Monday, May 2, 2011

Easter 2 of Series A (John 20:19-31)

“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 from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, for the disciples, Easter Sunday was a day of suspense and amazement, fear and wonder. We can imagine them together that morning in the upper room, the same room that Jesus celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them before that long, dark, and fateful night. John tells us that the doors of that room were locked “for fear of the Jews,” fear that they thought was entirely justified. If an innocent Jesus could be killed without a fair trial, then what could happen to His followers? Then the women burst in. The tomb is empty! Peter and John investigate. The tomb is empty! Mary Magdalene comes in next, almost hysterical with joy and trembling. I have seen the Lord! He is alive, He is risen! Later that afternoon, as Saint Luke will teach us next week, two disciples pound on the locked door. We talked to Jesus on the road to Emmaus! He has conquered the grave! The disciples remain in their bunker all day, listening to the news as it comes in. Something amazing is definitely happening, though they aren’t quite sure what it is yet. We do not see joy in their faces, but confusion and fear. The doors remain locked.

“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.’” Jesus comes to them, victorious over the grave, speaking words of peace. This is no idle greeting, but instead the very fruits of His resurrection. These disciples had fled at His most desperate hour, they had denied Him in their thoughts, words, and deeds. But Jesus here speaks no accusations, but instead He proclaims peace. His resurrection has won peace for those disciples and for you and me, the only peace that truly matters. The Jews will still seek the lives of the disciples, some will die on crosses like their Lord. Jesus doesn’t promise earthly peace for any of us. Instead, He brings peace between God and man, the peace of the Gospel, the peace won by His victory. Because Jesus took our sin upon Himself and paid the price for them, we are at peace with God, reconciled to Him forever. His wrath raged against Jesus; it will not touch you. To prove the basis for this peace, Jesus shows them the wounds of salvation. “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side.” This is no ghost, this is no imposter, but this is the same Jesus that died on the cross, bearing the same body He offered up on the tree for the sin of the world.

The response of the disciples is the same as the women at the tomb that morning. “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” They have the joy of the resurrection, the joy that comes only through faith in the risen Jesus. Their doubt and unbelief is driven away, and now the Lord has a mission for His chosen Eleven. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’” They will go forth into this darkened world to represent Christ, to continue His work upon this earth. Jesus was sent into this world by the Father to accomplish salvation, and now His disciples will go forth to deliver that salvation to all people. They are here changed from disciples, ‘learners,’ into apostles, ‘sent ones.’ And they will not go alone. “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 work of Jesus is that of forgiveness. Forgiveness brings the peace of Jesus, eternal peace between God and man. Here the apostles are given the privilege of going out to forgive sins, bringing the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection to sinful people. With these words, Jesus establishes the Pastoral Office, and He intends it to be an Office that is all about the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit goes with all those who hold that Office, for the men who hold it can do nothing on their own. They need the Holy Spirit for the work they are called to do, and Jesus in His grace gives this gift to them.

The Eleven apostles are given wondrous gifts that first Easter evening. Not only are they given the peace of the resurrection, but they are commissioned and ordained to take this peace into the entire world. But as John tells us, not all of the Eleven were present to receive these gifts of Jesus. “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not there when Jesus came.” Why was Thomas absent? John doesn’t give us any indication, but simply reports that he wasn’t there. For some reason or another, Thomas excluded himself from the community of believers in their most desperate hour. And because he refused to join his brothers in the upper room, he missed the opportunity to receive the great gifts of Jesus. You know, it doesn’t really matter why Thomas was absent. People have all sorts of reasons for not going to church, some that are petty and insignificant, and some that indicate a very deep hurt that needs healing. Many of them boil down to the assertion that ‘I can be a Christian by myself.’ But the simple fact is that we are not Christians in isolation. We do not fly solo in the Christian life. We cannot believe for another person, but we do have a responsibility to support our brothers and sisters in the faith. That’s right, one of the reasons you go to church is to serve your neighbor. We are not just a collection of individuals here this morning, but a community, a family, a congregation, and when we exclude ourselves from the community we are hurting our brothers and sisters in the faith.

But as the account of Thomas indicates, we are most significantly hurting ourselves. For those who isolate themselves from the church cut themselves off from Christ’s gifts. And in the case of Thomas, this isolation was devastating. “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ 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 never believe.’” The isolation of Thomas leads to skepticism and unbelief. He has cut himself off from the gifts of Jesus, and his faith withers away as a result. We call him ‘doubting Thomas,’ but that is really too kind. Instead, we should call him ‘unbelieving Thomas.’ He has placed himself outside of salvation through his unbelief, giving to all of us a stern warning of what can happen when we exclude ourselves from the community of believers

This could’ve been the end of the story, but we have a stubborn God, who continues to work on us and continues to draw us back to Him. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Thomas rejoins the community of believers again eight days later. He still has his unbelief, but like a church member who only comes a few times a year, at least he is in the pew. In that same upper room, Jesus launches a direct attack on his unbelief. “Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 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 the midst of the community, amongst his brothers and sisters in the faith, Thomas encounters the risen Christ. Jesus is present where He has promised to be present, in the midst His Church. In the Church He gives His great gifts, the peace that the world cannot give, and now Thomas receives this peace and sees the wounds that won peace between God and man. This proclamation of the Gospel creates faith within him, faith which drives away unbelief, and the response is one of the greatest confessions in the New Testament. “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” This same Jesus, crucified and risen, standing before the community bearing the wounds of salvation, is truly Lord and God, true God in human flesh for the salvation of all.

You have not had the opportunity to see the risen Christ as Thomas did, but you are not for this reason to be pitied. Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus may be chastising Thomas, but He uses this occasion to speak a blessing to all those who believe even though they haven’t seen Him. This includes you and it includes me. We are blessed, because the Lord has created faith within us, faith which drives out unbelief, through the proclamation of the apostles. They continue to preach the message of the resurrection through the Holy Scriptures, as John writes: “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.” Those who have followed the apostles in the Pastoral Office have the privilege and weighty responsibility to speak the words of forgiveness, the proclamation that brings true peace between God and man.

The primary place where this happens is in the Divine Service. We encounter the risen Christ each and every Sunday, when He comes to us through the Word and especially when He gives us His Body and Blood to partake of in the Lord’s Supper. Here in this place, once again this morning the risen Christ is coming to you, bringing you forgiveness, the peace of the resurrection. You are forgiven! You are at peace with God! The wounds that Christ will bear for eternity are the proof and seal of this truth. Only Jesus drives out unbelief and creates faith, and He does so through the proclamation of the Gospel here in the midst of His gathered people. Saint Peter wrote in our Epistle lesson: “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” We are blessed, for even though we have not seen Him, Christ has forgiven our sins, He has created faith within us. Our salvation depends not upon our eyes, but upon His promises. Thanks be to God that Jesus still comes to us with His great gifts! In the Name of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, who drives out unbelief with the power of the Gospel, Amen.

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