“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matthew 28:16-18).
Eleven. Their number shows that things hadn’t turned out quite as expected. Eleven was a rather odd, uncomfortable number. How could they forget or comprehend the man who changed everything? The traitor who brought everything crashing down. They were no longer a balanced twelve, that vivid picture of the fledgling Israel, the full number, chosen by their Savior God.
These twelve should have proved a rock-like foundation for the building of God’s Kingdom, but in their three-year trek with their Master they had suffered the loss of one of their members, and loss wasn’t a strong enough word. They had been skewered by the ongoing thievery of a covetous and betraying man who walked with them. Who would think such a thing could happen in Jesus’ company? But it does, doesn’t it?
They anticipated things finally coming together in a new and glorious Kingdom where they, no doubt, would have important posts. They could taste the success as Jesus entered the capital to shouts of “Hosanna!” But then it all crumbled quickly, as they were sold out by one of their own. And even those who had pledged to stand tall in the hour of their Master’s crisis, they had to admit they had all failed in spectacular fashion.
I was enthused by the presence of a new young family in our tiny congregation. They were active. What a difference they made! It was so encouraging! We shared friendship, family times together. So when they moved on to “greener pastures” church-wise, I was deflated, devastated. My new-found friend didn’t understand why their decision to go to another church should make a difference in our relationship. Perhaps he was right. But it did. I felt betrayed and I was discouraged.
As we build “the Kingdom,” it can easily become our kingdom. Our well-laid plans can fail. The people in whom we place our trust all too often disappoint, and if we’re honest, we will find ourselves first on that list.
Perhaps you can identify with these men. Like the disciples, you’ve had surprises over the last months and years. The unexpected multi-month jolt of COVID. The struggle of short- or long-term restructuring of your church’s ministry.
As you’ve seen friends in your church grow in the grace that is theirs in Jesus Christ, you are filled with joy! You’re rightfully energized, encouraged, and excited by what you are observing. Yet I suspect you’ve also experienced the deep loss of those you love. Like the eleven, your sense of wholeness has been destroyed as those close to you have unexpectedly slipped away or tripped and fallen. And then there are those who are snatched away from you through moves, disinterest, distraction, or through death.
Why? Is this what the kingdom of Christ is supposed to look like? You review what you should have done, and you grieve. And our nation—wracked by always more turmoil. No matter the political persuasion, we are left shaking our heads at the popular attitudes, values, and behaviors—and we grieve.
Then there’s the tiredness, and not just from work, but from the seeming lack of progress. Of not seeing happen what in your estimation, “should have happened.”
When is the mission of our congregation, or my personal ministry, or my personal life under the risen King going to “take off” and be something I can be proud of? When am I going to be able to sing “Happy Days are Here Again”? Like Jesus’ first disciples, this isn’t exactly what we signed up for. We expected more, but really, nothing seems to have changed…
Where do we go now? Well, where did Jesus’ eleven disciples go?
Home. Back to the beginning. Jesus’ disciples had been pointed home, back to Galilee, and specifically to the mountain Jesus identified.
This was no chance gathering. The women who first found the tomb empty were given the message, “… go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7). Indeed, he had told them earlier, at the time of their solemn promise to never forsake Jesus in his hour of trial, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).
Why there? On this relatively desolate, out of the way, quiet mountain, Jesus had something to say to them, something to give them. They may have been disoriented, confused, joyful, despondent. Whatever their frame of mind they were in the right place, as they gathered in Jesus’ Name.
The text doesn’t say how long they waited for Jesus, or what occupied their conversation. It simply says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” The worship was an appropriate response! But the doubting? Or it could be translated, “Some hesitated.”
Those who hesitated to worship were likely questioning: “Is this Jesus really worthy of worship? He is flesh! Yahweh alone is our God. We are to worship none but him. Is Jesus God? Can we place the full confidence in him that we would in Yahweh? Is this man One whom we can rightly worship?”
How does Jesus respond to these hesitant souls who had come back home, back to the beginning? The same way he does to us, with our joys and triumphs, our tragedies and disappointments, our souls reshaped by events that turned out far differently than we ever could have imagined. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
He is reminding them of his authority to heal, authority to cast out demons, authority to raise the dead, and authority to judge. The future of every man, woman and child is in his hands. He has authority over everyone who has ever lived and died. And you—your complete future is in his hands. Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life… For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24, 26). Jesus, the Son, has this authority. And now, by faith, he is our life.
Jesus says to those hesitating hearts and to ours, “All authority is mine. I’m in charge. I’ve got perfect control of your situation, I’ve got you! I have called you by name, you are mine.” He is the One who has given up his life, hanging on a Roman cross for you. He is the God of all authority who loves you so dearly that he chose you and purchased you by his own blood.
This is the One who is still building his Church, placing his resources in empty hands and his words in empty mouths, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Rev. Roger Olson is Pastor of Living Faith Church in Watford City, North Dakota.