One of the coldest nights of my life was spent over-night in a tent on the top of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa. The Drakensberg is a range of mountains that range stretches approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) down the Eastern side of South Africa. It’s most majestic section forms the border between the small inland independent Kingdom of Lesotho and my home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The peak that we had to climb to get to the top was around 2400 meters above seal level (7874 feet). That’s not quite 3 times as high as Slieve Donnard above sea level.
To get to the top we had to climb a series of 5 chain ladders which amounted to a total of around 200m meters of vertical climbing (656 feet) with a hiking back-pack on one’s back. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. My hands and feet were sweating and looking down as I was climbing those chain ladders was just not a good idea. I was just afraid that with all that sweat I would lose my grip.
On top, the mountain was covered with patches of snow, and once we had reached the actual summit, the view was absolutely spectacular.
That night we pitched our tents in between some of the patches of snow. And as I said, I have never been so cold in my life.
Our Gospel passage today takes us up a mountain top. It is the closing passage of Matthew’s Gospel. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first Resurrection experience of the Disciples, and also according to Matthew’s Gospel, seemingly the last moment the disciples see Jesus before his ascension? In this passage, Jesus gives them his final instructions in what is most often called the Great Commission.
The passage begins in verse 16 “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them”.
This encounter with the Risen Christ is what one might call a mountain top experience. The symbolism of meeting the Risen Christ on a mountain is significant. In the Bible, and across many different religions and cultures, mountains are often associated with spiritual experiences. In Cartoons you will find people climbing mountains to meet a spiritual guru at the top of the mountain.
One of my favourite is a Far Side Cartoon, which shows a Cow sitting in the Lotus Meditation Posture, giving wisdom that only a cow could give. In the caption, it reads… “In life, don’t forget to eat the flowers”.
Another that gave me a good chuckle is a picture of a spiritual seeker at the top of the mountain asking the question “What is the meaning of Life” and the Guru with his long white beard replying with the following caption: “You do the hokie-pokie and turn around, that’s what its all about”.
Why are mountain tops associated with spiritual awakening and gaining new spiritual insight. I guess for two reasons: Firstly mountain tops take you away from the hustle and bustle of life and enable one to touch the silence and the stillness. Secondly, mountain tops give you a much bigger perspective on life. Mountains tops give one what might be called a God’s eye view of the world. Ordinary life begins to seem so small and insignificant when viewed from the top of the mountain. It can help us to see just how petty and insignificant some of our personal concerns and worries and petty disagreements can be.
This passage reminds us that mountain top experiences are important, even if we are unable to climb an actual mountain. We all need to take time out to see life from a different perspective. One of Wendy’s favourite authors is Martha Beck. She invites her readers to get a new perspective on their lives, not by climbing a mountain but but the simple act of writing out one’s life story firstly from the perspective of a victim, which is often a default perspective for many people. I feel like I am a victim of life, hard-done by, unfairly treated… defeated. And then secondly she suggests writing one’s story from the perspective of a hero, one who has faced many obstacles, but who has faced them bravely and with courage and fortitude, over-coming many odds to be where one is today.
This simple activity of writing one’s life story as a victim or as a hero can provide a whole new perspective on one’s life that can be enlightening.
And so we find the disciples on top of a mountain. When they see Jesus, we read that they worship him, but some of them doubted. Even on the mountain top, we can be beset with doubts. It is part of the spiritual journey, being gentle with ourselves in the midst of our doubts and our questions. It was only a few weeks ago that we explored the question of doubt in another sermon in which we looked at the possibility that doubt is not always a bad thing. Sometimes doubts can be a necessary and even a helpful part of the journey. On our Church Facebook page I shared a quote by Rachel Evans which reads: “Those who say having a child-like faith means not asking questions haven't met too many children”. If Jesus said we need to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God, that shouldn’t mean that we have to shy away from raising our questions and expressing our doubts.
Then in verse 18 Jesus says these words: “All authority, in heaven and earth has been given me, go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age”.
I would like to make a few passing comments on some of these phrases.
Firstly the authority of Jesus was an inner authority that came from personal experience. He spoke with authority because he knew what he was talking about. He spoke from the place of a deep inner knowing. And that is ultimately the goal of the spiritual journey that we too should come to an inner knowing of the truth about the true nature of life, God and our human existence. We too should grow to discover an inner authority that comes not from second hand opinions, but from a direct experience of inner knowing.
Secondly, we see that the way of Jesus transcends questions of nationality and geographic boundaries. He tells them in verse 19 to make disciples of all nations. The Greek word for nation is ethne from which we get the word ethnic. It is a reminder that Churches or communities where Jesus is at the centre should never be identified with a single nationality or ethnic group. A Church or Christian group that has come to be overly identified with a single nationality or country is in danger of being not truly Christian because the way of Jesus is meant to transcend nationalistic boundaries. Make disciples of all nations says Jesus.
Thirdly, Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As I often point out, the word baptism means to immerse. In other words, Jesus is wishing for all people of all nations to be immersed in the Loving Way of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians would read those words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and think of the Doctrine of the Trinity which would mean for most Protestant and Catholic Christians that there is One God in Three Persons and that Jesus is the Unique Son, the Second person of the Trinity.
But there are other ways of interpreting those words that are different from the shared doctrine of the Trinity held by both Catholics and Protestants alike:
The word Father can be understood as metaphorical language referring to the loving Source of all that is. The word ‘Son’ does not necessarily have to refer to Jesus alone as the only unique Son of God. The word can also be interpreted as a reminder that there is a divine son and a divine daughter that dwells in each and everyone of us to which each of us must awaken. And the Phrase Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to be interpreted as being the so called 3rd person of the Trinity, but can also be interpreted as a way of speaking of the power and presence of God’s love and wisdom at work in the world and in our lives as the breathe and the wind of God’s love which animates all things and which opens us to living in the spirit of love.
Fourthly, the mission of the disciples is to teach people of all nations to observe all that Christ has commanded. In essence it is surely to teach others the way of Christ’s love, because that is the essence of what he taught for as Paul says, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law”. And as any parent will know the most powerful form of teaching is always by example. If we are to teach other people to observe all that Christ commanded, it will be best carried out by demonstrating that way of Christ’s love not just in our words but also in our actions.
And lastly, the Gospel of Matthew ends with that wonderful promise of Christ: Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. It is the promise that there are no God-forsaken places in the world or the Universe. The God, whose presence was made known in Christ is always with us, for the Divine Presence that was in Christ is also within each of our hearts. We carry the presence of God and the presence of Christ within us wherever find ourselves. Amen.