Text: John 20:19-31
Date: Quasi Modo Geniti + Easter II + 4/15/07
A Christian writer once wrote, “When God raised Jesus from the dead, he intended to begin a revolution that would turn the world right side up again, but all that he got out of it was ‘the church.’” That was written 23 years ago. This statement was meant, obviously, as a criticism implying that “the church” had lost its way, its Spirit, its focus and reason for being.
Forty years ago this month my pastor made this observation in a lecture he gave at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He said, “In this post Christian era the obituary of the church…has been printed by self-styled professional mourners, and now and then and here and there this creaking, time-worn institution has already been committed, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust with little hope of resurrection. It is considered a has-been institution, as stagnant as a pool of water left behind when suddenly the river changed its course.”
Nearly 75 years ago a pastor-author of a little book of Lenten sermons wrote about a paper mill he visited in Wisconsin, where each day thousands of logs were transformed from raw material into finished paper products of all kinds. The noise of flying knives and throbbing motors and the men attending them was almost deafening. But suddenly the wheels slowed down, the belts relaxed, the noise was silenced. Something had gone wrong. Somewhere between the power generators and the factory, the production line, equipped with all the latest tools, manned by well-trained workmen, was immobilized. And the writer likened that to what was wrong about the church in his day—well-organized, with well schooled workmen, huddled in the glorious specimens of architecture just like this one, but contact with the source of power broke somewhere, a church that had neglected to stretch up her arms to Him who is the source of power.
Those three observations of 23, 40 and 75 years ago echo the waxing and waning of both the Church and human society and the voices of Reformation and Enlightenment back through Luther and Augustine, indeed, even the whole history of Israel to Moses and Abraham to Adam himself when the Voice of God came in the garden calling, “Where are you?” It is the same today. On the one hand many have made the observation that we live in a time of great interest in things spiritual. On the other hand it is obvious that people generally do not believe that the Christian Church is the answer, but that the church has become petrified and fossilized, more fit for display in a museum case as a reminder of the good old days than for anything good to be expected of it now. And even for those of us who still tenaciously darken the doors of 4305 North Military in Detroit, we admit that even we aren’t what we used to be. The muscles ache, the bones creak, the golf swing is gone. Our shrinking church body urges us to be Ablaze® but we find it nearly impossible to whip up the enthusiasm anymore for more programs or methods aimed at spiritual global warming.
So here we are, just like those first 12 disciples—no, 11 minus Judas Iscariot; oops, no, 10 (where is Thomas anyway?)—huddled in their fear behind locked doors. But today we are reminded that something changed them from fear to faith, from weak resignation to bold proclamation, a little band mourning the execution of their Leader to a mighty army that, indeed, has turned the world upside-down or right side-up as you will, this institution…no, this family, this living, breathing body called the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. For, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” He stood there, the marks of His sacrifice still visible, and, breathing on them He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Then He sent them as the Father had sent Him to bring the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation to all who will have it. If there is some central Scripture somewhere that best expresses what the Church is to be all about, that best encapsulates what we need to hear and think about and act on today, it would be this one, summarized in the words Saved, Inspirited and Sent. There is nothing here that lets us act like fossils, or lets us pet the past and stall the future or celebrate the past and mourn the future. What is here is the Power source, the direction, the Way, the Truth and the Life that, if we will remain plugged into Him the way those who have gone before us for 125 years around here were plugged in, maybe those 23, 40, 75 or 125 years after us (even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come) will be as amused at yet thankful for us that we, nevertheless, hung in there and more than that rededicated ourselves to bringing the Light of Christ to souls lost in darkness in our day—Saved, Inspirited and Sent.
Like the first disciples we hardly look like we’ve been saved from anything. We certainly don’t intend today to tie them to the whipping post, or Thomas either, for that matter, who apparently had something better to do that night than be with the disciples in that fearful little church. They were bolted in behind closed doors, their hearts locked in with fear, and everything that they had trained for, everything they had hoped for in the last three years seemed buried in the tomb where Christ had been laid. Everything had died with Him. They had thought that they were on the road to glory, but all they had to show for it now was shame. They had hoped that Jesus had been He in whom their Israel would be redeemed, but all their hopes were dashed.
And then came Jesus, stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you!” What did that mean? It meant that they were saved, that there was nothing more to fear, that the love they knew in Christ was not defeated and destroyed, the hope that they had placed in him had not evaporated, but was gloriously alive.
That’s the Good News of the crucified and risen Christ that has been the life and purpose of this pulpit in this church for almost 125 years! That’s what the founding fathers had in mind, that here should be a place where Jesus Christ appears to us in Word and Sacrament to speak His peace. In the preached Word and in the sacramental Word it’s Jesus coming to our midst and saying, “Peace be with you!” Here he displays the nail prints and the gash of the lance of the crucified for us. Here He shows Himself alive for us. Peace be with you! You are saved—saved from hell for Christ, from sin for righteousness, from death for life! Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord!
And we are glad, too. Our problem is that frequently our purpose gets confused, our vision is distorted, our focus blurred, and we are blind to Christ. The first disciples, too, might have focused on the human side glaring at Peter who denied his Lord, or grieved for Judas who betrayed Him, or complained about an absent Thomas, and they would have gone out mad, not glad. But the focus of the Gospel is not on them—or us!—but on Jesus Christ. And isn’t that the purpose of our being—whether fifty or a hundred years ago or now—we would see Jesus, and, seeing Him, go forth rejoicing in our great salvation.
Saved! That’s the first thing. Then, to coin a word, Inspirited! Inspired, we might say, but that word has been so misused, abused and misapplied. “Inspirited” – the Spirit of the Lord breathed into us, as once God breathed his Spirit on the dusty frame of Adam, or as once his Spirit came upon the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, or as here He breathed His breath, the Breath of life, on these disciples. That’s what the Spirit means, the Holy Breath of God that gives us life, that brings us out of darkness into light, that peels the scales from our blind eyes to make us see, that invigorates for action. The Holy Spirit is the Church’s life and the Church’s power. Quench the Spirit and you’re dead! Here is the flame that kindles sacred love in cold hearts. Not in this gem of architecture where we worship, nor in great preachers in the pulpit, nor in the bursting of great music from the organ, but in the Gospel of the crucified and risen Lord preached, taught, heard and believed, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Saved. Inspirited. And one more word: Sent! “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” But at this point let’s remember the vacationing Thomas for a moment. Sure, he was doubting and refused to believe. But even his skepticism has something to say that we need. He said, “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.” In other words, he wanted to see the marks of the Cross! In his own mistaken way, Thomas hit the nail on the head! Later the Apostle Paul would get it as he wrote, “for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). For God had once said of him, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). And when Jesus sent these men, He sent them as his Father had sent Him—not to the wearing of a crown, but to the bearing of a cross.
So let’s say it once again, “Unless I seek the marks!” It’s not the most attractive way to go, but it’s the only way to go. “Unless I see the marks,” unless I see your money where your values are, unless I see the agonies of burden bearing, the bleeding and the suffering of compassion, well, will anyone believe?
Saved! Inspirited! Sent! Rooted by faith in Christ alone, alive with hope that has been certified by Easter’s promise, active in a love that bears the nail prints of the cross—this has been the character across the years of everything that has been going on in this thing called “the church.” We worship in a building that the sacrifices of other generations have left for us. The Word and Sacraments are here because the saints ahead of us preserved that treasure for us. The assignment and the charge from Christ our Lord is posted: “as I once sent them, I now send you!” Never mind that there have been in days gone by as there are now undoubtedly those who have drawn upon this capital for personal purpose, that here and there a Judas or an Ananias or Saphira have exposed themselves. 25 years down the road will there be those to celebrate 150 years of grace because we have been faithful? Or will they find the ruins here where someone squandered the inheritance? Saved, Inspirited and Sent. That’s much too precious an inheritance to squander. All this is written and passed on “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Saved. Inspirited. And Sent.