“When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
By Jennifer Strawbridge
Despite the clarity with which Jesus speaks in this evening’s gospel, the scenes before his encounter with the women and then his disciples are anything but clear. There have been at least two earthquakes, dead bodies have risen from their tombs — which many call this gospel’s “zombie apocalypse.” And this is where the story for today really begins, as some women, unfazed by all of this, go to Jesus’ tomb, find it empty, and are given a message from an angel and then from Jesus himself, to tell the disciples to go to Galilee. And the whole gospel story that we hear this evening of Jesus’ resurrection centers on the testimony of these few women.
It’s one of the most consistent elements of the resurrection stories — apart from the empty tomb, of course — that the first witnesses to the resurrection are women, and that in some of the gospels, such as this one, the male disciples believe their message without having to check it out for themselves.
And so it is that the disciples who arrive in Galilee, a pretty good trek north from Jerusalem, have not yet seen the risen Jesus, they haven’t yet heard his voice, and they have left the comfort of their room, locked away from the world, in order to set out into an unseen future with only a promise that they will encounter Jesus somewhere along the way. This sense of fear and unknown and hope that the disciples exude might speak all too clearly to some of those finishing their degrees this term.
But the story doesn’t end here, for when they get to Galilee and when they do encounter Jesus, as he and the women promised, their response is rather peculiar and surprisingly mixed. Some travel all of this way, encounter the risen Jesus, and immediately worship him. But some travel all of this way, encounter the risen Jesus, and doubt.
And this we don’t quite expect. They’ve had zombies, earthquakes, angels, as well as all that Jesus said throughout his earthly life about his rising from the dead, and yet despite all of this, they walk all the way to Galilee, and they doubt.
And this really doesn’t make sense to us. In our minds, worship isn’t associated with doubt to the point that even if we do doubt, we aren’t all that comfortable admitting it in this kind of setting. In this moment of Jesus’ resurrection — the event we spend no less than seven weeks celebrating at this time of the year, we’d expect the gospel to give us something a bit clearer and unequivocal when it comes to greeting the risen Christ. But instead we simply get this: they worshiped him, but some doubted.
And yet what follows this is even more surprising, because Jesus doesn’t then look at them and send the doubters home and keep the worshipers close. He doesn’t tell those who are racked with doubt and anxiety that they need to go figure themselves out before he’ll acknowledge them and then turn his back on them. Rather, Jesus addresses all of them equally — the worshipers and the doubters — and gives them all what is known as the Great Commission. Both groups are to “go and make disciples.” And even though we might question whether it’s such a good idea to send out disciples who don’t have their faith and life figured out to make other disciples, Jesus disagrees. Both groups are addressed and both are sent without discrimination.
In a story that began with zombies and ends with doubters being sent to make disciples, we might wonder what Matthew is up to in his gospel. Perhaps he didn’t quite get the details right — or perhaps he did.
Because it’s possible that Matthew isn’t presenting to us a glorified version of what a disciple is supposed to be, but a picture of what following Jesus really entails. When we think of those first disciples, we assume they lived lives of prayer and piety and clarity that we can only aspire to. And yet here we find that they, I suspect like many of us, found themselves at times filled with uncertainty and even with doubt, even as they gathered day by day and week by week to worship.
And it is thus from this gospel that we begin to see what the life of one who follows Christ is really like. It is a life in which we are called to trust in God’s promises, sometimes shared by unexpected messengers, even in the midst of uncertain and unseen futures. It is a life in which we are able to embrace, in the midst of our worship and life together, both devotion and doubt. It is a life in which we live in hope that what we proclaim and pray and sing in this place might be true. It is a life in which we can cling to the hope that in the midst of the anxiety and worry with all that is demanded of us this term, Jesus might meet us here and impart to us peace.
We might not have had encounters with angels and zombies or even traveled to a place far north to try to find Jesus. But we are, with those disciples, called to worship and we do, at this moment in this chapel, find ourselves in a place where we might encounter the risen Lord. And perhaps most significantly, this risen Lord offers an equal embrace and commission of all and excludes none, no matter where we are on the spectrum of faith.
And while this command to “go and make disciples” might make us anxious — and rightly so, as this phrase is connected to hundreds of years of missions that cannot be separated from colonialism, racism, and economic imperialism — we are not being commanded to conquer or manipulate or to make everyone “one of us.” Rather, we are being called by a God who calls all to live life to its fullest, and who sends out his followers not to dominate, but to welcome all — the pious, the doubters, the whole, the broken, the hopeless, the hopeful — into God’s embrace.
For the most important part of this passage isn’t helping us to see what the life of a disciple is really like, nor is it the Great Commission to “go and make disciples,” but it is the final words of Jesus: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Even as we struggle at times with faith, with anxiety, with despair, with doubt, even as we struggle to believe that despite our shortcomings that God still loves us and calls us to live the fullest of lives, we are promised that God is still with us and will not forsake us. In fear, we hear God’s call as a burden of perfection rather than an invitation without boundaries or barriers to share in the outpouring of God’s love in our lives and our world.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford University and G.B. Caird Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College.