Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 28:16–20. This scene tells us of Jesus’ final moments before He ascended into heaven. As He goes to the Father, our Lord offers revelation, mission, and His continuing presence to the disciples. This passage offers several points for our reflection and prayer as disciples who are entrusted with carrying on the mission of Jesus.
When the disciples see Jesus, we are told that they worshipped Him but they doubted. That may seem like an unusual combination of responses, but it’s probably descriptive of most of us. You see, “doubt” does not mean skepticism about who Jesus is. Rather, “doubt” refers to the hesitancy the disciples experienced when required to make a complete and irrevocable commitment to Jesus to the exclusion of other options. The reality is that the resurrection of Jesus didn’t generate perfect faith in those who experienced it. The community of disciples was still wavering in their understanding and commitment to our Lord and to accepting His all-encompassing claim on their lives. Nonetheless, it is to that wavering community that Jesus entrusted His mission to the world. To re-phrase that insight, we might say that it is to us, as that community, that Jesus is entrusting his mission to the world even though we do not possess or express perfect faith. Most Christians have some areas of doubt with which they struggle, yet that does not diminish the faith they do possess. It is difficult to make a complete and irrevocable commitment when the slightest doubt exists. In such moments we like to keep our options open rather than reduce them. This is true with couples preparing for marriage and for Christians ratifying their discipleship. In Matthew’s Gospel, we have previously heard Jesus address the little faith present in the disciples (Mt 14:31). We have also seen how Jesus is willing to work with the disciples to bring them to a deeper and more committed faith rather than abandoning them because of their weakness. This is good news for us! It tells us that Jesus will help us grow in our faith and commitment to Him, especially when we ask for His assistance. It is one thing to not understand a message of faith; it is another thing to not even try to understand it. This passage encourages us to not become complacent or uncaring (spiritual acedia) in our search for deeper faith. It also encourages us to know that God desires to work with us wherever we are in the journey of discipleship.
What are some of the doubts that people have today in their faith that make it difficult for them to make an all-encompassing and irrevocable commitment to the Lord?
What can help a person persevere in their faith despite doubts?
Jesus entrusted the worldwide mission of the Church to the hands of disciples whose faith was not perfect. When have you felt under-qualified to take on the work of the Gospel because you were unworthy or imperfect?
Sometimes it’s easy to think of the saints as perfect people who never struggled in their faith. How does this passage about the disciples help you to identify with them, and what encouragement does it give you?
Jesus then tells the disciples that they, in turn, are now to “Make Disciples” of all the nations (that is, the Gentiles). Actually, Jesus uses a verb when He tells them to “disciple” the nations. We are more accustomed to thinking of “Disciple” as a noun that describes a person’s character or religious affiliation rather than as a verb that describes the action by which one person mentors and forms another person as a follower of Jesus. The work of discipling requires that we pass on to others our own encounter with God and how we live our own life in Christ so that others can share in the same wonderful grace, which we have been given. Effective discipling doesn’t usually happen in large groups. More frequently it occurs through one-on-one interactions within families and between friends. It requires mutual respect, trust, and sincerity to introduce others to Jesus Christ. Of course, we cannot give what we do not have, so the first stage of Christian discipleship is for ourselves to be deeply immersed and formed in the Christian way of life. However, that is only the first stage. The second stage of mature discipleship is for those who have been formed to now go out and form others so that they become missionary disciples. Thus, Christian discipleship reaches maturity in mission when the gift we receive becomes the gift we freely give.
Who has discipled you, and how did it happen?
We form others each day through our interactions with them. Are we forming Christian disciples, or are we forming disciples of secularism, hedonism, materialism, indifference, or self-preservation?
What do you need to do to prepare yourself to be a disciple who “disciples” others? Whom has God placed in your life as an opportunity for you to disciple them?
What forums exist for you to invite others into discipleship? When Jesus told the disciples to “disciple the nations”, He was really referring to the Gentiles who were generally looked down on as lesser people. Who are some of the less significant people in your world that the Lord may be asking you to reach out to so as to invite them into a life of faith?
This passage contains the one great lasting commission of Jesus for the work of the Church (it is our fundamental mission statement). How could the Church do a better job of forming disciples at each stage of life and preparing them for mission?
What tools and skills do missionary disciples need in order to accomplish this mission?
Next, Jesus specifies that discipling the nations will involve two actions: baptism and teaching. These are the ingredients of discipleship. In baptism we receive the great gift of eternal life in God and become members of the Church as the Body of Christ and the family of God. What a great gift! Yet like so many gifts, we need to know how to use it in order for it to really be beneficial in our lives. If we don’t know how to live our Baptism, we will miss out on tremendous opportunities to let that grace become effective within us. Sometimes we can actually stifle the grace of baptism by our ignorance of Christ and the Christian way of life. To receive baptism without receiving teaching is like accepting a Christmas gift that we never open — it might be ours, but we can’t really do much with it. That is why Jesus stresses the need for both of these ingredients of discipleship. Think of how many people are baptized but never taught either by formal instruction or by the lived example of others. Think of how many people misunderstand baptism more as a religious ritual, a social event, or a family tradition rather than as their sacramental initiation into the life of God. Baptism is the first step on a life-long Christian journey that will, hopefully, one day bring us into the very presence of the Lord. For a person’s formation in faith to be relevant, they must see the connection between what they are learning and how they live. It is very significant that our Lord told the disciples that they should teach others to observe His commandments rather than teaching them to memorize what He said. There’s a difference between memorizing what someone said and observing what someone commanded. To observe (or “carry out” as some translations say) what our Lord commanded means to live a life conformed to the Gospel and not merely acquire religious trivia. The teaching that Jesus commanded, then, implies communicating a lived witness of faith that manifests in daily action the life in Christ we receive in baptism.
What experiences of faith enrichment have most helped you to see the connection between belief and practice (discipleship) in your life?
How can a faith community help people to better understand the gift of their baptism?
How can a faith community help people to better understand the importance of their formation in faith so as to be disciples who are conformed to the Gospel?
What is the difference between faith education, faith formation, and faith enrichment and why are all three important for a disciple?
What are some of the various ways in which teaching occurs through word and example within your home, marriage, and office setting?
What are some of the erroneous teachings that are carried out through word and deed that can actually deter people from living the commitments of their baptism?
Lastly, the final words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are a promise of His lasting presence with the Church when He says: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” At the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we were told that Jesus would be “Emmanuel”. a name that means “God with us” (Mt 1:22–23). Now, Jesus promises to be “God with us” and thus reveals Himself as Emmanuel in this final verse. We are never alone when we carry out the mission that Jesus entrusted to us. The Lord always accompanies disciples who are living out this great commission. However, when we wander from the mission that Jesus has given us, we risk a certain spiritual distancing from the Lord. Instead of praying, “Lord, why aren’t you with me?” maybe we should be praying, “Lord, how can I be with you in this moment?” The Lord promised us His presence earlier in Matthew’s Gospel when He said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20) and that we would serve Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the homeless, and so forth (Mt 25:35–45). Indeed, the Lord is with us always in many and varied ways. As mature disciples, we must become self-leaders who know how to seek and find the Lord so as to do His will and faithfully carry out His mission.
What do you need to do in order to become a mature disciple who is a “self-leader” in your own discipleship?
How have you experienced the presence of Jesus with you while carrying out His great commission?
When do people tend to doubt the presence of Jesus with them, and how does this understanding of Jesus’ promise shed light on those situations of doubt?
How have you experienced Jesus with you in the Sacraments?
How have you experienced the presence of Jesus in the work of ministry?