Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 27:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve been married for any length of time, or if you have children, or if you’ve ever lived in a house with anyone else: it is like having a full-length mirror in front of you at all times. If you ever want to know what you’re really like—not what you think you’re like, not what you’d like to be, not the person you put out in public so that everyone will like you—but what you’re really like, spend time with those who know you the best. This works especially well with children. Someone said, if you want to know the worst part of yourself, spend an hour with a child and then ask. Have you ever had that experience with your children? You’re talking to them or disciplining them, and then something strange happens: you hear something familiar. And then you recognize it: your child is repeating back to you your words; using your tone in his voice; doing what you do. The worst part of yourself is being reflected back at you and you know it. I hate when that happens to me!
In the mirror of those who know you best, you see yourself as you really are reflected back at you. But if that’s all there is, if all you see is that reflection, if you must live constantly under the onslaught of the Law of God showing yourself to you, then you cannot rejoice. You can only despair; because as much as you hate it, what they say is almost always true. You cannot rejoice, and you cannot confess Christ because you’re too busy justifying yourself, giving reasons and excuses for why you are the way you are. I think this is why so many marriages and families are torn apart: because when we are attacked, we naturally want to defend ourselves. We want to justify ourselves in the eyes of the other person, and it only takes a little bit of self-justification to tear people apart. If there’s no forgiveness, relationships will always end out of despair or self-justification. Forgiveness is hard. Love is hard. Both take practice, as we ourselves are loved and forgiven by God in Christ. How much easier it is to love those whom we don’t see very often!
All that despair and rationalization, all those excuses and self-justifications, all our lack of grace and attacks on others for how they are—all of it is how the descendants of Adam stifle and choke out the breath of the Spirit of God, which is our very life. Ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against their Creator, all their descendants have been busy stifling that living breath. But now Jesus comes, breathing again. It is physical life, but it something more, something above and beyond the merely physical. The difference is as great as the difference between Jesus dying on the cross, and Jesus appearing in their midst behind locked doors. It is the difference between what we call life and what Jesus gives. It is the difference between the life we call ours and the life that comes by faith in Jesus Name, which is the purpose of John’s Gospel.
Jesus appears in the midst of those fearful, unbelieving disciples. They had heard Mary Magdalene’s words, that she had seen the Lord. But they didn’t believe her. So Jesus comes and stands among them and says, “Peace to you!” Peace to you! And He breathes on them. Like when Adam was lying there, dust shaped by the hand of God, and God breathed into him and he became a living creature. Like all those dead, dry bones on Ezekiel’s valley, which then took on flesh and skin, but remained dead until Ezekiel prophesied to the wind, the breath, the Spirit, and they stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Jesus breathes on His disciples and gives them life. He says, “As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you: Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whatever you retain, they are retained.”
Forgiveness is taking sins off of someone, taking the burden from their backs. Forgiveness removes sins from where they rightfully belong—on you—and puts it where Jesus wants it—on Him. Not forgiving sins leaves them where they rightfully belong, on us. Jesus shows these disciples His hands and side, and they rejoice! They see the evidence for His words of forgiveness in His resurrection Body. Because, as Paul says, if Christ has not risen from the dead, we are still in our sins. But when they see Him, they see their sins in His wounds, and they know that their sins are gone, buried in the grave He left behind. And they rejoice to see their sins in Jesus’ wounds, rather than on their backs.
And then they tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But he does not believe them, just as they did not believe the women. It’s not that Thomas has to see to believe, it’s that he has to touch and handle before he will believe. Thomas is not going to mess around with ghosts, or illusions, or deceptions, or hallucinations. In this Thomas is an example for us: that he’s not going to have any Jesus other than a real, physical, resurrected Jesus. No other Jesus is worth believing and dying for. “Unless I put my fingers in the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will never believe.”
And then Jesus comes, breathing peace to Thomas. “Here, Thomas, put your fingers in the print of the nails, and put your hand in My side, and don’t be an unbeliever! Become a believer.” And that’s all it takes, those words from the real, physical, resurrected Jesus; He shows Thomas His hands and side, and Thomas confesses: “My Lord and my God!” He doesn’t say, “Oh, right, you really did come back.” He knows that this Jesus, with those wounds, means much more than a resuscitated corpse. It means that He has the authority He said He had; it means He can do what He said He could do; it means all His words are true, especially His forgiving word. Thomas sees his sins in Jesus’ wounds, and he confesses Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”
This is the definition of faith in this Jesus: to see that what Jesus says is true: your sins are in His wounds, and He was dead, but now He is alive. To see your sins not in the mirror of the Law, but in Jesus. To be free of both despair and self-justification. You are what God says you are in your sin, and you cannot justify yourself. So Jesus does it for you, and now you are what He says you are in Him. Faith looks at Jesus’ wounds and rejoices! Faith looks at Jesus’ wounds and confesses Him to be both Lord and God. I want nothing more for you—and for me—than to rejoice in the gifts that Christ gives, His forgiveness and His peace. Nothing more than for us to confess together that we see nothing but sin in ourselves, and so we must be where Jesus is to deliver forgiveness to us. For Him to relieve us of the burden of the sin that all these mirrors expose in us. For Him to speak peace to us and to silence our fear and despair and self-justification.
Where can you see His wounds, and have Him remove sin from you and show you its end on the cross? Where can you see your sins in His wounds and have Him give you life in return? Not at the cross; we cannot go back there. Not locked in a private room. But where He has promised to be! He has put me here for exactly that reason. Come and compel me to speak His words into your ears, to forgive your sins as He has commanded, and to believe those words are true in heaven as well. Where do you see your sins in His wounds and receive life in return? At His altar where His crucified and risen Body and Blood are touched and handled, eaten and drunk. These things have a promise, and faith needs a promise to hang onto. Without a promise, there can be no faith. But we have the promise! See, He says: even if a nursing mother should forget her child, I will never forget you. See! I have engraved you on the palms of My hands! (Isaiah 49:15). See His wounds! See your sins removed! Rejoice and confess this Jesus!
If that is true, and it is, how can fear live in us any longer? You have probably heard of Japanese kamikaze pilots, who, rather than be captured, intentionally crashed their planes into ships or other targets. They were unafraid of death; instead, they sought it out for the sake of their duty and their country. And it is hard to fight against those who do not fear death. But if it is hard to fight against those who, unafraid, seek out death, how much harder is it to fight against those who seek life, and so do not fear death? We do not seek death, but we also do not fear it, and we do not fear it because we have been given eternal life in the Name of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. The doors of fear by which we locked ourselves in—fear of the world, fear of mockery, or hatred, fear of what might happen—all of that is gone, and the doors have been opened by the resurrected Jesus. Now, let the devil fear us. Let the demons scatter in fear. We are not full of fear, but Jesus has filled us with faith. We rejoice, and we confess, and no matter what happens to us, we go from life to life, in peace.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/22/22