The First Sunday After Easter brings us to the institution of the apostolic and pastoral offices as well as the church herself. Add to that the apologetic regarding the resurrected Christ, and it’s one busy sermon. (To say nothing of the coolest Sunday name of the year, which doesn’t get a mention.) Read on…
After his resurrection, Jesus commissions the apostles. Do you remember from Sunday school the difference between a disciple and apostle? The disciples are the twelve. The Apostles are the twelve after the resurrection. And so Judas Iscariot, who betrays Jesus and then hangs himself, is one of the twelve disciples, but not one of the twelve apostles. The Apostles fill his office in the Book of Acts with Matthias, who is never counted as one of the twelve disciples. Twelve disciples, twelve apostles.
In Greek, the word disciple means learner. The word apostle is someone who is sent – but not just sent in a general sense. Sent with a commission for a specific task. And so we see the Sunday School definition, while not as technical, is certainly correct. The disciples, in the Gospel reading today, which takes place on Easter evening, after the resurrection, are given their commission from Jesus, and so become apostles. Judas is dead, and so is never an apostle. His apostolic office will be filled with another.
John includes the commissioning of the apostles. Jesus spends his three year ministry teaching and instructing, performing signs and wonders. But it is in and around his death and resurrection that things are instituted. The Sacrament of the Altar is given to the disciples on the night he was betrayed when he took bread gave thanks and gave it to them saying, “Take Eat, this is my body.” The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is given after the resurrection to the apostles, “Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” And here in John, our Lord gives the forgiveness of sins to the church. Receive the Holy Spirit, whoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whoever sins you retain they are retained.” This is the substance of not only the apostle’s work, but also those whom the apostles appoint in every city – the pastors who continue to bring the forgiveness of sins to sinners.
It is not a coincidence that is the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus are where we hear of Baptism, Absolution (that is forgiveness) and the Holy Supper of our Lord. These things are our life together. They are not merely outward signs. They are the very things by which Jesus death and resurrection are given to you.
Miracles of Jesus exist to point us to Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. St. John the evangelist doesn’t even call them miracles, he calls them signs. They exist to show that his teaching is true. He does have authority to do the things he does, to teach, to forgive sins.
And the teaching exists to prepare us to receive the death and resurrection of Jesus. We spent six weeks preparing our hearts to hear the account of his death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection three days later. The Evangelists who wrote the Gospels build up their entire Gospels to that point. It is the high-point of the Gospels, because it is the center point in all history. The point where Jesus goes into death for you. And then, each of the four evangelists, in his own way, includes the disciples being commissioned, sent with a task by God into the world. Matthew, the famous “Teach all nations, baptizing them…” Mark in similar words. Luke gives the entire book of Acts to show Jesus work through the apostles in the world after his ascension.
And Saint John, with childlike simplicity, includes Jesus coming into the locked room, breathing on them, and giving them the spirit. And then giving them the explicit authority and command to forgive sins. What a wonderful, if neglected, gift our Lord gives to his church this day. It is something that only God can do – only God can forgive sins. And yet here Jesus tells the apostles that they are to do that very thing in his name.
After this, we hear of doubting Thomas, who would not believe unless he touched the hands and put his hand into the side. John, like Matthew and Luke, includes an apology, a defense of the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew explains the stolen body rumor started by the priests. Luke has Jesus eat some fish – which ghosts and hallucinations don’t do. John has Thomas – unable to believe until he touches the body of the Lord. Actually makes sure it’s the same Jesus who had his hands and feet pierced, who had a spear thrust into his side. And so we see the resurrection confirmed in Thomas doubting.
Jesus responds to Thomas by giving a blessing to all those who do not see, who do not touch, and yet believe. That is, to you who hear the word of forgiveness spoken by the pastor as if by Christ himself, and believe that by it your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
The church is not simply an institution for its own sake. It is the place where forgiveness of sins is given. Jesus makes that clear in the Gospel reading today. John adds, “These words 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.” The way of Jesus is the way of life. That is what he gives to his people. Through the washing of water and the word, through the holy supper, through the forgiveness of sins given in the word spoken by his ministers. That is to say, through his holy church. When Jesus commissions the apostles, he is doing nothing less than instituting his holy church. The church is the bride of Christ, beautifully dressed for her husband. Redeemed by him, and now joined to him to give to the world the life that he has given to her. And the church does this by the blessed sacraments, by the holy word of Christ, spoken, read, preached.
Luther, in his debates with those who denied the word of Christ, “This is My Body”, explained it this way.
Christ on the cross and all his suffering and his death do not avail, even if, as you teach, they are “acknowledged and meditated upon” with the utmost “passion, ardor, heartfeltness.” Something else must always be there. What is it? The word, the word, the word. Listen lying spirit, the word avails. Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.”
That is what Jesus gives to you this day – the word of forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven. You are cleansed. That is what the resurrection does. It is what Jesus does for you. It is why he was sent into the world. So that he could pay the penalty for your sins on the cross, so that in his resurrection you would be justified, and so that now, even all these years later, you would be given the promise, the good news, the great gift of the Gospel – that your sins, which are like scarlet, are forgiven, you have been washed white as snow. You are made right with God, by Jesus work on your behalf. That is the great Easter gift. And we see it given by Christ to the apostles, we see it in the – somewhat tardy – faith of Thomas, who cried out, my Lord and My God”. We see it in the forgiveness still given to you this day in Christ’s one holy Christian and apostolic church.
May God grant that you believe the word spoken, that you would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who died for you; and that believing, you would have life in his name.