Peace Be With You

Text: John 20:19-31
Date: Easter II + 4/19/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter we hear St. John’s account of two appearances of the risen Lord to his disciples, the first “on the evening of that day” (Easter Sunday), and the second a week later. A central figure is the Apostle Thomas who was absent for the first appearance, spent the whole next week not just “doubting” but refusing to believe that the Lord had risen unless he could see him with his own eyes, and then was present to receive a direct appearance “eight days later.” This year, I would suggest the following outline for our consideration of this text under the theme, “Real Peace.” First, the Peace of Christ is in the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God he provided by his sacrifice on the Cross, now vindicated in his bodily resurrection. Second, the Peace of Christ is by way of faith in him. And, thirdly, this faith comes to us by way of the means of grace administered by Christ’s chosen ministers in the Office of the Ministry.

The world and we ourselves tend to define “peace” primarily in terms of the lack of something, namely warfare, contention, strife or suffering. Under such a definition, however, any disagreement, arguing or conflict is thought to destroy that peace. Would it surprise you to hear me say that the “Real Peace” Christ brings is not defined by and does not rely upon the lack of conflict, but is a Peace that is able to bear and endure under and through all conflict and strife?

It works this way. When we cannot determine between things that are of little importance and things that are of ultimate importance, the result is that every conflict becomes a matter of life and death. But when we have previously agreed on or at least one party to a conflict knows what is of ultimate importance, namely, our salvation from sin and death by faith in Christ, then we are able to handle lesser disagreements and conflicts knowing that, in the end, win or lose, we can still lock arms in the unity and peace of faith.

The risen Lord Jesus came and stood among his fearful disciples behind locked doors and said, “Peace be with you.” And John reports (remember he was there!), “when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” In doing so Jesus connects the Peace he announced with the evidence of this peace, namely, the wounds of the nails of the Cross and the spear still visible as marks and tokens of what it took to bring about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Though “Peace be with you” was a common greeting, as it is in the Church today, it is different when Jesus speaks it because in speaking it he actually bestows what he says: reconciliation with God.

The Peace of Christ is not just a pious wish. It is an established fact. It was won not by mere hopeful or sentimental feelings but on the battlefield of that strange and dreadful strife when God came to crush Satan, sin and death under his heel by enduring it all on behalf of all mankind on the Cross. But though he died our death and was buried lifeless in a tomb, after three days he who had life in himself reclaimed his human body and arose glorified in victory. As John says, the entire theme of his Gospel we hear today in the words, “these [things] are written 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.” So today, the risen Christ comes to us and says, as he said to his first disciples, “Peace be with you.” And in so saying we are given the forgiveness of sins and the power of his endless life. As even death had no power over him, so now for all those who believe in him, as the Apostle Paul says it, we are “convinced that neither death nor life…things present, nor things to come…nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Peace of Christ is the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God he provided by his sacrifice on the Cross, now vindicated in his bodily resurrection.

The second point of our text is that this Peace that Christ gives is by way of faith in him.

The drama of the absence of the apostle Thomas on that first Easter evening, his week-long denial and unbelief, and our Lord’s special appearance to him the next week addresses and challenges the old adage, “seeing is believing.” “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.” Strong words! And that’s the way people remain skeptical of the claims of the Christian faith to this day. They want proof, either scientific or at least something that can be observed with the eyes. The problem is, however, that’s not the way in which God has determined that salvation works. For that is the way of works and of the Law. The Gospel message is that Christ did the works and the Law for us precisely because we, on our own efforts, are completely incapable of keeping the Law for ourselves.

At his second appearance to the disciples (the first to Thomas) Jesus gave Thomas the opportunity to “put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Notice that we are not told that Thomas then began to examine Jesus’ body parts, but simply responded to the invitation with the exclamation of faith, “My Lord and my God!” When Jesus replies with the question, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” he says that, when it comes to salvation, “seeing is believing” is reversed and it is now “believing is the only way of seeing” the way, the truth and the life.

But now, we should not take Jesus’ words to Thomas as a reprimand. Certainly they were no different than anyone else in that it is by grace alone through faith that anyone is saved and delivered from the darkness and punishment of sin to the light and deliverance of forgiveness. However, how does this faith come to us today? It is by way of the means of grace administered by Christ’s chosen ministers in the Office of the Ministry. There is, therefore, a sense in which the first disciples, whom we call Apostles, DID have to see the risen Christ with their own eyes. It is because of their testimony and their seeing of the risen Christ that we don’t have to. In a sense Jesus HAD TO show his hands and side to them. And when Thomas demands it, Jesus gives it.

This text comprises the “words of institution,” if you will, of the office of the ministry. “After he had said this,” John writes, “be breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Once again, remember the Biblical rule of interpretation: God never imparts the Holy Spirit on anyone just to make you feel good. It is always with the purpose of witnessing to or teaching or preaching the Word of God. But it is specifically as the Apostles are to be the means of distributing the forgiveness of sins and of calling people to repentance that Jesus continues, saying, “if YOU forgive the sins of anyone, they have been and stand as forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, those sins have been and are held.” Now note this: it is the risen Christ that is the reason for the forgiveness of sins, and the power behind such application. The Apostles are merely the means, the instruments or agents through which Jesus distributes the forgiveness of sins or the word of discipline—likewise for those who are ordained and installed into the apostolic office of ministers to this day. So those who object, saying, “how can any man forgive sins?” do not see that it is not the pastor himself (just as it wasn’t the apostle himself) that does the forgiving. It is Jesus doing the forgiving through the announcement of his appointed ministers, “by virtue of [their] office, and in the stead and at the command of [their] Lord Jesus Christ.”

Real Peace is to be found in no one else than Jesus Christ who has purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, now vindicated by his mighty resurrection from the dead. That real peace is alone by faith that comes to us by way of the means of grace administered by Christ’s chosen ministers in the apostolic office of the ministry. And that faith is summarized in the great climax of the confession of Thomas who says to and of Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” This has been the point of John’s entire Gospel, from beginning to end, as he wrote, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). In the name of Christ, therefore, “Peace be to you,” Real Peace.