“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” (Matt. 28:19-20).
It’s interesting that Jesus only mentions “teaching” at this point in the Gospel, at the very end, as he commissions the disciples and send them out to the four corners of the earth. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, while he was still with them, the Lord dispatched the disciples to preach and to heal. “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:7), he tells them. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:8). In that tenth chapter, Jesus not only commissions them to proclaim good news, but also to do miraculous deeds of power.
Here, in the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord gives them a new commission, to baptize and teach. Jesus has been raised from the dead, and now the disciples are being sent out to make disciples of all nations. New situations create a new context for mission, and a new need for teaching. So now Jesus sends them out to baptize and teach, creating at the same moment a community of practice, and a teaching with content.
“Teaching” means that there is something new to be received by the world: a new knowledge and a new understanding. Jesus adds teaching to proclamation and healing because new facts have been created that must be taught. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and that means that what we used to understand, about life and death, “the wisdom of this world” (1 Cor. 3:19) as St. Paul calls it, no longer applies. There is a new teaching.
“Teaching” has content, in the sense that it’s used here; it has weight and gravitational pull. There is a “formal” quality to Christian faith, in the sense that faith takes a particular form: it means this, and not that. It cannot mean whatever we want it to mean. It has its own form. We don’t make it up for ourselves, but we receive it as a gift from God.
The baptismal formula embedded in our Gospel is part of that form. It tells us something definite about God: one reality found in three Persons. A mystery, yes; but it’s our mystery, most definitely found in the Three who are one God. Attempts to rationalize by reduction to something simpler, to abandon the form, ultimately fail to be faithful to the fulness of God.
Here, in the creedal formulae, we learn to know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: not just to know about them, but actually to know them. It’s one thing to know about God; another thing entirely to know God. It’s the difference between knowing about Taylor Swift, and actually knowing Taylor Swift! Prayer and worship will be the means by which we enter more deeply into relationship with God, but teaching will point the way. An ancient Christian creed put it this way: “And the Catholic Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity…”. We worship the One we know.
The “formal” quality of faith in God the Holy Trinity also has another dimension. Faith in God is not only formal because it has a definite form, expressed in Creed and confession of faith, but also because it is meant to form us. It’s formal because it forms. Faith shapes us, steadfastly refusing to be reduced to “head” knowledge but continuing to speak the language of the heart, the relational language of the whole person. It makes us what we are: Jesus’ followers.
In our Gospel today, Jesus told his followers to “make disciples” (Matt. 28: 19). To be a disciple means that we take the Master as our model. We must set out in Jesus’ footsteps, in relationship with him. As we walk with him we are formed by him, and become like him. As Jesus says in that tenth chapter of Matthew, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher” (Matt. 10:25). A disciple learns the lessons that the Master has to teach.
Many of us have had mentors in the faith, and today is a good day to acknowledge them, and to give thanks for them to God. The commission to teach has been followed by generations of apostolic witnesses, who have faithfully handed on all that Jesus has taught us. The gravitational pull of the apostolic teaching has pulled us into its orbit. Its very weight and density have converting power because it comes from Christ himself. You might say that the teaching is not so much “taught” as “caught,” passed on from witness to witness.
Today we celebrate the renewal of baptismal vows, as members of the Church receive the laying on of hands with prayer in Confirmation. It’s a day where what has been taught has indeed been caught. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote once that “to teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer” (ST III.71.4.3). St. Thomas is reminding us of the commission each of us has been given, to teach as we have been taught, and to pass it on.