Some Doubted

In a well-known passage from Matthew’s Gospel about one of Christ’s resurrection appearances, the passage read at the baptismal service, we find the following words: “The eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted” (Mt. 28:16f).  A number of questions rush to the fore: who are these “they” who saw and worshiped Him? And why did “some doubt”? And moreover, what does all this mean?

Obviously the “they” cannot simply refer to “the eleven”, for by this time they had already all seen Him and worshiped Him without doubting. (Even the initial scepticism of Thomas had by now been overcome; see Jn. 20:26f for the account of earlier meetings with the risen Christ in Judea, before this meeting in Galilee.) I would suggest that the “they” referred to here is the large crowd referred to by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians Paul is arguing for the truth of Christ’s bodily resurrection, and adducing as proof the existence of many people who had seen Him after He rose from the dead. He appeared first to Cephas (i.e. Peter), then to the Twelve. “After that” (Paul writes) He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now” and could therefore confirm what Paul says. Early on, even in our Lord’s ministry, Christ told His disciples that after He had been raised from the dead “I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Mk. 14:28). The angel at the empty tomb reminded the myrrh-bearing disciples of this as well: “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mk. 16:7).

Why Galilee? Because Judea down south was too “hot”, too dangerous for the disciples of Jesus. As the Twelve reminded their Lord when He first spoke of leaving the safety of Galilee to visit (as they thought) ailing Lazarus in Judea, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” (Jn. 11:8) In other words, “Let’s not.” They had just barely escaped stoning in Judea, and they would go there again at the risk of their lives. Christ’s crucifixion there shortly afterward seemed to confirm these fears, and the folly of leaving the safety of Galilee. No wonder after Christ’s arrest and crucifixion they had “the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn. 20:19). Because of this hostile environment where Christ’s disciples were hunted, any large reunion of the risen Lord with His own had to take place far from this dangerous region of Judea, back in northern Galilee.

It was there, I suggest, that the five hundred alluded to by St. Paul met with the risen Christ. When they met Him, they “worshiped” (i.e. prostrated before Him), supposing Him to their Lord. “But some doubted”. Why the doubt? Here we come to an unexpected feature of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection appearances.

If one were simply making up these tales and inventing them out of whole cloth, one would of course make them as emotionally satisfying as possible. One would write of the disciples’ instant recognition of Jesus, of them falling into His arms, of joyous and tumultuous reunions, of singing, and of flowing champagne (or the Near Eastern equivalent). One would perhaps have Christ appear to Pontius Pilate, or to the high priest, or to other members of the Sanhedrin, scolding them with a divine “I told you so”.   But we find none of this. Instead we consistently read of the apostles having trouble recognizing Him even upon meeting Him. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognize Him, and only do so at the breaking of the bread (Lk. 24:16, 30-31). Mary Magdalene upon first seeing Him by the empty tomb takes Him for the gardener (Jn. 20:14-15). The apostles, meeting him for the third time by the Sea of Tiberias find His features somewhat altered: “None of them dared to question Him, ‘Who are You?’, knowing that it was the Lord” (Jn. 21:12).

It was the same in this account in Mt. 28:16f. It seems that the resurrection form of Christ was subtly changed, so that He did not look identical to the way He looked before. His body language was the same, so that the way He “took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to them” at a meal could open their eyes (Lk. 24:30). His voice carried the same warmth, so that Mary could recognize Him when He called her by name (Jn. 20:16). And the wounds of shame He endured on the cross were still there as an infallible proof of His identity (Lk. 24:39-40, Jn 20:27). But His countenance was somewhat altered.

This is not would we would have expected—especially in someone making up a satisfying ending to the story. Its presence in the Gospel stories therefore confirms its authenticity—the Gospel writers included it, perplexing as it was, precisely because they were not making things up, but rather relating what actually happened. Facts are stubborn things, and the Evangelists recorded them simply because they wanted to be factual and accurate, apart from whether or not they added to an emotionally satisfying ending.

I believe therefore that Matthew’s recounting that “some doubted” in his account is a mark of this historical reliability and authenticity. And we must further note what happens after they doubt. “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…’” (Mt. 28:18-19). That is, I believe that Matthew is here telling us that Christ’s approach and His words overcame their doubt. Just as the initial doubts and non-recognition of Mary Magdalene and the others were resolved by their meeting with Christ, so here. Their doubts were melted when He spoke with them.

This is, I believe, the meaning of this story for us today. When we were made His disciples in baptism, we also were given the task of confronting the doubts of the world around us. Many people still doubt that Jesus is alive, and that He arose triumphantly on the third day. We are called to resolve these doubts by our words—that is, by the words and life which come from deep within our hearts. The Lord said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34)—or (as Martin Luther once translated it), “What fills the heart overflows the mouth”. God calls to live transfigured lives, lives full of righteousness, and love, and praise to God. When these things fill our hearts, they will indeed overflow through our mouths, and it is through witnessing this overflow that the world may at length come to put away their doubts regarding Jesus. The Lord said it Himself: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:25).

All the world has heard that Jesus has risen from the dead. Some disbelieve. Some reject it. Some doubt. Our task is to live in such a way so as to adorn with the Gospel with credibility and help the doubters overcome their doubts. As one person said, “I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christians look a lot more redeemed.” Fair enough. That is our challenge: to live as those redeemed from sin, guilt, death and fear, to love each other and all the world. That is the only way that doubt can be overcome, and that we can make disciples of all nations.

 

 

5 comments:

  1. “That is our challenge: to live as those redeemed from sin, guilt, death and fear, to love each other and all the world. ”
    Challenge indeed, Father!
    Jesus’s words to us do alleviate our doubts, because they are spoken directly to us, even through the written word. Plus we know them as true because, in some measure, we know Him. We can rest assured that Christ redeemed mankind from death by His death, but still our sanctification is ongoing. We still sin and are guilty of it. We are told to be in remembrance of our death (day of judgement), and to live a life of repentance. We are to have awesome reverence (fear) toward the incomprehensible power of God, We are to love all, even our enemies and the world…the world which would swallow us up and spit us out if it could only do so. Our challenge to live as those redeemed comes with a big price…our own cross. In truth, I think most of the time I consider picking up my cross, and that’s about as far as I get. I’m fine when I’m sitting at home pondering the life we are called to live, but as soon as I go out the front door I am faced with the challenges. Do I really love God and my fellow human beings enough to “keep silent in a peaceful spirit, causing no harm nor hurt” (as the prayer goes) when off-handed comments are made about the sufferings of others, when the humor is not at all humorous, when the passions are exalted and restraint mocked. How do I contain myself without returning the evil ? How do I avoid being a Christian Pharisee? These are the challenges I face. Christ has agape love for mankind. My love is still conditional. So how can I “act” like I am redeemed and guiltless? These are the challenges of being a Christian, and carrying our cross. The person who said “I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christians looka lot more redeemed”….just may see a look of soberness, joy mixed with sorrow, an inverted and altogether different expression on the face of a Christian than one would expect from a nonbeliever, due to the struggles we face. There are, as St. Paul says, the spiritually weaker and stronger brothers…the spiritually immature and mature. In between is a mighty large number of Christians who “look” different from each other due to the length and depth of their journey.
    Father, understand that I am not in disagreement with you. Rather, I very much agree that we are to be faithful witnesses of our Lord…the victorious and risen Lord. I only mean to stress that we very much need the grace of God to acquire even the will to go forward, and also the love and support of each other, because the challenge is immense.

  2. “But His countenance was somewhat altered.” I smled as I read this statement, then…………………………I immediately repented and I prayed……………..”Lord, may MY countenance be PEMANENTLY altered so that I may be used by you to relieve spiritual suffering. May all spiritual works of mercy be offered to you and accepted by you.”

  3. \\o// Every Church has problems – that is the dysfunctional nature of folks surrounded by the attraction ! The doubters are not any different from Jesus time, but the rest should take care of the mission entrusted to them. Seriously, the struggle between the hierarchy and the people stems from taking control of the helm which has no relevance when Christ bestowed his blessings upon us and said: “go and make disciples”….. Stay with the Church and work towards PEACE by setting examples, is the way forward to change things !
    It’s time we stopped worrying about the future, and by alienating the people we supposed to serve; start to believe in God’s promises that he will sustain all things by the powerful WORD – He hasn’t brought us this far to abandon us: ‘My word will achieve the purpose for which I sent it’- [Isaiah 55:11]
    On the Day of Pasacha – 2018
    Malayalees Community (U.K.)

  4. George,
    Forgive me. If I understand you correctly, I take pause on your wording regarding hierarchy, as well as several other points you’ve made.
    As I understand it, hierarchy, far from having its roots only in history, based on Roman civil authority, is also understood as a universal divine order. More specifically, the basis of hierarchy in the Eastern Orthodox faith is founded on God as Trinity. The Father as the sole cause of the Godhead, holds primacy. The Son and the Spirit have always shared in His divinity, and willingly, in selfless love, submit to the Father as First among Equals. On such is hierarchal order in EO based; indeed in theory, yet far from being perfected.
    The Church does not recognize a distinction between clergy and laity in regard to hierarchy, as if clergy is “hierarchal” and laity is not. In other words, both clergy and laity are within the hierarchal order. All are equal to each other in our humanity, as the Trinity is equal in divine essence; and there are also those who ( ex. bishops, priests) assume a place of honor, a primacy, as does God the Father. All, both clergy and laity, assume a position within the order of the Church. That there is a struggle with this may very well stem from our resistance to submission, an obvious sign of our inability to humble ourselves to authority. But hierarchy is universal. There can never be a time when it is irrelevant.
    Christ bestowed His blessings upon the Church. And when He speaks to us personally, He is speaking as well to the Church…to the one Church and to the many within. We do not separate ourselves ever from the hierarchal order and go forth as individuals, because there is no such reality in the Body, the Church.
    Note also that authority in hierarchy is evidenced when Christ, speaking to the eleven disciples, said to go forth and baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As per their ordination, clergy are authorized to baptize. We witness to the apostolic faith. There is a divine order.
    Regarding the future, the Church is eschatological in nature and always has been. It is clearly revealed in Scripture, from the prefigures in the Old Testament to its fulfillment in the New, that we are on a trajectory. The Kingdom has come, and will be fully manifest in the coming Kingdom when all creation will be one in God. If one was to ignore this future, on what would you base your intent to go forth and make disciples?
    If there is any alienation of the people we are called to serve, I would have to say that it is not because we do not believe in God’s “promises”. We understand these promises both as a given and as a lifelong process. Along with the promises, Christ also gives us many warnings. We have to as least be willing to carry our cross and pray God grant us His strength to take these steps in our journey.
    On the other hand, one may say it is easier to witness to those outside the Church, because it seems those whom we are familiar with (fellow Christians) are the ones whom we have more contempt. The people (non-Christians) who we encounter are very observant. They see clearly a disunity among Christians. They see us contend with each other. They hear our words when we alienate even our fellow Christians. They also see us tout morality and act immorally. If we can not confront these issues with love and support for each other, our Christian witness will suffer.
    Doubt can be overcome, as Father Lawrence says, beginning with the gift of the Spirit through our baptism. It is within the sacramental life of the Church where we are given faith to believe all that Christ is, has done, doing, and will do. It is a far cry from easy believing. His promises come with a lot of toil. Yet they bring joy. He showed us the way. It is the way of the Cross that leads to Pascha.

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