Monday, April 27, 2009

Second Sunday of Easter (Series B: John 20:19-31)

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Easter is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, denials of the resurrection are almost as old as the resurrection itself. Matthew tells us of the first attempt to cover up what happened on Easter morning. “[The chief priests] gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell the people, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.”’ Since then, many other theories have been advanced, including the idea that Jesus never really died, but only fainted on the cross, or that there was the clever use of a body double, or the thought that the disciples simply made the whole thing up (and were willing to die for something they knew wasn’t true). All of these theories, and countless others, are poor and feeble attempts by our world to come to grips with the fact that someone who was dead, killed in the most gruesome way, was now alive, they are attempts to give a rational explanation for an empty tomb, for the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

But doubting the resurrection is not the exclusive property of the world. Jesus’ own followers fell into doubt and denial. Last week we heard the beautiful and touching story of the resurrection according to Saint John, we traveled with our author and Peter to the empty tomb, we stood with Mary as she wept. Then we felt her joy as Jesus came to her side- alive, never to die again! She is sent to tell the disciples what she had seen and heard, and what is their response? “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews…” What? The doors were locked? The disciples had heard the great proclamation of Mary; John and Peter had seen the empty tomb, and still they cower behind locked doors?

This doubt was even worse with Thomas. Jesus appeared to the disciples that first night, he gave them the proof they needed for their feeble faith. But what about Thomas? “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” This proclamation was not enough for Thomas. He wanted an experience, he wanted to see with his physical eyes rather than with the eyes of faith. “But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will not believe.’” The Word of the apostles was not enough, he wanted an experience. That is how doubt assails us- it convinces us that what we have is not enough, that we need more. The promises of God in Holy Scripture are not enough, I need to feel Him in my heart, in my own life for me to truly believe. I need some great spiritual experience, some wonderful act of God in my life before I will consider myself truly a Christian. Satan does not want us satisfied with the Word of God, with the witness of Christ’s apostles. Satan wants us hungering and thirsting for more, for some fleeting feeling or experience that will somehow confirm our faith. He wants us searching in vain for confirmation, because when our faith is based only on our own personal experience, it is on shaky ground. Then doubt can come in and make a home in our heart. I haven’t experienced a resurrection, so why should I believe some fishermen? I don’t always feel Jesus with me, so He probably isn’t.

But Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, comes in to shatter all doubt. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” He speaks the words that cast doubt aside, the words of peace, of comfort, of love. They do not have to fear, for He is arisen! And then He shows them the proofs of His resurrection. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” To Thomas, whose doubt was so profound, his thirst for an experience so great, that he was willing to wallow in total unbelief, Jesus also came. “Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’”

In that moment, ‘doubting Thomas’ was transformed into a bold confessor of Christ’s resurrection. “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” Only the Son of God, true God Himself, could rise from the dead, victorious over all that held Him captive. But not only is Jesus true God, the victor over death, but He is Thomas’ Lord and his God. Faith has grasped onto Jesus and has made Him his very own. But as great as Thomas’ transformation is, Jesus is concerned for all others, He is concerned for you and me. “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is concerned that all people, both that small group that saw and touched His resurrected body and the many who did not, would all say to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

And so the disciples are sent out to confess. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” They are transformed from disciples, ‘learners,’ into apostles, ‘sent ones.’ Thomas would travel around the world preaching the message of the Resurrection, perhaps even as far as India, and he would give his life for his bold confession that Jesus is “My Lord and my God.” All of the disciples were witnesses of the Resurrection, and it was now their task to bring that message of victory over sin and death to all people. Saint John took this task seriously enough that he sat down and committed to paper the words and deeds of Jesus: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

And so their message has echoed throughout the centuries, passed down from generation to generation until it has reached us. But this proclamation is not simply a history lesson, simply an amazing event that happened a long time ago- their proclamation does not only describe events, it also declares the benefits of the Resurrection to you and me. When Jesus entered through locked doors on the first and eighth days, what were His first words? “Peace be with you.” Jesus had not used those words before this very moment- “Peace be with you” is His Resurrection greeting. And it is this peace that the apostles proclaim to you and me. Jesus could not speak of peace until that most holy of weeks, because man and God were not at peace. We were estranged from Him, in sinful rebellion against our creator. But Jesus Christ had come to bring peace, to bridge the chasm between God and man, to restore the broken relationship severed in the garden. And He could only do this by offering Himself as the price. Peace could only come by submitting to the violence of Pilate’s soldiers, to the cruelty of the cross. And so Jesus, in the immensity of His love for you and me, did just that. He allowed Himself to be arrested, to be beaten and scourged, to be held up in a mock trial, and finally to be nailed to a cross. That was the price of peace, and it was a price He was fully willing to pay. On Good Friday we turned to the cross and heard that it was all for us, for you and me, for love of us. And that is also why He rose again. With His victory over death on Easter Sunday, peace between God and man was fully achieved because all that stood between us has been removed by the triumph of Christ. He comes forth from the grave proclaiming to you and me that we will live forever in peace with God. That is the promise of the resurrection, that is the proclamation that the apostles bring to you this day and every day.

This peace is then delivered to us through the forgiveness of sins. The apostles were not just sent out to proclaim peace to us, but to actually give us peace through the forgiveness of all our sins. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’” The apostles and those who follow them are sent out to forgive the sins of all who believe their words; all who believe in the Resurrection, you and me in whom the Holy Spirit has worked faith. Those who refuse to believe in the resurrection are left clinging to their sin, they have turned away the forgiveness freely given by Jesus. They have chosen to stand naked before the judgment seat of God with their sin. But we who believe in the redemption and victory of Christ by the gift of faith, we will stand before God clothed with the blood of Jesus and His righteousness, we will stand at peace with God forgiven of all our sin. And we will stand before God in His glory, His peace forever.

That is where we place our confidence when doubts circle around us- in the Word of God and His proclamation through the apostles. There we hear that we are at peace with God, there we hear that our sins are forgiven, and when we hear those words we can have the confidence that we truly are forgiven. Our own feelings, our own experiences can leave us at the worst moments, and so we must have an anchor, something to cling to, something that truly and faithfully tells us where we stand with God. That was why the apostles were sent- to confess to you that you have been reconciled with God, that Christ’s resurrection victory is yours, that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ. Doubts will still come, but we set against them the sure and certain Word of God. May our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ keep us strong in the true faith through all doubts that assail us, bringing us to that ultimate peace forever in His kingdom, Amen. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

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