Text: John 20:19-31
Date: Easter II + 4/8/18
Today we hear the Apostle and Evangelist St. John telling the entire purpose of his Gospel, namely, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing in His name you may have life.” But what does it mean to believe? Today we hear Thomas echo our modern skepticism saying, “Unless I see;” “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.” That could be our excuse, too. “Seeing is believing,” right? Rather today we are invited by the promise of Jesus, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
At that first Easter there was a lot of “not seeing” going on. Peter and John and Mary Magdalene visit the empty tomb and do not see the body of Jesus. The result? Not faith but wonder, doubt, fear and trembling! The symbol of Easter is not the empty tomb. It is, rather, the resurrected body of Jesus complete with the marks of His crucifixion, or as the hymn calls them, “those crimson trophies,” and “rich wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified” (LSB 525:2, 3). Without those first eyewitnesses who have seen with their eyes and touched with their hands we would have nothing but an empty tomb, nothing living to believe in, nothing but emptiness. So those who have not seen and yet have believed are blest, but only because those who have seen and have preached and written their accounts have been made known to us. They are the truly blest.
In fact, follow the role and activity of seeing and sight through John’s witness. From the very beginning he declares, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14). When John the Baptist saw Jesus he could point to Him and call Him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. How did he know? “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:33-34). Seeing was an important thing for John. Jesus invited the first disciples to follow Him, saying, “Come and you will see.” So also when Philip called Nathaniel he said, “Come and see.” When Jesus said to Nathaniel, “I saw you under the fig tree,” Nathaniel responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus responded, “You will see greater things than these.” “You will see heaven opened.” And all that seeing is just in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.
In chapter three Jesus tells the secret follower, Nicodemus, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” A person is born again, born anew from above by the power of God’s Word in the waters of Holy Baptism. The woman of Samaria, after her encounter with Jesus at a well, told her neighbors, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” Blessed indeed are those who have seen and believe.
There are so many instances that seeing and sight are the means of saving, converting, sanctifying faith. So today we thank God for all the apostles and especially Thomas and John, witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection, written in this book in order that you may see, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
It is interesting that this witness of the risen Christ should follow after our Lord’s institution of the holy ministry in the first part of today’s reading. For that’s the way it seems to go to this day. Men are moved to give themselves to the instruction and discipline of God’s Word to discover whether God is calling them to the apostolic ministry. With the ten in that upper room future pastors are to see the risen Lord in God’s Word and sacraments. Then, ready or not, there comes a moment—as will happen again at our seminaries near the end of this very month—the moment that the commission is given: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” No, in a sense “we’re not ready yet,” but we are prepared in Christ as we spend our lifetime learning what it really means to see the Lord, and to be blessed by and in even our not seeing.
Before Jesus revealed Himself in that upper room, and also after He disappears again, the risen Lord is still there, whether you can see Him or not. He is the divine Son of God still in possession of His human nature and as such can reveal Himself when and where He desires. He is the promise of our resurrection from the dead. The only difference will be that, as now, we’re not omnipresent or invisible as He is. This is the great comfort for us especially in the hour of death. For as we breathe our last in this world, leaving sin behind, it will be as if in an instant the Lord will raise us up on the last day, new bodies for old to be gathered from the ends of the earth to celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom forever.
The last words spoken at your funeral, at the graveside will be: May God the Father, who created this body; may God the Son, who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen