This morning we have another account of Easter Day. But unlike last week, it’s not all alleluias! It’s not Easter joy but Easter fear instead. The disciples had experienced the bitter pain and sorrow of their master taken away from them. He was shamefully treated, was crucified, and put to death. So the disciples retreat to the upper room. Shut the doors and lock the bolts. Their hearts filled with fear.
That was the scene on the very first Easter Day. It’s evening, so by this time the disciples had heard the report of the women at the empty tomb. They’d heard about the angel and what he said. They’d also heard from Mary Magdalene about her encounter with the Risen Christ. The disciples had every reason to rejoice at this report that Jesus was alive. After all, Jesus had told them repeatedly that He would be arrested, put to death, and on the third day rise. Surely, they should have rejoiced at this news from the women.
But this is what we hear from Mark, chapter 16, verse 11: “But when the disciples heard that he was alive and had been seen by Mary Magdalene, they would not believe it.” And this from Luke, chapter 24, verse 11: “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe it.”
So there they are, holed up in the upper room, fearful, scared for their lives. St. John records that they are scared of the Jews – fearful for their own hides – and being identified as followers of Jesus and then perhaps being put to death too.
But then also, what if those women were right? About Jesus being alive. What would that mean for the disciples? They had betrayed, denied, and scattered at His arrest. Jesus had said things like, “Whoever is not with me is against me,” and, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes again in his glory.” So if Jesus was alive, how would He treat them and what would He say to them? Would He not condemn them for their faithlessness and reduce them to ashes with His fiery judgment?
Well, it’s right here at their weakest moment, at their most fearful, that we see that those locked doors and bolted hearts are no barrier for the love of God. Suddenly the Risen Christ stands among them. And not breathing threats of judgment or condemnation, but breathing peace. To the disciples’ amazement, He greets them cheerfully and in the friendliest way possible – showing them the wounds that procured their salvation.
“Peace be with you,” He says. Those are the words of the angels to the shepherds at Jesus birth. Those are words of blood-bought forgiveness. Words that restore, refresh, and raise the dead. Jesus forgives the sins of His disciples. He restores them and brings perfect peace to their hearts.
Then gives them His Holy Spirit, and the church the wonderful gift of the Office of the Keys: That His called ministers forgive the sins of repentant sinners.
Well, for whatever reason, Thomas was the only remaining disciple not at church that day. When his brother disciples told him, perhaps he wanted to go back to the old life before Jesus ever entered into the equation. Thomas stubbornly responded, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Now to be clear, not something I’d advise if Thomas were my parishioner struggling with faith. You just don’t put the Lord to the test! You don’t do quid pro quos with God! But for Thomas’s sake, and for the sake of every skeptic out there, that’s you and me, our Lord did just that.
Eight days later, the following Sunday, when the disciples were gathered together again, and this time Thomas with them, the Risen Christ passed through bolted doors once again and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” He said. Jesus showed Thomas His pierced hands. And invited Thomas to reach out, touch those atoning wounds. And at that invitation, Thomas’s doubts all melted away and he made the most beautiful confession in all Holy Scripture, “My Lord and My God.”
There’s encouragement for all of us in our readings today! The disciples’ weaknesses of faith are on full display, but it’s all for the glory of God and for our special comfort. We’d like to be strong, fearless, and courageous. But God reminds us that we’re more like dead men in a valley of dry bones. Sin and unbelief cling to us. Our conscience harasses us. We know we are not the model disciples.
Even this past year, we’ve seen that fear can make us do strange things. Like accepting food from a stranger through a drive-through window and avoiding the hands of ministers reaching out with the death-destroying, life-giving Sacrament. And yet when we are at our worst, self-isolating, fearful and frustrated, there God is at His best. Faithful when we are faithless. Compassionate when we ourselves are void of mercy.
We are all Thomas. We too doubt. We too have put God to the test and tried to bargain with Him. And that’s why today’s Gospel should comfort and cheer our hearts. Because we see today that the Lord is kind and forgiving in spite of our sin and doubt.
At our weakest and sin-filled moments, there is Christ. Among us in His resurrected flesh. Inviting us. Speaking words that are spirit and life. Words of holy absolution that raise up our dry, dead bones and give us new and everlasting life.
Christ sends out His ministers to preach the Gospel to all. And the Holy Spirit that we receive strengthens us in the faith against the doubts and unbelief of our hearts. We gather in church each week to have that unbelief driven out of us through the Holy Spirit’s preaching of the Holy Gospel. In which we learn that God is friendly toward us, kind, and forgiving.
As God once breathed life into Adam, so He now breathes life into our mortal bodies through the blessed Word of the forgiveness of sins. Today Christ presents to you His healing wounds in the Sacraments of water and blood. He invites you, like Thomas, to touch His side at His table, and to reach out and receive His risen body and blood in true faith, so that believing, you may have life in His name. And confess that the one who was dead is alive. And that the crucified one who lives and reigns is your Lord and God too. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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