St. John 20:19-31
3 April 2016
On the evening of Easter Day, the disciples were gathered together. They were not meeting to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. They were not rejoicing in Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. This was not a gathering of faith; instead, it was a gathering of unbelief. The disciples, who should have benefited from more than three years of the best theological training in the history of the world, were cowering behind locked doors in fear for their lives. They didn’t believe the testimony of Mary Magdalene who had seen the risen Lord. They didn’t believe Jesus’ own words, that he would be crucified and rise again after three days. What Jesus had said stood in conflict with the reality of death. So, in spite of Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the disciples believed that death, not Jesus, was lord. They were gathered together in fear. That had seen Jesus die, and they trusted that death would have the final word.
The disciples had another reason to be afraid. Jesus had said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). But in the first time of persecution, all the disciples had forsaken Jesus and fled. Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mt 10:33). Yet Peter had denied Jesus with oaths and curses, and Judas had betrayed him. They had shown themselves to be the worst sort of disciples, and if Jesus somehow was not dead, he had every reason to be angry with them. You’ve all seen the movies where the guy that was supposed to be in prison for life, has been released, and now he’s looking for vengeance. So, the disciples might have had every reason to fear the Resurrection.
Now, with the doors having been locked where the disciples were on account of fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and says to them, “Peace be to you.”
The doors were locked for fear of the Jews, but locked doors don’t discriminate. They keep out all kinds of unwelcome guests – unless that guest happens to be Jesus. In that case, Jesus simply comes uninvited, locks or no locks, and stands in the midst, saying, “Peace be to you.” This is not simply a greeting. These are not empty words. Often, we say to a stranger, “How are you?” but we aren’t really asking. We don’t mean our words. It’s just a greeting. Not so with Jesus. Our resurrected Lord stands before his disciples, the scars of his battle against sin, death, and hell still visible on his hands and side and declares his victory with these words, “Peace be to you.” These are words of absolution. No doubt, the disciples were troubled by specific sins – forsaking and denying their Lord, fearing to suffer for his name, and especially, for their unbelief. All these sins are forgiven in Christ’s words, “Peace be to you.”
But there is more to this peace. The sins that trouble us merely flow from the source of original sin, the sin nature born in every man and woman since Adam. In the garden, all humankind chose to believe the word of Satan over and against the Word of God. We refused to trust in God as our Father, and instead willingly became allies of Satan. As Paul writes, “You were once alienated and hostile in mind” (Col 1:21) and again, “we were enemies [of God]” (Ro 5:10). Eating of the fruit was our declaration of war. Nevertheless, God proclaimed to Satan that he would not allow this new alliance to stand. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Ge 3:15). Through the seed of the woman, who is Christ, God promised to restore proper hatred between man and Satan, to break up our partnership with death. In Isaiah, the Lord God declares, “Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Hell will not stand” (Is 28:18).
The first promise of the Savior was given after God found Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden. It is fitting that when Jesus comes to announce the fulfillment of this prophecy, he would find the disciples, once again, hiding. So he stands before his terrified disciples and proclaims God’s verdict upon all the sons of Adam. “Peace be to you.” Jesus declares that our war against God is now over, our iniquity has been pardoned. The price of our peace, as Isaiah says, has been laid upon him. “Peace be to you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Here was the proof. The scars in his hands, the gash in his side testified to his words. Peace with God had come at a terrible price. We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (Ro 5:10). It cost Jesus everything – his blood, his life – yet he paid this price gladly. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross willingly, despising its shame (Heb 12:2).
It’s no coincidence that in Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples following his victory upon the cross, he proclaims to them peace and the forgiveness of sin. By the sin of one man, Adam, Satan had brought death into this world. Sin separated us from God. Sin wreaked havoc upon God’s perfect creation. But now, on the first day of the new week, the eighth day of creation, Jesus had fulfilled God’s promise to redeem fallen creation. In the beginning, through the power of his Word, God spoke the universe into being. With his Word he breathed life into Adam, as he also did to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. And now, in a parallel act of re-creation, Jesus, having conquered the curse of death, breathes life into his disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This is why Christ established his church and sent out his apostles. For even as Jesus was sent by the Father, announcing peace with God and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, so also, Jesus sends his disciples “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47). This is the task of the church: To proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection, and in his name to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. Just as sin brought death into the world, so the forgiveness of sins gives life to all believers.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of faithless disciples became a gathering of believers, and the disciples rejoiced that they had seen the Lord. Even though their faith had been weak, or non-existent, they had gathered together according to Jesus’ promise, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). And true to his word, he was there among them. Death could not keep him away. The grave was powerless to hold him. Our resurrected Lord stood among his disciples, as he stands among us today, announcing the forgiveness of sins, bestowing the Holy Spirit, and strengthening – or creating – faith. This truly is the Divine Service, where God comes to us bestowing his gifts, and we rejoice because we have seen the Lord.
But not Thomas. Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. For whatever reason, he had forsaken the assembly of the saints. Jesus had come, and Thomas had missed him. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” And not just once. They told him, and kept on telling him – again and again. But Thomas would not believe. Instead, in rather crude language, he says: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and jab my finger into the mark of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will absolutely never believe.” Perhaps you’ve heard people say that Thomas got a bad rap. Because poor Thomas had a single episode of doubt, he will forever be remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” But consider Thomas’ confession: “I will absolutely never believe!” This is the strongest negation possible in the Greek language. This is not doubt. This is not uncertainty. This is damnable unbelief. “Doubting Thomas” is too kind. He should instead be called Unbelieving Thomas, or Thomas the Atheist. If Christ had not been merciful, Thomas would have remained in his unbelief, and would have been damned.
The same is true for you. Unless Christ had mercy, you too would have been lost. So, why do we often seek to clean Thomas up a bit, to cut him some slack? Perhaps because we know that we are Thomas. Sinful flesh doesn’t want to admit the depth of its depravity. But the Scripture is clear: You were lost in sin and unbelief. You were unwilling to come to God. In fact, you were his enemy. You had nothing to contribute to your salvation – except sin and hostility toward God. Do you want to be numbered among the saints, among the disciples? Answer carefully, for Jesus chose forsakers, deniers, betrayers, unbelievers, persecutors, and murderers to be his disciples. Are you in this company? “Give glory to God”, as Joshua exhorted Achan, “and confess your sin.” For yes, your sin is great – but your Savior is greater.
Christ was merciful to you. You would not, could not believe. You did not desire to come to him. Once again, the doors were locked. Yet if the grave could not hold him in, how could locks keep him out? He stands in your midst and says to you: “Peace be to you. Thomas, bring your finger. Jab it into my hands. Thrust your hand into my side. Thomas, do not be unbelieving, but be believing.”
This may sound like a rebuke, and it is. But it is also a loving and gracious word. The same God who said, “Let there be light” and it was so, now says to you, “Be believing!” and it is so. Christ is merciful to you. He comes through locked doors and conquers your unbelief. He bids you to thrust your hand into his life-giving side and take freely from his bounty. He bestows his Holy Spirit, creating and sustaining the faith by which you cry, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” You are blessed indeed, for God has seen fit to pour out his gift of the Holy Spirit upon you, who have not seen, but now believe. You, who once were far off, have been brought near. You, who once were enemies, have been made dear children of God, and may once again call him Father. Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed. And yet, you have seen the Lord. Your ears have heard his words. You have felt the water of baptism that flowed from his gaping side. You have seen with your eyes and tasted with your mouth the living body and blood of our Savior, who is present among us again today. And so, you too may say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
And now may the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds and keep you in the one, true faith, until life everlasting. Amen.