The Second Sunday of Easter (A)
April 23, 2017
Text: John 20:19-31
He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
The disciples are terrified. That is why they are behind locked doors. For fear. Fear of the Jews. Fear that all their hopes are lost, that the Savior is dead, or worse… For now there are rumors, the silly chatter of women (!), but also reports from some of their own, that Jesus is alive and has appeared here and there among His own. And if only that could be true, how wonderful beyond all telling! But, how dreadful at the same time. For the disciples, every one of them, had deserted Him in His most urgent moment of need. Every one of them fled for fear of the danger to himself. Peter, he who had so confidently boasted that all the rest may desert the Lord, but he never would. Even if he had to die with Jesus… Peter denied Him three times before the cock crowed, and even as Jesus was led out to Pilate, Peter wept the bitter tears of one trapped in his sin. The Romans, the Jews, these may seek the disciples to kill them. But worse than the sword would be facing Jesus in His disappointment over their sin. Lock the doors and keep them barred. Let no one in. Not even Him.
All at once, Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19; ESV). Now, the doors were locked. Everything was shut up tight. How did Jesus come to be in their midst? No, He didn’t climb in through the window. No, He didn’t sneak in while they weren’t looking. No, He didn’t walk through the wall. This is the new reality brought about by Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. He is always in the midst of His people! He is always in the midst of us as we gather together in His Name! Not just as God, but now as a man! In His body, risen from the dead and glorified! He shows them the wounds, His hands and His side. It is really Jesus, the man who was crucified, died, and was buried. He is risen from the dead and lives. And the peace He pronounces flows from these very wounds. So that they believe it, just so that they don’t miss it, He says it again: “Peace be with you” (v. 21). And this is precisely what they need to hear. Jesus does not come in disappointment. Jesus does not come in condemnation. There will be no divine wrath today, or ever. Jesus comes in peace. Jesus comes to impart His peace, the peace that passes all understanding. Jesus is peace. This little phrase, which we hear right before Jesus comes among us in His body, with His wounds, in the Holy Supper, “Peace be with you,” “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” is nothing short of a Holy Absolution. It is the joyous proclamation that God no longer holds your sins against you. Christ having died for your sins, you being justified by faith, you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). You can approach His throne. You can eat and drink at His Table. God is for you. Jesus is for you. No wrath of God for you today, or ever. “Peace be with you.” He says it twice to the Church gathered behind the locked doors, because that is the Gospel that creates faith and keeps faith alive. He says it eight days later again to the Church (notice the pattern He is establishing of appearing to His Church on Sundays), and specifically He says it to Thomas, and shows him His wounds, because that is what creates faith in Thomas and keeps Thomas’ faith alive.
Oh, poor Thomas. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, though that epithet is never applied to him in Holy Scripture. Should it really surprise us that he doubts? Of course, he should have believed upon the preaching of his brother apostles. But then again, we all have our doubts, don’t we? We all have our crises of faith. Yet we’re so hard on “Doubting Thomas.” I’ll tell you what Thomas needs. Thomas needs to go to Church! Thomas needs the Divine Service, where Jesus Himself comes among His disciples and speaks His peace and shows His wounds. Jesus knows this, and He does this for Thomas, and for the Eleven, and for you, and for me. He comes to the place where His people are gathered in all their doubts and all their fears and all their sins and He speaks His peace. He forgives. He preaches the Gospel. And He shows His wounds. For Thomas and those with him, He invites them to go ahead and poke around a bit. For us He gives His wounds, His body, His blood, in the Holy Communion.
And now, what are the results of all of this? “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (v. 20). They told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord” (v. 25). “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (v. 28). “(T)hese 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” (v. 31). When Jesus speaks His peace and shows His wounds, there is gladness where once there was despair. There is confession of the risen Jesus Christ in the face of denial and doubt, confession that will ultimately lead to martyrdom for most of these men, and the holy cross in one form or another for you. That is to say, there is faith that spills over in joy and witness. The peace that flows through Jesus’ wounds gives you faith in Jesus, and so life everlasting in His Name. And it opens your lips to proclaim His praise.
What our Lord did for His apostles that Easter Day, and again eight days later when Thomas was with them, He does for us every time His Church gathers together in His Name. Beloved, you do not see Him with your eyes, but Jesus is in the midst of us this morning as surely as He was in the midst of His disciples who were locked away for fear. He is in the midst of us, not just as God, but as a man. In His body. With His body and blood. And He speaks: “Peace be with you.” What else is all the preaching and Scripture and liturgy about if not that? He forgives your sins. He declares to you that God is not against you, but for you. He died. He is risen. Your debt is paid. You are freed from captivity. His Father is your Father. His God is your God. You no longer need to fear. Peace, beloved. Peace.
And because this peace that flows from Jesus’ wounds creates faith in you and keeps your faith alive, Jesus gave a gift to His Church that Easter evening to perpetuate the giving of this peace. He gave the Office of the Holy Ministry. The Apostles were the first to receive it. “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’” (vv. 22-23). These are the Words of Institution for the Office of the Ministry. If you were to boil the Pastoral Office down to its essence, what’s it all finally about? It’s about this one thing: The forgiveness of sins. In other words, the peace of Jesus Christ. Why does a preacher preach Christ crucified? For the forgiveness of sins. What are the Sacraments about, Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper? The forgiveness of sins. Why have Bible study and Sunday School, Beer & Bible on Tuesday nights, devotions, pastoral visits, even meetings about the governance of this congregation? It’s finally all and only about the forgiveness of sins. That is why you have a pastor. That is why the Church exists. For sinners, for the forgiveness of sins. Even this bit about withholding forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent has as its goal the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of the sinner. The Church has been called a hospital for sinners. That’s true, in a manner of speaking. The Church is the hospital where dead men are brought, those dead in their trespasses and sins, that the death and resurrection of Christ be applied and the dead brought to new life in Christ. The peace of Jesus, the Gospel, creates faith in them, breathes the Spirit of life into them, and keeps them alive. Our Augsburg Confession puts it this way: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (AC V:1-3; McCain).
So here you are, beloved, sinners, every one of you. I know, because I am, too. Here you are with your doubts and your fears, your heartaches and tears, and the deepest, darkest secrets of your black heart and soul. You lock it all away for fear. You’d be mortified if others knew your real thoughts, your real feelings, the things you’ve done and the things you want to do. Jesus knows. He knows them all. But be not afraid. He does not come to you in wrath or condemnation. He comes…. In mercy! He is here. Right in the midst of you. And He speaks. “Peace be with you,” He preaches, He absolves, forgives all your sins. “I have washed you clean in my own blood. See my wounds. Poke around. Take, eat. Take, drink. My body. My blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Be no longer doubting, but believing.” And so it is. Your lips are open. Jesus fills them with Himself. You are glad, and you speak. You confess the crucified and risen Christ. The Creed. The hymns. Your prayers. Your amens. It is all because of Easter. It is all because of Jesus’ presence here in your midst at this very moment with His peace and His wounds. It is all because of this one simple, but earthshaking fact: He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.