BIBLE REASDING: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Matthew 28:16-20
"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee." How many disciples were there? Twelve! Every child in Sunday School knows that. But Matthew tells us that eleven went to Galilee. He's reminding us of Judas without telling us his name. But there were only eleven disciples to go to Galilee because of the betrayal and suicide of the twelfth.
Now, he didn't have to make that point. He could have said, "the disciples went to Galilee." No drawing attention to their impoverished number. As one commentary on Matthew observes, "the number eleven limps." That's a good phrase. The number eleven limps. In the scripture the important number is always twelve. Twelve sons of Jacob become the twelve tribes of Israel. There were twelve disciples - often known simply as "The Twelve." The number eleven never refers to anything terribly significant or good in the bible. In the newer Testament it is used only to refer to the remnant of disciples after the betrayal of Judas, to make the point that the group chosen by Jesus is broken. The number eleven limps. It is incomplete. It reminds us that, even in those exciting days following the resurrection the followers of Jesus were wounded by one of their own.
But if the number eleven limps it is number of the church that Jesus sends into the world. It is fallible, "elevenish," imperfect. And that corresponds to our experience most of the time, doesn't it? The church is made up of very ordinary people. Most of the church's work gets done by ordinary people. Most of the church's offerings come from folk of limited means. But what is even more important is that Jesus uses this group - our unimportant, fallible, elevenish selves - to do his work If we take the words of Matthew at face value - "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" - it doesn't seem like a wise choice! With all the power such authority implies wouldn't you want to call on the "best and brightest" instead of the broken and weak? But Jesus takes an imperfect church and gives it an eternal vocation. He takes ordinary Christians and puts them to work doing extraordinary things. So it has always been.
But that first group doesn't just limp in numbers. When they gathered there on that mountain in Galilee, "they worshipped, but some doubted." Let's be clear. They all worshipped and some of those who worshipped also doubted. In other words, here in this foundational story of the church, there is capacity for doubt and faith to coexist. What sort of doubt? Not like that of Thomas who doubted the story of the Resurrection and whose doubts were laid to rest. No, Matthew's doubters are in the presence of the Risen Christ and still they doubt.
Maybe their doubts can give us a clue to our own. Because, it would not surprise me if many of us, even as we gather in worship, have doubts. We may wonder about our doubts. We may feel guilty about them. We may even think that they disqualify us or make us into "not very good Christians." But maybe the doubts of some of those eleven can throw some light on our own.
A first doubt may be, "what does all this Easter stuff really mean?" After all, the death of Jesus crushed the hopes of so many disciples it's a wonder that more of them didn't join Judas in suicide. Then comes the resurrection. Maybe the doubt is not about, how can the dead be raised, but what does it mean that God raised this particular dead man? That's our question: as Christians we believe in one raised from the dead - but what's it mean? He didn't drive out the Romans, he didn't wave a magic wand and change the way nations relate; we know that believing in him doesn't provide us or our children with an insurance policy against the pains and anguish of life. So Jesus had been killed unexpectedly, he had been raised utterly unexpectedly and now he was not fulfilling their deepest hopes about the liberation of Israel. So what's it all about?
We share those doubts across the centuries, when we are hard-pressed to see what good our faith does in our life and in our world. We may confess that Jesus is Lord, but lots of other powers seem to have a more obvious and greater impact on our lives. We may pray "your will be done" but there are lots of other kingdoms in this world that seem to have more clout when it comes to getting what they want. So we wonder and we may doubt.
Second, there may be doubt around this matter of a Saviour who leaves. For Christians in 2014 the story of a man being drawn up into the clouds may not be immediately accessible. That has nothing to do with a materialistic world view in which miracles aren't supposed to happen. But we wonder about a Saviour who announces that all authority has been given to him and then leaves. Excuse me, that's not very helpful. This seems to be where the battle is being fought out and Jesus has decamped for a higher plane. How is all this power and authority and glory going to be fulfilled? So we doubt. Jesus' answer, then as now, is to commission us to action.
How is his kingdom made manifest? When disciples go out and do his will. The answer to their doubts and ours - go and do. There are many good examples of that in history and perhaps in our own lives. Where folk weren't sure they could do it, or do it all, or weren't even clear what the "it" was that they were supposed to do. But in the going and the doing in Christ's name, found purpose and meaning.
So, if we do not experience the power of the Risen Christ in the corridors of decision making and in the shape of public policy - we, you and I, elevenish and imperfect though we may be - are called into action to bring the gospel justice to bear on the corporate life of our society. If we don't experience the authority of the Risen Christ in our schools and universities then we who do believe are called to bring every thought to him as we struggle to teach and learn. If we don't hear his voice speaking in the boardrooms of business or banks or on the shop floor then we - you and I - are called to use his gospel as the filter through which all of our decisions are examined. In other words, whatever we do and wherever we do it, we have the responsibility and privilege of bearing witness to his rule.
But that may raise a third doubt: why this way? After all, why leave it to us, when the evidence would suggest we're not necessarily all that fit for the job. Why not just do it himself and get it over with? Look at Psalm 8, listen to the words of Genesis: we are told that mortals are a little less than God, crowned with honour and glory and given dominion. Manifesting, showing, living the rule of God has always been the human task. The authority that Christ claims is not new, it is merely authority reasserted. That restoration occurs in the midst of our own idolatry, disobedience and our constant efforts to be less than we were created to be. No, it's not an easy task. That's why he reminds us that he's always with us. Let's be quite honest. The evidence of Christ's power and authority is sometimes quite thin in our midst and the various powers and authorities around us resist, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently, our obedience. So our doubt may be, how can we do that? How do we go on with the ministry that belongs to all of us in such a setting. That's why it is so important that he doesn't leave us alone and we celebrate his continuing presence with us.
You may have noticed the emphasis in this sermon on action. On actually living our faith and putting it into practice. That same emphasis can help us understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Many people have troubles with the Trinity. In fact, we expect to. There are so many stories about how this is deep and complex and impossible to sort through. This three in one, one in three business. Who can hope to make sense of it? As so often happens with deep matters we don't understand we often get this one backwards. What I mean is that we start with the theory and then move toward the experience rather than the reverse. We need to start with the experience and then attempt to explain it. When the apple dropped on Isaac Newton's head he hadn't developed a theory of gravity and was seeking an experience to attach it to. The experience prompted him to try and establish an explanation for it. Most discoveries, most explanations in the history of science take that form. We experience something, we observe a phenomenon and then we try an account for it.
In the case of the Trinity we are dealing with experience. People of God who experienced the divine in three distinct ways. God, the one who created all life and what we see is the One Jesus taught us to call Abba. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was in ways that we have struggled to define since, also divine. The Holy Spirit, that sense of God with and in and through people. That's the experience. The experience occurred in the midst of a fiercely monotheistic spiritual culture. People for whom the conviction that there was one God and one God alone was virtually the most important spiritual assertion. So, we have a conviction about how the world works and we have an undeniable experience. How do we name it?
But experiences of one reality in different ways are not so curious to us. We are used to three different expressions of H2O: water, the liquid; ice, the solid; steam or vapour the gas. Is any one of those more or less H20? We are used to different experiences of one person. As Martin Goodwin I am at different times, husband, father, son, minister, colleague, friend. The difference with God that moves us into the realm of faith and miracle is that our Christian tradition maintains that those three aspects of God exist simultaneously and yet there is one God.
The experience of God which is given a name. And, according to Matthew, that experience of God which leads to worship, coexists with questions and doubts. I will never ask you to leave your brain outside when you come to worship here. No question is out of bounds. Yet I sometimes wonder if we hide in our questions (our doubts). As long as we can keep developing questions we don't have to decide. Do you do that? Are you doing that with the invitation of Christ? Our gospel as well as our Christian tradition point to the importance of experience over explanation in the life of faith. If we do not understand the Trinity, if we do not understand how Christ's rule might be manifested in our lives or in the life of our society, it may not be a lack of knowledge but a poverty of experience that holds us back. After all, we will always be fallible, incomplete and elevenish. But we are also called by Christ to go into our world in his name. How do you respond?
Acknowledgement: Frederick Dale Bruner