First Sunday after Easter

First Sunday after Easter
John 20:19-31
April 27, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thomas gets a bad rap. Forever remembered for his disbelief. Admit it, you have probably used the term “Doubting Thomas” before. Maybe you were talking about the Lord’s disciple—the one called Didymos, or the twin. Sunday School teachers? Or maybe you were using Thomas as a metaphor to describe someone else who wouldn’t believe something without seeing it for herself. “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas!” you retort.

Thomas, the twin, the only one of the eleven who wasn’t there on the evening of the first day of the week. Where was he? What was he up to? Was he still in hiding for fear that what had happened to Jesus would also happen to him? Was he in such despair that he couldn’t bear being with the other disciples? Regardless, Thomas misses our on our Lord’s first glorious appearance to His chosen eleven.

Then during the evening of that day, the first of the week, the doors having been shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst and said to them, “Peace to you.” And after saying this, He showed the hands and side to them.  Then the disciples were glad beholding the Lord.  Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you.  Just as the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.” And after saying this He breathed and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” If you forgive the sins of anyone, they have been forgiven for them; if you withhold from anyone, it has been withheld (vv 19-23).

There’s a lot of important things that happen in those verses, things that Thomas misses out on. Jesus appears, He stands in their midst, He speaks peace, He shows them His hands and His side, He speaks peace again, He sends them, He gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and He mandates Holy Absolution, giving the authority to forgive sins to men.

Can you blame Thomas for doubting? You might, but you shouldn’t. Jesus had promised these thing—He’s promised to rise from the dead, to come to His disciples, to give them the Holy Spirit, to give them the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, forgiveness—but men aren’t so trustworthy. Have you ever made a big promise, something that was more than you could ever hope to keep? And you probably also know from your own experience that people’s promises aren’t to be trusted. A man of his word is truly a rare find, and even he sometimes must break promises because of things that are completely out of his control.

Poor Thomas—poor, doubting Thomas—only wanted what the other disciples got: a good look at the risen Lord and His wounds. The other disciples were also fearful that night, they were also hiding out—behind locked doors, no less. And Jesus appears to them. He shows them His hands and His side, probably even lets them touch and see. But Thomas is not there.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, the one called Didymos, was not with them when Jesus came. Then the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nail, and put my finger into the imprint of the nail, and put my hand into His side, I will most certainly not believe” (vv 24-25).

“What weak faith!” we scoff. Thomas demanded to see evidence; not just to see, but also to touch and feel. He even wanted to put his hand into Jesus’ abdominal cavity before believing. Poor, doubting Thomas. Why, that’s no faith at all. Real faith doesn’t demand evidence. Real faith is blind faith. Real faith is believing without seeing.

Real faith is faith like mine.

 3.

Faith is the material principle, the chief focus, the central teaching of the Lutheran Church—man is justified by faith apart from works. Faith is (or should be) part of every sermon preached in a Lutheran congregation (either explicitly or implicitly—Walther said that a preacher should be able to preach faith without ever even saying the word). Faith is a big deal when you’re a Lutheran.

Faith is being sure of the things we hope for, being convinced of the things we can’t see, the epistle to the Hebrews says (Heb. 11:1 AAT). So does that make Thomas, who steadfastly refused to believe without seeing, an anti-Lutheran?

Empiricism is the philosophy that says you can only know what you can observe, things that you can experience with your senses. Empiricism is the foundation for the modern scientific method: observe, repeat, deduce. Empiricists today are much like Thomas—if I can’t see Jesus for myself, if I can’t touch His hands and feet, then, even if He did exist, He certainly didn’t rise from the dead.

Empiricism is why intellectual elites such as Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (who recently showed himself to be more elite than intellectual) look down their noses at the faithful—how can you insist that something is true that you can’t see or touch? Now I could spend the next 20 minutes railing against modern scientific thought, and exposing their own logical inconsistencies, but you already know that. And you have faith in things that you can’t see already, right?

If you were to ask the typical Christian—or let’s even say the typical Lutheran—why he or she is saved, what kind of answers do you think you’d get? Unfortunately, you’d probably get quite a few who’d say they’re saved because they’re good people. But I’d also be willing to bet that the greatest proportion of responses would be, “Because I believe that I’m saved,” or, “Because I have faith.”

We pride ourselves on a faith that doesn’t need evidence to believe, but in the same stroke we turn faith itself into the evidence of faith. You see, you and I share the same old nature in Adam that Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye share in. We are all spiritually unable to believe in things that we cannot see. We need proof, we need verification, we need evidence. We are all empiricists at heart, just like Thomas. Since we don’t have the pierced hands of Jesus held up in front of our faces, faith looks for something solid and verifiable to grasp onto. Some grasp hold of their own works and let their faith rest on that shifting sand. But others turn faith into its own object. The pop American spirituality that bombards you every day reinforces this notion that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, so long as you believe. And even good Lutheran fall into the error that, “I believe that I can believe.”

 2.

The story of Thomas should teach us today that faith always has an object, and that faith is only as good as the object upon which it rests. I said at the beginning that Thomas gets a bad rap because of today’s Gospel; he’s usually called Doubting Thomas. But let us today resolve to remember Thomas for the state to which our Lord graciously brought him and remember him as Believing Thomas.

And after eight days the disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them.  Jesus came, though the doors had been shut, and stood in the midst and said, “Peace to you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and place it into My side, and be not unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said, “My Lord and my God” (vv 26-28).

Thomas sees and believes, just as the other disciples saw and believed. But neither Thomas, nor the other disciples—nor you—believe because of what you have seen, whether it’s the faith you see in your own life or Jesus own imprinted hands. Faith comes not from within yourself, but from the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes with the Word of Christ when He speaks peace. Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed?  Blessed are those who do not see and believe” (v 29).

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. It’s the Spirit of God that creates faith by the Word of Christ—a faith that finds its object in and rests upon Christ Himself. Thomas didn’t rejoice in seeing His Lord’s wounds because he was an empiricist, but because that is where the Spirit drives faith—to look upon the wounds of Christ.

 1.

But Christ does not appear in our gatherings on the first day of the week, even though we leave our doors unlocked. He doesn’t hold out those nail-imprinted hands, or open up His pierced side. Does the Spirit still guide us to the wounds of Christ? Yes, and yes again.

Just as the Spirit drove Thomas to the risen flesh and blood of Jesus, so also He drives you. He drives you to the wounds of Christ. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor 11:26). The Holy Supper of our Lord is where the Spirit drives you, and there He graciously engages all of your senses, just as He did for Thomas. You first see the sacramental bread and the cup (that’s why I hold the elements of the Supper high, so you can see them). Then you smell—the faint whiff of grains and the slight acidity of the wine. Then the touch, and finally you taste and see that the Lord is good. And above all hangs the hearing of the Lord’s words—This is My body, given for you…This is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins (Words of Institution).

Faith rests not upon itself, but faith rests on Christ. It’s easy to doubt an untrustworthy man, because he often proves Himself untrustworthy. Even a trustworthy man may be hard to trust. But the One who consistently does what He says—even when He says that He will rise from the dead—that One is One you can trust.

Now Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which have not been written in this book, but these have been written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so that believing in His name you have life (vv 30-31). This faith that the Spirit gives through the Word of God rests on Christ, and because He lives, you also will have life in His name. The words that were written by John (as well as the patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists) are words that give faith and words that give life. Because they direct you to the One who died to overcome death, and who rose again to proclaim peace and forgiveness. Believe it, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[Faith Finds Absolution in the Wounds of Christ]

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
VD+MA