Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Matthew 28:16-20 NRSV
There are three major images in the Christian spiritual life: the desert, the cloud and the mountain. The desert is the place of struggle, thirst and absence. We have all known the desert. The cloud is the place of love, joy and mystical union with God; the saints have this experience. The mountain is the place of ascent and illumination; it is the place where we rise above our normal life for a while and see things about ourselves that we have not seen before. The mountain is for illumination.
So it is no accident that Matthew has the last meeting of Jesus and his disciples on a mountain. It is highly symbolic. Moses met God on a mountain; Elijah met God on a mountain; and the disciples will have their last meeting with the risen Jesus on a mountain. It will be for them a last bit of illumination.
Harvey Cox was, until his retirement, a theologian at Harvard. He is a prolific writer and expert on global Christianity and world religions. He tells a story about how that vocation began for him. One day when he was a boy, it was raining outside, so he had to play inside. He made his way up to the attic in their home, and there he found a box with old encyclopedias. He took one of them and began flipping through the pages. Out fell this fold out map of all the religions and where they were across the world. Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Judaism and Christianity. He was mesmerized by that map, and he realized that religion was much more vast than his little Baptist church. That experience in the attic set was an illumination for him, with little light bulbs going on in his mind, and eventually he went on to become a renowned theologian with expertise in global Christianity and world religions. Harvey Cox didn’t go up the mountain, but he did go up into the attic, and at that height he found illumination. He saw more clearly.
So with us. We see illumination. We seek experiences where we rise higher than normal and see things more clearly than before. I want to invite you to join with me today. Let’s go up the mountain with Jesus and his disciples and see if we can find illumination ourselves.
In particular, we can find two bits of illumination today on the mountain. The first has to do with doubt. In our scripture, it says that when they met Jesus on the mountain, “They worshiped him; but some doubted.” Literally it says, “they worshiped, and they doubted.” I love that phrase. I love the fact that even with the risen Jesus right before them, they still had doubts. They have been through a whirlwind in recent days; their heads must have been spinning; maybe they questioned their sanity. There were many uncertainties and unknowns. But they still worshiped, even as they had these doubts and questions in their minds.
This can be immensely encouraging for us. It tells us what we can doubt and worship at the same time too. We don’t leave our doubts outside in the narthex; we carry them with us into the sanctuary. Our doubts about God or faith or ourselves are a part of who we are, and it is right and good for us to bring them with us into the worship of God. The disciples on the mountain model this for us. ‘They worshiped, and they doubted.’ Actually, worship and doubt belong together. Some people worship, but they do not doubt; they make me nervous. Other people doubt, but they do not worship; they make me sad. No, doubt and worship belong with one another. They can be partners.
It helps to see this modeled in someone’s life. For me that person was Lynne Dawson, whom some of you may have known. Lynne died of cancer a couple of years ago. I knew her nine years ago when we went through a Disciple Bible study class together. For nine months, we studied the Bible together each week. Lynne was a great student. She was honest about her doubts and uncertainties with faith. She joked and referred to herself as a “lapsed Christian.” But to me Lynne was a profoundly Christian woman, and coming to the Bible study each week was an act of worship. She carried her doubts with her, but she also sought God week after week in that study. She worshiped and she doubted. A rabbi named Brad Herschfield says it well, “If faith simplifies what needs to be complex; if it gives certainty where there needs to be doubt; if it tells you you’ve arrived when you should still be searching; then there is something wrong with that faith.” Very true.
The second bit of illumination has to do with baptism. Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Now I am going to take a couple of interpretive twists here. First, the original language for baptism was likely just ‘baptize in the name of Jesus.’ Only later, by Matthew’s time, did it baptism happen in the threefold name of God. But originally, believers were baptized in the name of Jesus. Let’s take that phrase and ask what it means for us. Is it a ritual, or something more. I think something more. This is the second twist. The word baptize comes from the word baptizo, which means simply to dip or soak. It was an ordinary word, not especially religious. When someone was in the kitchen soaking vegetables for dinner, that was baptizo, soaking in water. Okay, here is my little interpretive leap — what if baptized in the name of Jesus refers not to a ritual that was to happen once in life, but to a lifelong process where we are soaked in Jesus. We are dipped, immersed, soaked in Jesus. That is our calling, our vocation.
The imagery that comes to mind is dying fabrics, a process that hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. Dyes are extracted from plants (or today made synthetically), and then they are dissolved in a vat of water. Then a piece of fabric is soaked in the vat until the fabric takes on the color of the dye — the molecules of the dye bond with the molecules in the fabric. Blue jeans are not naturally blue but are dyed with indigo.
So, using this as an analogy, to be baptized in the name of Jesus, as the earliest believers were, means to be soaked in the colors of Jesus, until those beautiful colors become the colors that characterize our life. Just as there are primary colors for dying, so there are primary colors in the life of Jesus. A few of them are mercy, meekness, silence, poverty, peaceableness and a yearning for justice. As we soak ourselves in Jesus, these colors become the colors of our life.
An example always helps. A few years ago in East Los Angeles, a neighborhood called Boyle Heights was subject to terrible gang violence. There were shootings and killings almost daily. It seemed no one could stop it. But there was a group of women who met in a home for Bible study. They were studying the life of Jesus in the Gospels, and they were impressed with Jesus’ character and the way he helped and healed his world. So they conceived a plan. They gathered other women, and they began to take “Love Walks” through the gang neighborhoods in Boyle Heights. They strummed guitars and sang songs; they gave away free food and Cokes; they stopped at houses and began talking to the people there. The young men in the gangs were totally flustered, and they stopped shooting and killing after these Love Walks began. They got to know the women; they talked and shared their frustrations and hopes. Then they all began to work together to heal their neighborhood. They started microbusinesses (like a taco factory); they started a child care program; they started a neighborhood watch program. And the violence stopped. And it stopped because they women from the Bible study began these Love Walks, and they did that because they had been studying Jesus. They had soaked themselves in the colors of Jesus — in particular his peaceableness — and after doing that they changed their world.
So our time on the mountain is done for today. There are many things we could have learned, but we can be content with two. First, we can take our doubts with us into worship; and second, our calling is to soak ourselves in the colors of Jesus so that we can recolor our world. Amen.