April 16, 2007

Sermon for Quasimodo Geniti: John 20.19-31

Note: I was going for something along the lines of an expository sermon; I'm not sure this is the best text to try that, although it's something I'm interested in doing more of.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Today is the eighth day of the great Easter festival, and as we see from the Gospel reading, Jesus keeps on coming to be with His disciples on the eighth day. Every year, the liturgy for the Sunday after Easter is especially addressed to those who were baptized at Easter, at the Vigil – but it is also to remind each of us about our Baptism, that in it we were reborn, but also as infants we are to grow.

Today’s gospel begins with what happened on Easter evening: “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Is it not wonderful? The doors are barred, yet Jesus comes in and appears to them, not as a spirit, a phantom, a ghost, but with His human body, now risen and glorified. The body of Jesus is at once fully human yet filled with the majesty of the divinity. He is fully man; His body bears the scars of His sacrifice. Yet He is fully God, fully divine, even in His flesh, for He enters the room by passing through the locked doors. Previously He had only occasionally revealed this majesty of the divine nature filling His humanity, such as when He walked upon the water or when He was transfigured, flashing forth the rays of His glory. And rejoice in this, brethren: in the same way He makes Himself present with us and for us in the Sacrament of His true body and blood. The majesty of His divine nature fills His humanity and makes it possible for Him to be present even in bread and wine.

What does the Pastor say at that Sacrament? Holding the body and blood before you, he says, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always.” Why? Because these are the words of Jesus, when He comes among His disciples: “Peace be with you.” On the night He was betrayed, our Lord had said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you”; now, He comes having accomplished, by His death, peace with God for us. “He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2.14).

So, “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” In other words, Jesus is showing them how He won their peace! Forever He bears the marks of His atoning death for us; forever He presents them to the Father, and our sins are removed forever.

“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’” Why does He send these disciples out as pastors? To deliver to all people the means of grace, the good news that Christ is risen, the devil is routed, death has lost its power, and life for us is won!

But it might be better to say that life is restored to fallen man. Let the words from Genesis about the creation of Adam, and also the words of the Old Testament reading today, be in your mind as you hear what Jesus does next: “[Jesus] breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Again comes to mankind the breath of life. Creation is being renewed, man is being remade into what God intended for him “in the beginning.” This is why St. Peter addresses the baptized as “newborn babes.” The resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection of all mankind, and the renewal, the remaking of all creation. And this is directly connected to holy absolution, as Jesus says to His ministers:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” I love this word “forgive.” It means to release, to let go. Your taxes are due soon, and this word Jesus uses for the forgiveness of sins is sometimes used for an amnesty, or exemption from taxation. When God forgives us our sins, the charges are dropped, but what is more, He forgets them. The sins are cast into the depths of the sea, they are removed from God as far as the east is from the west. He covers them, He seals them in a bag, and they are no more. How then can you, my beloved brethren, retain the sins of others and not let them go? Remember what Christ Jesus has done for you; they are gone, they are washed away, and in their place, our Lord Jesus gives to you His peace.

Now sin is not just something you do occasionally; it is the power that drives you; it is dragging you down, even now, into the grave. When we confess our sins, we are saying to God not, “I did this or that bad thing,” but, “Your judgment against me is correct, O God, for I am nothing but a worthless maggot sack; I am a sinner through and through.” But now, our Lord doesn’t dismiss this or that sin, but the entirety of it. It all was condemned with Jesus on the cross, and see how He gives you, in its place, life! For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

This is why we have the Divine Service, as well, so that we live in that forgiveness, that life that Christ is giving to us. In the Augsburg Confession, as the reformers are explaining the reforms that have been made to the Mass (or Divine Service), it says: “But Christ commands us, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me.’ Therefore, the Mass was instituted so that those who use the Sacrament should remember, in faith, the benefits they receive through Christ and how their anxious consciences are cheered and comforted. To remember Christ is to remember His benefits. It means to realize that they are truly offered to us. It is not enough only to remember history.… Therefore, the Mass is to be used for administering the Sacrament to those that need consolation. Ambrose says, ‘Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine.’” Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that describe you? It describes me. I always sin. I always need consolation. Therefore, I always need the medicine, the healing of this Sacrament that tells me again and again that I am forgiven, that I am a child of God despite my sins and my foolishness – and He not only tells it to me but pours His life into me. Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine. So we come here to receive that medicine, to hear the Lord say to us again, “Peace to you!”

Now the second part of today’s Gospel deals with Thomas. “Thomas … was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” The risen Jesus is now “the Lord”; and as the Small Catechism teaches us, for each one of us He is to be my Lord”: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me.”

But Thomas “said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’” Thomas doesn’t believe the word, the witness of the Apostles, because he allows his own opinion about what is and is not possible to be more important.

So “after eighth days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!’” Do you see how Jesus keeps on coming on the eighth day, Sunday, the first day of the week? This is why the Church from earliest times worshipped on Sunday; not because God moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, for this is not a matter of obeying the Law, but we gather on Sunday for the Lord’s Supper to remember the resurrection. Jesus kept on appearing on the first day of the week, to teach His disciples that this is how He would be present with them now, as His followers gathered around His Word and Table. So we don’t come here on Sundays to keep a rule, but to receive His peace, the peace that the world cannot give.

“Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” Despite the very nice woodcut on our bulletin cover, I am not convinced that Thomas actually touched the wounds of Jesus here. Rather, Thomas who did not believe the words of the Apostles now believes because of the Word of Jesus; for Jesus demonstrates that He knew and had heard the objections Thomas had given. And then Jesus invites us who have not seen nevertheless to share in Thomas’s confession. Thus we sang on Holy Thursday the words of Aquinas: “I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see, but can plainly call thee Lord and God as he.”

And yet there is a sense in which we are like Thomas; for our Lord invites us to put out our hands and touch His wounds. Is that not what happens in this blessed Sacrament? We stretch out our hands, and they are filled with the body of Christ; we open our mouths, and they are filled with His blood, and we cannot begin to grasp the mystery with our intellect, but can simply say, “My Lord and my God!” For us are these words written: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Then last, St. John tells us that he is giving us what Thomas had – eyewitness testimony; and we are invited to believe not simply the history but to grasp the promise: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” To believe in the Name of Jesus is to take hold of everything that He is and has done for you. You have been given the privilege to call on His name to receive the ultimate help – deliverance from death, hell, and the power of the devil.

So come now to the altar, stretch forth your hand, receive His gift of Himself, believe, and have life in His name.

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