Even when we doubt

Have you ever noticed how the four gospels have such distinctively different endings?  The so-called shorter ending of Mark (16:8) takes place just outside Jerusalem, with the women who came to the tomb fleeing in terror.  Alternatively, Luke 24:50-53 pictures the disciples calmly watching Jesus ascend into the sky over Bethany.  And John 21:15-25 has Jesus and Peter taking a stroll by the Sea of Galilee.

Matthew?   Jesus and the Eleven are in Galilee, at a prearranged meeting site somewhere on a mountain.  We’re not told which one.  Some speculate that it might have been Mount Tabor, where Jesus was gloriously transfigured in the sight of Peter, James, and John (Matt 17:1-8).

It would make for a wonderful bit of narrative symmetry if true.  Before the Transfiguration, Jesus had told his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised again (Matt 16:21).  The revelation of his true majesty on the mountaintop seemed to function as an encouragement for the difficult road ahead.  And now, at the end of Matthew’s gospel and after the events of the Passion, it’s somehow satisfying to think that the disciples would have come back full circle to Tabor to behold the resurrected Jesus.

But again, Matthew doesn’t name the place.  What he does say, however, injects a typically sober note into the narrative.  When from a distance the disciples caught sight of Jesus on the mountain, they rejoiced and worshipped him.  “But,” Matthew says, “some doubted” (28:17, NIV).

Doubted?  Doubted what?  The New Century Version says, “some of them did not believe it was really Jesus.”  Some post-resurrection stories suggest that Jesus was not immediately recognizable (e.g., Luke 24:16; John 21:4), even to his followers.  It’s possible, then, that Matthew simply meant that some of the disciples weren’t sure it was him.

We have to remember, though, that this was not the first time they had seen him (John 20:19-23).  The meeting in Galilee would probably have happened after the episode with Thomas (John 20:24-29), in which the disciple blurted out “My Lord and my God!”  That makes it a little harder to imagine the disciples being unconvinced that it was their Master they met on the mountain.

What, then?  The Greek verb Matthew uses suggests the uncertainty and hesitation of one standing at a fork in the road.  The disciples’ doubt may have been less a matter of failing to recognize Jesus, and more a matter of indecision about what was to come next.  Thus, in The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases the text this way: “The moment they saw him they worshiped him.  Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.”

And how did Jesus respond?  He didn’t say, “O, ye of little faith!”  Nor did he say, “Well, that’s gratitude for you!  After all I’ve done for you, you’re still holding back?”  Instead, he commissioned them–co- plus mission–to make disciples everywhere, fulfilling God’s ancient intention to call forth a people who would bring light to the nations:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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 I have commanded you.  (Matt 28:18-20, NIV)

Bad business move, Jesus.  You can’t grow your company unless your leaders are completely sold on your mission, 110%.  There’s no room for those who hesitate or doubt.

Right?

Imagine being one of the doubters, standing on that mountain.  Imagine hearing the words of the Great Commission.  What would you be thinking and feeling at that moment?  All nations–wow.  Teach them to obey everything?  Heck, I don’t obey everything myself.  What right do I have to teach someone else?  No offense, Lord, but you’d better send someone else.

Then imagine this: without a trace of accusation or irony, Jesus says to you, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20, NIV), or perhaps, “Look…I am with you, every day, until everything is done.”

Would that make a difference?

“I am with you.”  It’s as if Matthew is bringing us all the way back to the beginning of the story: his name will be Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

God with us in his life, death, and resurrection.  God with us in the mission to which he has called us, whether it takes us to the other side of the world or the other side of the room.

We are a doubting, hesitating people.  But that’s OK.  Because we serve a God who promises to be with us, empowering us, even in our doubt.