The best name of any Sunday in the church year. And I was privileged to speak God’s Word to the saints in Wheatland:
Today we hear about doubting Thomas, who refused to believe unless he could see and touch the risen Christ. Doubting Thomas is a term for anyone who is too skeptical for their own good. But before we get too high and mighty talking about doubting Thomas, perhaps a little perspective is in order. A friend calls you on the phone. “Your loved one who died – he’s not actually dead. I’ve seen him. Oh, and you’ll just have to trust me on this. You can’t see him yourself. But I promise, he’s alive.” Anyone who wouldn’t demand more proof than that is allowed to call him doubting Thomas. Otherwise, perhaps we should stick with The Apostle Thomas. Who witnessed the resurrected Lord, who preached the Gospel, and who, so tradition tells us, witnessed to the faith with his own blood – run through with a spear.
That’s not doubting Thomas, who needed proof to believe the unbelievable, but Thomas the witness of Christ, whose life was a living witness, and whose death was also a living witness of the resurrection.
It’s easy as we go through the Gospels to point out the foibles of the Apostles. To laugh at crazy old Peter, who is saying something without thinking about it. Gets out the boat, but then looks around and starts sinking. Or promises never to deny Jesus and that very night does so three times. Andrew, who finds a boy with five loaves and two fish, but says it really won’t go far enough. The rest agree with him. And doubting Thomas, who won’t believe the report. We can criticize them, because we don’t have to struggle with the things they had to struggle with. They saw Jesus arrested. They knew he was dead and in a tomb. Coming back to life – that’s not how things work. The first Easter was a day of confusion. The women aren’t sure what’s happening, the disciples can’t tell what’s going on. A few scattered reports of people maybe seeing Jesus through their tears. Mary doesn’t even recognize him at first. The disciples on the road to Emmaus spend two hours talking to him without knowing it’s him – they only recognize seconds before he vanishes from their sight. Are they reliable witnesses? Or have they lost their mind?
Finally, in the evening, Jesus appears to the 10 – Judas was dead, and Thomas wasn’t there. 12-2=10. And the first word he says to them is “Peace be with you.” Certainly, that’s a benediction for the disciples from the mouth of Christ. But it is also a way of letting the disciples know that everything is ok. Jesus hasn’t come to judge them, to criticize them all for their actions during his passion. He isn’t there to call them up one at a time and point out all the ways they’ve failed in the past three days. Running away, denying, hiding, disbelieving the report. Instead, he gives them peace. And the Holy Spirit. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He essentially ordains them into the office of the Holy Ministry. Of course, their ministry will be different than a regular pastor – they are the apostles. They go from place to place preaching, founding churches, and then appointing pastors who will stay and tend the specific congregation. The apostles are then on the move to the next place. But here, he gives them the spirit, and the authority to forgive sins. That’s what the Holy Ministry does to this very day. As we say in the Small Catechism, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”
That’s the work of the Holy Spirit – to make you holy, by means of the Holy Christian church, that is, the communion of saints, where you receive the forgiveness of sins. So, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit, and gives them the authority to forgive sins. That’s where the disciples will find their peace. Not in their own efforts. But in the sure and certain forgiveness which Christ gives.
That’s why the church still forgives sins – it would be arrogant to do it on our own. But at Christ’s command and with his promise, it would actually be more arrogant for us not to. Because if the church refuses to speak the Word of Christ, we are taking it on ourselves to disbelieve his word. We would have to ignore Christ’s clear command. That’s why the church has always been about forgiveness of sins.
And it’s not merely a coincidence that Baptism, Absolution and Holy Communion are all instituted in the days surrounding Easter. Baptism is given to the church by Jesus at the end of Matthew – just before he ascends to heaven. “Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Absolution is given right as Jesus first appears to the disciples after the resurrection. And the Lord’s Supper is given on the night he was betrayed. Why are all of them given either before or right after the death and resurrection? Because that is where they get their power. Jesus earns your forgiveness on the cross. He is raised again for your justification. In Baptism you are joined to Christ’s death. Absolution is nothing more than repentance and a return to your baptism, as you prepare to joyfully receive the Body given and the blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins. To talk of the Sacraments is to talk of the cross and empty tomb.
It’s all right there in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’ve got no place to go but that. Because that’s what he came to do. That’s why Paul says we preach Christ crucified. There is nothing else for us. No special trick. Not great secret to success. No promise of an easy life, and an always growing membership, and employment without end, and big fat bank accounts. Just the death and resurrection of Jesus for you. Just the forgiveness, life and salvation that he won for you on the cross, being given to you in his Holy Church.
And so, with forgiveness from the mouth of Jesus himself, the disciples go to tell Thomas all that they have heard and seen. But Thomas won’t believe, until he touches the hand and side of Jesus.
In recent years, those who deny the resurrection will say anything to make it seem like Jesus wasn’t raised. One of the stranger theories is that Jesus was still dead, and that the disciples were caught up in a mass hysteria. But that can’t be. Thomas proves it false. The early appearances are marked by confusion. But Thomas will not be taken in. He will not believe until he touches. Until he feels the flesh himself. No mass hysteria there. He becomes yet one more proof to us that Jesus truly was raised from the dead. That death really has been overcome. That our life really is in Christ who died for us.
And Thomas’s declaration is as pure and clear a declaration of faith as any you will hear: My Lord and my God. Thomas immediately recognizes the implications of the resurrection. If Jesus is raised, there is nothing else. And so, Thomas gives us the pattern for worshipping the risen savior.
Jesus gentle word to him is not a rebuke : “Thomas, because you have seen me you have believed. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is not saying that somehow Thomas isn’t quite blessed enough. Or that he isn’t as blessed as some others. No, it’s actually Jesus talking about those who would hear through the word and witness of Thomas, as recorded in John’s Gospel. The people who read John’s Gospel mostly had not seen or heard Jesus. They had not seen the resurrected Lord. And so they – just as we do – must believe on the strength of that apostolic witness. We have not seen as they did. And yet, the Spirit grants faith where and when he will to those who hear the word. With the eyes of faith, we hear their witness and are truly blessed by Jesus himself. We do not receive lesser blessings for not having seen the resurrected Lord. Rather, every benefit of Christ’s sacrifice is given through the Word and Sacraments. You are as surely saved as the Apostles. You have the same Lord, who has gone ahead to prepare a place for you. You have received the forgiveness of sins at his Word and Command. The promise is good. It is for you and your children. As surely as if Christ himself had done it. Because he has. You are blessed by Christ. Amen