Sunday, April 18, 2004

Sermon: Easter 2

18 April 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: John 20:19-31 (RCL)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Texts such as today’s Gospel provide preachers with what we call today: “information overload.”

Look at what we encounter in these thirteen verses: the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of Absolution, the Power of the Keys, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, Holy Ordination and the Office of the Ministry, the nature of faith, and the purpose and power of Holy Scripture. Our text also presents us with several contrasts: life and death, fear and peace, belief and unbelief, forgiveness of sins and the retaining of sins.

My Goodness! Where does one begin? How about at the beginning?

Just before our text opens, Mary Magdalene has just seen and touched the risen Jesus. She has testified before the disciples, but they are skeptical. Their lack of faith results in their fear: expressed in their being huddled up behind closed doors. This is not a very glorious start for the first eleven pastors of the church: cowering in a room with no risen Christ, no gospel, no Holy Spirit, no ordination, and no courage. This is a far cry from St. Peter’s later preaching in our first lesson, who, even as a prisoner of the Jews, defiantly proclaims the gospel, vowing to obey God before men. This is also quite a contrast to what we find in our second lesson: St. John’s fearless confession and proclamation of Christ, even in the latter days of his life, as an exile on a hostile island by order of the Romans. Eleven of the twelve apostles would be martyred by the enemies of Christ. All twelve would become bold and fearless preachers and witnesses of Jesus Christ.

But for now, on this day, at the beginning of our text, they’re a sorry lot. What changes everything for them, leading them from fear to peace, from disbelief to faith, from stunned silence to stunning proclamation, is encountering the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in his Word and in his Flesh. This incredible transformation does not come from within themselves, not from their own courage, not from pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, nor from their reading of popular self-help books. No, it comes from outside of themselves, from Jesus, who, on this day, shares with the disciples his very Body and Blood. The Lord Jesus appears bodily to them, and blesses them with words from his mouth. And it is his blessing “Peace be with you” that indeed gives peace. When God speaks, things come into being: “Let there be light, and there was light.” When God speaks a blessing, a transformation happens to those who hear it and receive it. We see an immediate and startling change in the disciples. Let there be peace, and there is peace.

But Jesus isn’t here just to say “hello,” show off a few scars, and get caught up on old times. He’s not there merely to give comfort to his frightened friends. He has urgent business at hand: the proclamation of the Gospel to the entire world. This is a mission ordered by his Father, and one which Jesus delegates to his apostles, who are, in turn, to lead the church: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” This word “to send” is literally “to apostle.” Jesus is here on this day to give the apostles their calls into the Holy Ministry. They are called to be evangelizing bishops. But Jesus doesn’t simply give them their marching orders. Look at what he does, he breathes on them, bodily giving them the Holy Spirit. And with this ordination, the Lord authorizes the apostles to forgive sins – something the Pharisees claimed that only God could do. Of course, they were right – only God can forgive sins, only God himself can die on the cross and atone for our sins, and only God himself can, and does, send sinful, imperfect, but redeemed men to forgive sins in his name. In addition to this happy task, Jesus also gives his ministers the somber duty of withholding forgiveness from those who refuse to repent. Jesus gives his church’s pastors the power of the keys – one key to open heaven, and the other key to close it, one to free, and the other to bind.

For whatever reason, the apostle Thomas was not ordained with his classmates. In fact, when he returns, he is still in a state of disbelief, while the other apostles had been given the gift of faith. Jesus graciously appears to Thomas, not merely speaking to him, but rather letting Thomas touch his body and handle his bloody wounds. This holy and supernatural – but also earthly and physical – contact brings about Thomas’s beautiful confession echoed by thousands of Christians throughout the centuries during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the pastor elevates the Body of the Lord and the people repeat after Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

While John is on the topic of faith-building, he rounds out the discussion by filling us in on the purpose of Scripture. It’s not primarily genealogy, history, science, poetry, ethics, etc. – though one will find all of these things in the Bible. But John gets right to the point: “these things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, Scripture, just like the Sacraments, actually creates faith. The Scriptures are a supernatural manifestation of Jesus, a means through which he breathes his spirit into all of us and gives us everlasting life, a life that overcomes fear, disbelief, and even the power of death itself.

And this is the crux of the matter: by faith, we have life. Not by our own works, our own righteousness, or by our own power. No, by faith. But faith in what? In ourselves? In money? In worldly power? No, in Jesus. And how does Jesus come to us? In his Holy Word and in his Holy Sacraments. And where to these come from? From the men our Lord authorizes to preach the Word, baptize, absolve, and distribute the Lord’s Supper. And what is given in these gifts? Faith that our sins are forgiven. Faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the crucified savior. Eternal-life-giving faith. Jesus is the giver of the faith, and the object of the faith, who also works through faith. The relationship between faith and Jesus is a “gracious circle”: Jesus gives us faith, and this faith points us to Jesus.

As St. John, one of those first twelve pastors, proclaimed in our second lesson: Jesus is the one who “was, who is, and who is to come.” He is also the “Alpha and the Omega,” that is, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

When you boil it all down, it’s all about Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the crucified and resurrected one who comes to us in the flesh and in the Word, who gives us faith, and through that faith, eternal life. And when we have the assurance of eternal life, we can afford the luxury of courage, we can be bold to proclaim the Good News. By faith we can touch the Flesh and Blood of our resurrected Lord, knowing that his Body and Blood take away our sins and make us immortal. And in such faith, both in Christ and from Christ, we can pray with the church of every time and place:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, refresh me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O good Jesus, hear me;
Within Thy wounds hide me;
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee;
From the malicious enemy defend me;
In the hour of death call me,
And bid me come to Thee
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
For all eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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