“And when [Jesus] 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! The text for our sermon this Second Sunday of Easter 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, the doors were locked. Not just shut, but locked. The Church had locked itself in, disconnected itself from the world, and it cowered there in isolation. Why? The answer is one word: fear. Fear of oppression, fear of their enemies, fear of exposure, fear of persecution. Fear that what had happened to their Lord would also happen to them. Fear trapped them in, it cut them off from all others. The Church was a country club of fear, and membership was closed, no one was allowed to join. The doors were locked.
Jesus entered in through those locked doors; He broke into His Church. “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.’” Locked doors don’t concern the resurrected Jesus; He passes right through them. He enters with a message, a proclamation: “Peace be with you.” He brings peace to a Church cowering in fear, behind their locked doors. Peace is His gift, peace is the reason that He became man, walked this earth, suffered death and rose. The peace He gives is the fruit of His resurrection, it is the result of the empty tomb. This is much more than the absence of war, violence, or turmoil in this world. His peace has little to do with international politics or local crime. His peace is cosmic, and it brings to an end the greatest conflict in all of creation. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” He is bringing to the disciples peace between God and man. The strife is over, the battle done. The rift between God and His creation has been healed, bridged by the sacrifice of Christ. He died in our place and He rose to declare to the world that peace had been won, that the Father had accepted His sacrifice. This peace will characterize eternity; in the resurrection, we will live in perfect peace. That gift has been won through the cross and the empty tomb; now, behind locked doors, that peace is brought to His disciples.
This proclamation of peace destroys fear. The disciples were afraid of the Jews; the Church today too often is afraid of the world. Do we also have locked churches? Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about our physical doors at all. What I’m speaking about is a Church that is locked in on itself, shut off from the world and her community. Are our doors also locked? Do we also keep the Church locked safely behind these walls? If we examine ourselves, we will find that too often we do, and for the same reason: fear. We don’t speak our faith because we are afraid of what others may think of us, we are afraid of destroying a friendship or family relationship. We are, perhaps even unconsciously, less friendly to outsiders who enter these doors because we are, deep down, afraid of what others might do to ‘my’ church. They walk right in, but when they aren’t greeted or made to feel welcome, or even encouraged to sign the guest register, they realize that the doors are locked. Instead of visibly being involved in our communities as leaders and agents of positive renewal, showing mercy and love to our neighbors, the Church remains locked in on itself, concerned only with the needs of its members. We don’t take the Church into the streets because we are afraid of what scorn and abuse the streets might throw back on us. I know and feel this fear, and the disciples certainly felt it, too; and this fear keeps us behind these locked doors.
Jesus enters to destroy that fear, to shatter it with His words of peace. The declaration, “Peace be with you,” calms trembling hearts. There is no more need to fear; Christ has conquered sin and death, He has overcome the world. His wounds are the proof. “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” The wounds of Christ are the guarantees of peace. They are the declaration of forgiveness. Jesus has no anger, no wrath over our sins; the cross has taken care of all that. All He has is the beautiful words of forgiveness and grace, “Peace be with you,” and He shows wounds that won that forgiveness.
The disciples were turned in on themselves, locked in the Church, which they had made their own prison of fear. But with the words of peace, Jesus turns them outside of themselves and sends them, He sends the Church out into the world. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’” Jesus broke into their locked room and opened wide the doors. They are sent into the world to take the peace which Christ had won, the peace which Christ has given to them, to all people. Through now opened doors the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection goes forth to Judea, Samaria, and all the ends of the earth. The disciples, cowering in fear, are sent out as apostles, sent ones, to boldly speak of Christ. The Church of every age is sent out in the same way; our fears are destroyed by the peace of Christ and we are turned outside of ourselves into the world. Our locked doors are burst open, Easter goes forth. We have been given peace; now it is our privilege to give that peace to others.
Through open doors the Church goes to open up the gates of heaven. Through faith all Christians are witnesses of His resurrection, and the cry of victory rings forth in every generation: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! The apostles preached this glorious message in synagogues and temples, in churches and in homes. Individual Christians proclaimed Christ’s victory to their friends and families, each in his or her own vocation. In the same way, today pastors preach this message publically, and individual Christians speak it in their various vocations. Some apostles were even given the unique task of writing down the words and deeds of Jesus, so that future generations could hear and believe. As John declares about his own gospel, “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.”
Heaven is opened by the preaching of the Church, and hell is shut, because the Church’s preaching comes with the authority of Christ Himself, the authority to extend the peace of the resurrection to others through the forgiveness of 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 peace of the resurrection is given to a sinful world through the words of forgiveness, proclaimed by the apostles and the pastors who follow in their stead. Heaven is opened by their preaching, and hell is shut, because the content of that preaching is the forgiveness of sins, which delivers to sinful people the peace of Christ, the fruits of His resurrection, by reconciling them with their God.
It is the forgiveness of sins that gives their preaching and teaching power. And this power is not their own. The apostles, and the pastors that follow them, aren’t called upon to forgive or retain sins based on their own opinion, to open or shut heaven however they want to. They are under authority; they declare the verdict that has already been enacted in the heavenly throne-room. When you refuse to repent and believe, as Thomas did at first, the pastor is obligated to declare that your sins are not forgiven, that heaven is shut against you. But when you repent of your sins and believe in the peace of the resurrection, the pastor is required by Christ to forgive that sin and declare that heaven is open to you. As the Small Catechism declares: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord had dealt with us Himself.”
Pastors extend the peace of the resurrection to all sins in general in the public worship service, during confession and absolution, and then in preaching. But they also proclaim Christ’s peace by applying forgiveness to specific sins in private. This is one of the most under-utilized gifts that Christ has given to His Church; in fact, most congregations have lost Private Confession and Absolution altogether. When Jesus sends His disciples forth to forgive sins, He sends them to forgive specific sins, sins that weigh upon your conscience like a heavy burden. In our text, Jesus is telling you where you can go to find comfort; not to your own thoughts, wrestlings, or good works, but outside of yourself to those who have been called for no other reason than to forgive sins.
Today one who has been thus called proclaims to you the message of Easter: Your sins are forgiven! The peace of Christ covers you! This peace has come to you again this day, in preaching and in absolution [and will come to you again in the Lord’s Supper.] You and I may try to make the Church a locked prison-house, but Christ has broken in to shatter those doors with His peace, His forgiveness. And His forgiveness opens other doors as well. In the book of Revelation we hear, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The doors of heaven will never be shut to you, for you are forgiven, you have been baptized into His name. Christ Himself opens heaven and shuts hell. For eternity, you will have access to the peace of God through open doors; the gates of heaven will never be shut, and here on this earth, to all who believe, the gates of heaven are opened through the peace of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the fruits of His resurrection. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.