✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
It was the evening of that first Easter day. The disciples were all together in one place, all of them except Thomas. The doors were shut and locked. They were paralyzed, not knowing what to do. They had failed Jesus miserably days before. They saw Him die a bloody death that was manipulated by the Jewish authorities and carried out with precise Roman cruelty. Now the women were telling them stories of angels and that Jesus was alive again. What were they to make of that? The tomb was empty; that was true enough. Still the disciples were afraid to believe the full truth, afraid for their future, and especially afraid that those who had killed Jesus would surely come for them, now that the rumors of His resurrection were beginning to circulate.
What is it that you fear, that leaves you paralyzed and uncertain? What keeps you locked up, bolted in? We, too, have failed our Lord like the disciples. We may mean well. We desire to be people of great character and faithfulness, of great study of the Word of God and prayer. But when confronted with the realities of life, Jesus is generally left standing alone in Gethsemane while we flee in fear. Even now when we’ve heard of His resurrection, we’re not always sure what to make of it, what it means for us. We still fear to believe the full truth because other concerns seem to loom larger. We fear what might happen to us if people find out what our connections to Jesus really are and what we believe; or we fear financial troubles, losing a job, losing a relationship; or we fear ill health or violence or death. And so we lock ourselves into our own little safe zones–in work, in TV and social media and video games, in drinking and comfort foods, in our hobbies and constant need for entertainment and activity–wherever it is that you go or whatever it is that you do to hide from your fears, from the world, and especially from God.
But Jesus breaks through such artificial barriers. The crucified One comes to the disciples in their locked room. His risen body now shares fully in the glory of His divine nature, all-powerful, omnipresent. And so locked doors are no barrier to Him. Remember the stone was rolled away from the tomb not to let Jesus out but to let the witnesses of the resurrection in. Jesus doesn’t need to knock–they wouldn’t have opened the door anyway. He simply appears, as though He was there all along though not seen–just as He is with us, here and now. You can’t see Him, but His presence is very tangible and real, in that little room and in this one, and wherever two or three are gathered in His Name.
And the very first words Jesus speaks to them after His resurrection are not words that berate them for their unbelief; they are gentle words of absolution. “Peace be with you.” That’s not just some generic greeting. Jesus’ words give what they say: calm, wholeness, forgiveness. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Jesus is saying to them and to you, “It’s going to be OK. I am not here to give you vengeance but mercy. I do not hold your sins against you. They have all been paid for and answered for and put away forever. Everything is as it should be. I have reconciled you to the Father. All is well. Do not fear. Be at peace.”
With Jesus’ words come also His wounds, the nail marks in His hands and feet, the spear wound in His side. But why the wounds? The rest of His body had been restored and glorified; why keep these wounds after the resurrection? Firstly, they mark Him as the crucified One. Had Jesus appeared without wounds, there might have been doubt that it really was Jesus. Maybe it was an impostor. The wounds mark Him for certain. That’s what Thomas wanted to see. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Pretty strong statement, but then, dead men don’t ordinarily rise, so we probably shouldn’t point fingers at doubting Thomas.
But Jesus’ wounds are more than proof that He’s actually risen, they are the source of the peace Jesus spoke of. Jesus’ peace is not some hollow, religious wish, but peace with God who has reconciled the world to Himself precisely in the death of His Son. From those wounds alone come our forgiveness, our life, our salvation. It is written in Isaiah, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed.” Jesus retains the scars from His wounds, then, because that’s how we recognize Him for who He is, that’s how we know Him to be the Savior, whose glory it is to lay down His life in love for us, whose “rich wounds yet visible above” are our peace. It’s only when the disciples saw the wounds of Jesus that they knew gladness and joy.
Once more Jesus says, “Peace to you.” With His first word of peace Jesus absolved His disciples and took away their fear. Now with His second word of peace He sends them to absolve others and take away their fears. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” As Jesus was sent from the Father to speak on the Father’s behalf, so now Jesus was sending His apostles to speak on His behalf and to give out the gifts that He had just won.
And how will this group of fearful disciples manage this task? What will propel them out the door into the world? It is written, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus’ breath is the Spirit which delivers His Word. The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Church that speaks the Word of Christ. You know how it is when you are out of breath. You can’t talk. You can barely get the words out. Words are pushed by air, breath. The Church’s breath is not her own but Christ’s, the wind of God that blows from the mouth of risen Jesus. He resuscitates His fearful disciples with the Spirit who renews and gives life to the dry bones of sinners. He breathes upon His Church as He did here, and as He did in a big way at Pentecost. This one is a little Pentecost, for His disciples, the eyewitnesses of His resurrection. Fifty days later, Jesus would breathe out again over His church, this time bringing 3000 people to Baptism where they too received the Holy Spirit.
“If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” Jesus’ words and breath deliver forgiveness. You don’t have to search for forgiveness from God. You don’t have to look to heaven, or in your heart. Look for the mouth of the minister and listen with your ears. Forgiveness is something spoken and heard. In the liturgy of personal confession, the pastor asks, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” My forgiveness of itself is not going to do you a bit of eternal good. It may make peace between us, but not between you and God. Only God’s forgiveness can do that. It comes to you from Christ through His called servant, whomever that man may be. And that man will always be a sinner in need of the peace of Christ no less than those gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening.
So when the absolution is spoken to you, think of it as a resurrection appearance of Jesus to you. For that’s what it is. Through those whom He has sent to speak in His name, Jesus Himself is speaking to you, “Peace be with you.” “I forgive you all your sins. . .”
Of course, the opposite is also true. Jesus says to the apostles, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a gift freely given by grace and freely received through faith in Jesus. But there is no neutral, middle ground between forgiveness and unforgiveness, as there is no middle ground between faith and unbelief. God forces His forgiveness on no one. If someone refuses it through unrepentance, forgiveness is withheld, and it is the church’s and the pastor’s right and duty to declare that to be so and even to withhold entrance to the Lord’s Supper from such a person, until they come to repentance, which is the Lord’s desire.
All of this is what we just spoke from the Small Catechism, “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 dealt with us Himself.”
God’s forgiveness is never something just sort of floating about in the air. It is a concrete, real, earthy thing. Words going from a mouth to an ear by the breath and words of the Son of God, who gave His life and rose again so that we would receive the forgiveness of all of our sins and live in the confident freedom of God’s baptized children.
One last point–a lot of us can identify with Thomas in this narrative, with our doubts and our questions, especially in this supposedly scientific age where we want everything to be proven before we’ll accept it. A lot of us would like to have the chance to be able to do what he did, actually see Jesus and touch His hands and side and see that it’s all real. There’s two things I believe we can learn from Thomas. The first is, don’t stop assembling yourself with the other followers of Jesus, even when it sometimes starts to feel pointless. For it’s in this gathered group where Jesus comes to be present, here in divine service where His special work happens–sometimes in ways you realize, often in ways you don’t. Thomas didn’t know until after he had already missed out. Skipping church or Bible class means missing out on those gifts of Christ, the gifts you may especially need that week.
The second thing to learn from Thomas is that, in fact, you do get to do what he did. You do get to touch Jesus’ hands and side. Isn’t that happens when you come to the Sacrament? You touch the nail marks by receiving the body of Jesus, wounded for your salvation, risen from the dead and fed into you to give you unconquerable life. You touch Jesus’ side by grasping the cup which contains the very blood which flowed from His side which cleanses you of all sin. Before you come forward for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus presents His wounds to you as the host and cup are lifted high and the words are spoken, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” The same risen Jesus is here with His words and His wounds, so that you might confess of Him with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Blessed, then, are you who have not seen and yet have believed. For by believing you have life in Jesus’ name.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for some of the above.)