I was recently amused to hear a story about a former pastor of this church, from back when it was a three-point charge. It seems when he first came aboard he felt the need to race from church to church to church, because of the close starting times. After a few speeding tickets, one church decided to change their starting time to allow the pastor more time to get to where he needed to be.
That seems unfair for the police to do that. A pastor was trying to do God’s work and even he had to obey the speed limit. But that is life, right? We follow the rules. I get exasperated at times by these limitations.
How many of you have the same problem – do the limits on life seem to always get in the way at times! Think about it. Eighteen to vote, but twenty-one to drink. Only $200 out of an off-brand ATM. Even limits on how many questions one can miss on a driver’s license exam…. Maybe that is a good one. Most of these limits seem arbitrary, but some are not. There are also limits to things we cannot see – like the physics of cell phone signal, or the available internet speed in the mountains, grrr. There is even a limit to how physics in our daily lives like waiting for a pot to boil – or if you are making moonshine, how hot the mash can get before the alcohol begin to leach off… Anyone know? 173 degrees. Yes, I know.
We are all subject to these seen and unseen rules. But, when we look to the Bible we discover that God thought limits were an excellent way to regulate all his creations. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8). How many of us break the Sabbath weekly?
“Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:3). Yet, modern science thinks they are close to having us to live forever. No thanks, I’m not sure I’d want to live more than 120 years – but that’s me.
And then get this, from the Book of Job we learn, “… God fixed the weight of the wind and measured out the waters, … He set a limit for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt, (Job 28:25-26). I think God wins that one! We humans haven’t mastered that yet!
From birth to death we learn to exist within our limitations. How many remember Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry when he famously said this line – “A man has to know his limitations!”
However, I do have good news. This morning I want to discuss the few times God removes our limitations. Where God says – do not stop. The one time when God officially gave us the freedom of excess. We find this at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
I know many of you likely have this scripture memorized. For those that are new to the bible, this is the clarion call for our Christian duty. As Methodist, this scripture is practically our Missions statement – We have been told to go and make disciples of Christ to transform the world.
Unfortunately, I think too often when people read what this scripture, what is called the Great Commission, they can get caught up in the what we are supposed to do and seldom slow down to see “the how” that Jesus was telling us.
We’re lucky when we read this passage because Jesus did not encode it as a parable. Christ means what he says. He is informing the disciples that he has all the authority of Heaven and Earth – I am commanding you to demonstrate to others what it means to be my disciples. For those that follow you, I want you to Baptize them so that the Holy Spirit will come into them. AND THEN I want you to continue to teach them how to obey all the things that I taught you. I want you to do this for all Ethnos (all Nations) – that means, all cultures of all people everywhere. Not just the Jews. And do not worry, for I am Emmanuel – God is with you!
How many of you remember your Baptism? If you were older like I was, you were probably full of energy. I was radiating, and I know I had a stupid perma grin on my face for weeks. Unfortunately, my church did not have a discipleship program – or else I fell through the cracks. After a year or so after I came to know Christ, I began to have doubts. I became hesitant to move forward. Instead, I focused on all the ways the church members were not obeying the Bible. I froze.
Yet, today, when I go back and read this passage I am filled with relief because I know that I was no different from some of those first disciples – that doubted.
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Over the years I’ve read this passage many times – and when I got to the words “some doubted” I always dismissed it. I guess I figured, gee, too bad for whoever doubted; maybe they learned the hard way.
Before I move forward this morning, I want to explain the full translation of the Greek word – διστάζω (distazō). This word translated as “Doubted!” But it doesn’t mean what how we use it today. Right now, my baseball team is doing poorly. I’m starting to doubt they will make the playoffs. That means I am beginning to believe they will not.
That is not what it means in the original Greek. Instead, distazō means to doubt – but it’s a different kind of doubt. It’s more like to waver, or to hesitate. These are synonyms.
For Matthew, having doubt was not the same as modern usage of the word as to disbelieve something. You see, to have disbelief is to fully form a thought. You are mostly sure about what you do not believe. Distazō describes a doubt that means a hesitation or wavering. It’s that gap of time we use to form our thoughts.
Our present translation of doubt is not what Matthew intended. If he wanted to insinuate that some disciples did not know who Jesus was, he would likely have used the word agnōstos – Unknown or forgotten. But nothing in this passage suggests they did not recognize Christ – they just didn’t know what to think about Christ what they saw him. They hesitated, they waivered.
How many of you have ever seen the videos of a service member returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan? If you watch them, you will often see the spouse or children being suddenly surprised. Usually, they will freeze in place, put their hands to their face, start to scream and THEN run to the person. I tear up every time I watch those videos. Anyone else?
When you watch you will notice that some of the family members run straight away to the veteran, yet others freeze first –they hesitate. Once they realize what is happening they rush towards them. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
Now, let me ask you all a difficult question. What do you think their reaction would be for someone if they previously thought their loved one was dead? Do you think they might stand there a bit longer and wonder how can this be true? Wouldn’t they waver before running, hesitate longer, and maybe wonder what they are seeing.
I think Matthew was describing the same thing about the disciples when they first saw Jesus reincarnated. What is happening? What does this mean? Can this be true? What do I do next?
You see, some were just like us. They were conditioned to hesitate because we live with limitations. Most of us are just like them. We hesitate, we waiver, we doubt.
I will give you an example to make my point. And clearly, this example does not fit many of you. But here you go. Christ gave us all a command to make disciples. How are you doing? Do you GO! Or do you hesitate? Do you look for opportunities to be a personal witness for Christ – or do you waver.
Maybe you’re worried that the person is going to be rude or not respond nicely. Maybe you don’t know what to say. Maybe you think it’s not the right time or place.
In short – to use Matthew’s definition – do you hesitate, do you waver, do you doubt?
Personally, I am very thankful for verse 17 of the Great Commission. I don’t feel alone anymore when I doubt or wonder what I’m supposed to do. Hesitation is a mechanism we use to stall until we have everything sorted out.
We need time to practice what we might say. Then we wonder, will they like our church. But guess what – It’s ok. And that’s not me saying that.
The author of Jude’s epistle –the one some think was Jesus’ half-brother, says that other Christians are to “have mercy on those who doubt.” – to those who hesitate and waver!
That is because having doubt is often a sign of discernment in our faith. We are trying to work it all out. This is especially common for those in their 20’s and 30’s. It takes time to discover that some of those other earthy “truths” we believe just might be wrong.
Let me repeat what I said before – Doubt is not disbelief. Some authors call doubt “a bridge from our faith to perfect faith.” When we have doubts, we need to remember to challenge the truth of our doubts… think about that one. We must challenge the truth or validity of our doubts.
Every week I stand up here and say, “Being a Christian is hard!” I’m purposeful with that declaration because having doubts is part of the difficulty. The primary reason for doubt is that we live in a world of limitations. Right? Scientist thinks we can live longer than 120 years and most of you don’t think the Sabbath is important. But when I look in my bible I suspect there is a reason it is number four and is ninety-eight words long. The ones we all try to keep, not to kill, commit adultery, or steal are only four or five words long. And come later than keeping the Sabbath. We hesitate and waver on if God means what he says.
Maybe it’s because we are bounded by our reality. I mean, how can God possibly love us that much? We don’t experience that much love from anyone or anything else in our lives. How can God’s capacity for unbounded love for us be real? How is that much love even possible?
We hesitate when we read verses that talk about that much love. With all the other limitations on our lives, how we supposed to comprehend how God’s unlimited love working through us, and for us, and even in spite of us. It’s mind-blowing.
It is especially hard when life is not going the way WE planned it to go. When we have ailments or maladies or a death in the family – or even our own terminal diagnosis. We begin to doubt! We waver in our faith. We hesitate in our love for Christ. Not all of us – but most of us!
We are limited by not knowing the big picture. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to our children and to us forever…” (Deuteronomy 29:29a)
Christ revealed many things to us. He told us about the lifting of limitations upon us. That because he has ALL authority –we as his disciples can freely baptize and teach new disciples.
Because he sends us to ALL nations – all cultures – we know our mission field is everywhere. It is boundless.
Because he wants us to teach ALL the things that He has given to us – we know our lesson plan is forever full of new wisdom and hope for others in His glory
Because he promised to be with us always, ALL WAYS, so we know that we are not alone. His presence and promises has no limitations
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7). He is always right there – no limitations!
There were disciples of Christ who wondered, just like we do, what does it mean to follow him. They hesitated, they wavered, they doubted. They were not perfect even in the presence of Christ. And we are a long way from being perfect.
John Wesley describes God’s Perfecting Grace as a life “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” Wow, that is a high but glorious bar to reach!
Maybe there are some of you here that are close to perfection –I know that I have a lifetime more of work to even get close.
In the meantime, Christ has lifted our limitations and has commanded us all to “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.”
I hope all of you will TRY to do this always without hesitation, without waver, and without a doubt. Many of us will falter because we are sinners. But HE promised, surely, to be with us always, to the very end.
It is in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we give thanks and praise for this message today, and courage to make disciples of Christ to transform the world!