Text: John 20:19-31
Date: Easter II + 4/23/17
My brother spent his life in the United States Navy. He was deployed on various vessels a number of times over the years including the days of the Vietnam War. He has three children, my nieces Kirsten and Kaarin and my nephew Tommy Jr. The interesting thing is that all three were born while he was away at sea. So they did not meet their father until he returned from wherever he was. We’ve all seen video of military men (and now even women) returning from service some coming home to greet their children again, some of the men coming home to greet their children for the first time! I mention this because Christians have a similar experience in the Kingdom of Christ.
We became sons and daughters of Christ our King being born anew in Holy Baptism. That makes us not just children of God but a prince or a princess. There are even crowns as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:8). St. James wrote, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). And Peter wrote, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet 5:4). How many young confirmation students have chosen for their verse, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10)? By your new birth in Holy Baptism you really are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9).
All that speaks for the future. Right now, however, our problem is as St. Peter wrote in his first epistle, “According to [God’s] great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” through Jesus Christ. Then he says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:3, 8-9). We hear of the same problem in today’s Gospel where Thomas refused to believe because he did not see the risen Christ for himself. To all our Lord says today however, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
What is it we are to believe? A lot of people believe all sorts of things from truth to myth, from fact to fantasy. How can people believe myths and fantasies? Some people say they believe meaning “faith” is just a blind decision of their own mind not requiring any facts or objective truth. Some people confuse faith with emotions like patriotism or loyalty to family. Then there are those who actually believe in false gods, the product of human imagination such as Mohammad of Islam, Joseph Smith of Mormonism, the Bahai Faith founded by Bahaullah in 19th-century Persia. Then there are Indian religions, animism, to name only a few. Today there is a growing category called “Spiritual but not Religious!” What is it that makes Christianity and Judaism before it different? Facts. Some provable but all historical facts, that is, according to orthodox, what we call historical grammatical teaching. The Historical Critical camp on the other hand has tried to dump the facts and has succeeded to some extent taking faith in a completely different trajectory.
Notice how the Hymn of the Day today is really only a retelling of the facts of today’s Gospel, the account of the risen Jesus’ appearance to his disciples at Easter and then again with Thomas a week later. It is the history recorded in the Holy Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that tell the facts of our Lord’s birth into this world, His life and ministry, then His goal of offering Himself as the Lamb of God given to death, raised from the dead three days later and now ascended back into heaven living and reigning over all creation. The New Testament tells us the facts of His divine and human natures in one Person and His relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. He is the incarnate God.
Now we admit that though these are historical facts supported by physical evidence, still we list them under the words, “I believe.” We “believe” precisely because we have not yet seen with our own eyes. We believe because the Holy Spirit has drawn us to the Gospel and moved us to trust the inspired prophetic and eyewitness apostolic scriptures. Yet we’re still sort of like Thomas and like children whose father was deployed elsewhere when we were born.
But this is different, way different! For our earthly fathers as human beings can only be in one place at a time. Our Lord, on the other hand, as the divine Son of God is omnipresent, present everywhere as St. Paul says of God our Father, “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:19-23).
This is the message of Easter that, as our Lord appeared to his disciples and then disappeared and appeared again to others—appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared—we are to learn that He is truly present with us even though you cannot see him. But, better than that, he has given us the way for us to know that He is not only everywhere but that He is everywhere for you. This is the significance and meaning of the Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist. Not only do His words of institution tell us that with this bread and cup set apart for this use we receive His body and blood, but that also in this meal we receive the forgiveness of sins as this His crucified and risen body and blood is given “for you.”
So very real is Jesus’ sacramental presence that we dare to sing in the hymn:
Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand the eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean. (LSB 631)
How blest were those first disciples. How blest Jesus’ mother and relatives. How blest Thomas who, when he saw the feet, the hands, the side of his risen Lord cried, “You are my Lord and God!” And how blest will all believers be:
When we on that final journey go
That Christ is for us preparing.
We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow,
All joy of the heavens sharing.
And walk in the light of God’s own place,
With angels His name adoring. (LSB 503)