The disciples of Jesus were bold proclaimers of the Truth. Most of them died for their confession. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down. Their boldness no doubt sprung from the fact that Christ had risen from the dead, and the promise that they too would rise bodily from the grave, and be forever united with Christ. They had no fear of their enemies, nor did they fear death, for Christ had triumphed over death by His own death and resurrection.
The disciples would be fearless preachers and defenders of the faith, but the night of their Lord’s resurrection found them huddled together behind locked doors, consumed with fear for their lives. Were these the same disciples that rejoiced when they were beaten and made fun of after Pentecost? Were these the same disciples who before had pledged their lives to Christ and promised to be faithful even unto death? Were they the same ones who rightly confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God?
There were no stunt doubles in the upper room that night. They were the same flesh and blood that had celebrated Passover with Jesus only a few nights before. But now they were in a state of disbelief. They had lost all hope when they saw their Teacher crucified. You can imagine what kinds of thoughts might have been running through their minds at the time. “What a bunch of fools we were to follow this guy!” “What were we thinking? We said we would lay down our lives for Him, but that was when we thought He was going to redeem Israel.” “Now what are we going to do?” Or, to use the words of the OT lesson: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.”
They were fools, alright, but not for following Jesus. They were fools because they were so slow of heart to believe everything that Jesus had taught them. He had told them that this would happen. He would be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes. He would be killed. And then He would rise from the dead. The writings of Moses, the Psalms, and Prophets all testified to this long before it ever happened. But these words fell on deaf ears. They had begun to believe that He was the Son of God, but they did not yet realize the full import of this. They were kept from seeing it. And now they were gripped with fear for their lives, full of sorrow over the loss of their Teacher, and full of guilt over the fact that they had abandoned Him in His hour of death, that they had publicly denied Him.
Imagine, then, their utter shock and amazement when none other than Jesus Himself suddenly came and stood among them and, wonder of wonders, did not condemn them for their unfaithfulness, but absolved them saying, “Peace be with you.” Did not their hearts leap for joy at the sight of their living Lord and Master? Indeed, they did, for John says that when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side and the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. To see Him alive after witnessing His brutal death must have been for them the most joyous experience of their lives. More than just glad that He was alive and to be reunited with Him, were they not also glad to discover that their faith was not in vain, that what they believed according to the words and teaching of Jesus was true?
Ironically, it all sounds like a familiar rerun. Remember how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers but then exalted to a position of great authority in Egypt? When he finally revealed his identity to his brothers, they too were amazed and not a little bit afraid. Not only was their brother Joseph alive, he now held their lives in his hands. They were completely at his mercy. He had the power to cast them into prison and throw away the key, or worse, to have them killed.
But Joseph does not want to condemn them. He forgives them and welcomes them with open arms. So also our greater Joseph came to His disciples not to condemn them but to speak peace to them, to restore their faith once again, and to strengthen them with His forgiving mercy. He does the same for us when we are consumed with fear and guilt-ridden for not being more faithful followers of Christ. God knows that we have often acted like we did not know Christ, if not outright denying Him, then at least not being bold witnesses of His death and resurrection to others. Who of us can say with all truth and honesty that he has never once abandoned Christ, or denied Him either by word or by deed, or doubted His goodness?
Does our Lord not have grounds for being angry with us when we are not faithful? Did Joseph not have every right to condemn his brothers and punish them for what they did? Did they not deserve it? And yet, like merciful Joseph, our Lord does not deal with us as our sins and unfaithfulness deserve. He is gracious and long-suffering, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, as the Psalms describe Him. His anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime.
And what is the basis of this good favor and long-suffering patience but the death of Jesus Christ, where all of God’s wrath and anger on account of sin was poured out upon His Son for our sakes. The marks in the hands, feet, and side of Jesus are proof not only that He is who He says He is, but they are also enduring proof of His love and commitment towards His holy Church, even the most unfaithful of members.
Not only does Jesus forgive His disciples, He also makes their mouths instruments of His forgiveness for the world. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 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.”
His disciples are sent out into the world to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. They, along with all of His called and ordained ministers, will do for others what Christ did for them in the upper room. They will stand in the midst of His congregation and with Christ’s own words of peace and forgiveness they will unlock heaven for those who are huddled in fear, riddled with guilt and plagued with sorrow.
That, by the way, is the essence of the ecclesiastical ministry. The Ministry does not exist for the honor and glory of the individual. It exists solely for the benefit of Christ’s holy sheep. We do not become ministers and pastors in order to make a name for ourselves, or to have an easy life, or to show everyone how smart we are. We are called and sent for the purpose of forgiving sins and leading people to heaven. People use the Ministry rightly when they look to us pastors and preachers to forgive their sins and to teach them about Christ and feed them with His Word.
If people only realized the magnificent treasure God has provided for them in their pastors, not in the persons, but in their office, they would consider everything else in this world to be rubbish and unimportant in comparison. What else in life could be more valuable than the Word that God has forgiven you all your sins and does not count them against you on account of Christ’s bodily offering upon the cross? This word alone, if you believe it, grants you heaven and brings you all of God’s blessings and gifts. And yet so many people see the Ministry as something to despise, like little children who refuse to take the medicine that is offered to them by their mom.
We ministers are called not only to unlock heaven for those who repent of their sins, but also to close heaven, to withhold forgiveness from those who do not repent. Let me give you an example: Let’s say a baptized Christian falls into a deadly sin and refuses to turn from it, even after many attempts at reconciliation by the pastor and other members of the Church. It is the responsibility of the pastor to bind that person’s sins to him or her, to lock up heaven.
This is necessary in order that the person might come to his senses and recognize that he has sinned against God and that he might then be reconciled to the Church. If such repentance takes place, and he seeks the forgiveness of the Lord, he is to be absolved, forgiven of his sins and restored to the Church. If not, he must be excommunicated, lest the entire Church be led into further sin, and that he or she might recognize the seriousness of the sin. Of course, this is never a pleasant thing. Sin never is. But it is necessary, and he who would be a faithful pastor must carry out both commands of our Lord. We need the support and help of the other church members in this too. We cannot be lone wolves when it comes to these things, for a little leaven leavens the whole lump, as the saying goes. When one member falls away it affects the whole Church.
Pastors are never popular when they have to use this binding key. Perhaps that is why so few actually exercise this authority. It is much easier to be popular, to have everyone on your side, than it is to stand alone. It is much easier to keep your mouth shut, than to expose the sins of God’s people. It is much easier and less taxing on one’s emotions to turn a blind eye to the faults and errors of the Church than to confront them and to call them what they are. But Christ says, “Broad is the way that leads to death, and many go that way. Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life and few find it.” May we by God’s grace find that narrow way.
The last part of the Gospel deals with Thomas and his insistence on seeing the nail marks and wounds of Christ before believing that it is really him. For this he is forever branded as doubting Thomas. But it is on account of his doubt that Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We cannot see Jesus with our eyes, but we have believed in Him and we continue to believe in Him on account of His Word. Through His Word the Holy Spirit opens our eyes so that we may recognize Him in baptismal water, in the Word of Absolution, and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. By faith you see in that water a soul-cleansing flood, a true washing away of sins. By faith you see in the Absolution the same Christ who appeared to His disciples and said: “Peace be with you.” By faith you see in common bread and wine the true body of Christ and the true blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. By faith you see Jesus presiding at the altar, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, preaching from the pulpit, and washing sinners in the baptismal font.
When you have doubts about God, do not look within yourselves for certainty, for there you will only find uncertainty and death. Look rather to the One who has promised to raise you from the dead, even as He Himself has risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. Amen.