up! We all lead busy, busy lives. Because of that, planners and calendars are probably, next to the Bible, the best tools we have to lead truly spiritual lives. Seriously, if it’s going to get done, where else would you park a reminder? That’s why, if you bring something other than your Bible to church, it should be your calendar.
Take a moment and think about where you are in your life. I imagine that just about all of us can feel that place where we’re on the precipice with our knuckles white from holding on for dear life, scared to let Jesus push us out of the plane. Imagine that place in your life and write whatever comes to mind down. It could be “conversation about nursing home with grandma,” or “conversation about finances with spouse.” It could be the name of the local charity you’ve felt called to get involved with, or the ignored backyard chore that’s causing a strain in your marriage relationship. It could be “Baptism.” Remember that baptism is the first way that we are made disciples. Whatever it is, you know it, so whatever it is, no matter how silly, write it down.
Now, look at your calendar, and find the most free day you have in the next week. Now, I know some of you are thinking, “Yeah, just look at my calendar.” Okay, okay, you’re busy. So, find the least busy day and write down, “Get moving on [fill in the blank, with whatever it was that you wrote down].” That’s right, decide now when you’re going to loosen your hands from the bar and let Jesus push you out the door. If you don’t decide to do it and park a reminder where you can find it now, then you won’t do it later. So, for the sake of the Gospel, park something on your calendar.
[Wait until everyone’s done] There, you’ve done it! You’ve now placed yourself in a position for a miracle to happen. I imagine that you probably still have that Matthew doubt creeping up your spine, but that’s okay. In a few days you’re going to let go of yourself just long enough to be pushed by Jesus into the expansive freedom of obedience and mission, and once you’re out the door and falling, you’ll with new eyes see the beauty and grandeur of God’s love for you in Christ. You’ll be a witness as you fall in the power of the Spirit, and you will, through the Spirit, make disciples, by bringing them to this place for baptism and teaching. In Jesus Christ, God has made you his witnesses. In Jesus Christ, God has set you free for the future.
Jesus knew that the solution to some doubt was not proof but action, and in the action you begin today, you will be the proof that some people need to see.
Thanks be to God—Jesus still sends doubters.

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