Sunday, April 19, 2009


Sermon on John 20:19-31
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 19, 2009 (The Second Sunday of Easter)

Seeing is believing. It’s necessary to operate with this idea in mind, because all of our fellow human beings are corrupted by the sin that we have all inherited from Adam and Eve, and so you can’t always trust the other person with whom you have dealings. You can’t always trust what the advertisers say about their products. You can’t always trust what people say about their own abilities. Even people who mean well may make claims that they can’t back up because they don’t really understand what they’re up against. And so we are naturally, and rightly, inclined to be suspicious of what people say. It’s not their words that matter, it’s what they do. Actions speak louder than words. A picture is worth a thousand words. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Seeing is believing.

This is the way Thomas thought when the disciples told him about Jesus’ resurrection. He thought that the story about Jesus being resurrected was just “too good to be true.” He wanted to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He wasn’t willing to accept the word of the other disciples about Jesus; the news about Jesus’ resurrection was too impossible, too wonderful, to be believed on the basis of their word alone. He had to see Jesus in the flesh in order to believe. He had to see Him for himself in order to be convinced of the truthfulness of what he was being told.

We can certainly understand Thomas’ reluctance to believe his fellow disciples. After all, only a few days ago he had his entire world turned upside down. His Lord and Teacher, the one he confessed as the Son of God, had died. God isn’t supposed to die. And He had not only died, He had been brutally murdered by the Jewish leadership in collaboration with the Roman authorities. He was the one who was supposed to save his people, and now here He had died. Of course, Thomas had heard the things Jesus said about His death being the way it was supposed to happen and that this was how salvation would come to men and that He would be raised up again on the third day, but with everything that had happened, Thomas couldn’t bring himself to believe that all of that had been what Jesus had intended. And in all his fear, uncertainty, and doubt, he wanted to see Jesus for himself to make sure.

We are by nature a lot like Thomas. We see sin in the world around us, we see God’s will for the lives of His creatures being ignored and spit upon daily. We see increasing acceptance of lifestyles such as homosexuality, living together before marriage, divorce for casual reasons, lifestyles which God has prohibited to His creatures for their own good. We see increasing selfishness and callousness toward those who are in need of help. In the Church herself we see all kinds of people who don’t act very Christian toward each other. We see old hurts and grudges carried on over the course of years and even decades, despite the damage it does to the work of the Church. We see a mentality imported from the world of big business that wants to measure success rather than faithfulness to God’s word. What we don’t see is Jesus. And so we begin to doubt Him and His word, and wish for some sign from Him that He really is there watching over us and taking care of us, some sign that our own sins really are forgiven and that our sacrifices and our struggles against sin are in fact all worthwhile. Like Thomas, we want to see Him with our own eyes and feel Him with our own senses in order to believe.

But what Christ says to Thomas reminds us that we are looking for God with the wrong sense. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In other words, in matters having to do with faith, we are to trust our ears rather than our eyes. Instead of relying on what we actually see for ourselves, we are to rely on the words that are spoken to us for our salvation. We are to rely upon faith, which trusts in what is not seen, instead of testing God, trying to force Him to prove Himself. As St. Paul says in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing.” It does not come by seeing.

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul elaborates on this. “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” What St. Paul says here has to do with the first part of our text this morning. Jesus met the disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” As St. Paul points out, if faith comes by hearing, the Church needs preachers. When Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” he was talking about the people to whom he and the other apostles would preach, as well as the rest of us Christians down through the ages who have believed by hearing the Word. When Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit and told them that they were to forgive and to retain sins, He was ordaining the apostles into their office as apostles and as pastors of the Church. The Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism refers to today’s Gospel lesson, and then it asks, “What do you believe according to these words?” The response we confess together with the Catechism is, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.” You can’t see Jesus with your physical eyes. You can, however, hear His words.

Christ tells the apostles that when they proclaim the forgiveness of sins to someone, either by a specific announcement such as what we call Holy Absolution, or by preaching, or by baptizing, or by allowing someone to come to the Lord’s Supper, that their sins are actually forgiven. What a pastor does is not simply to talk about something that has already happened. Through a pastor’s declaration of forgiveness, God Himself actually acts to forgive a person. Now, that forgiveness which is granted to a person first in Baptism lasts through his whole life; it’s not as if you aren’t forgiven until you come to Church again the next Sunday. And, of course, anybody can tell his neighbor that God has forgiven their sins for Christ’s sake, and this message creates and sustains faith just as much as does the direct action of the pastor in administering the Means of Grace. But the pastor’s job is to speak Christ’s own words, “I forgive you,” directly into your ears, first person to second person. While the objective power of the Gospel is the same either way, it is especially comforting to hear God’s own words spoken through the mouth of his servants as opposed to a third-party news report about what God has done for us. God has instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry so that you can hear with your own ears that yes, you are forgiven.

This principle that faith comes by hearing and not by seeing is not only true of Holy Absolution, however. It is also true of the preaching of the Word and most especially of the Sacraments. All that the eye sees in Baptism is water. All that the eye sees in Holy Communion is bread and wine. It doesn’t see the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost that takes place in Baptism, nor does the eye see or the fingers feel or the mouth taste the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. But we know that they are there because the ear hears the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” in Baptism, and “This is My body, this is My blood” in the Lord’s Supper. There too we hear and believe what Christ gives us even though we cannot see these things.

Today’s Gospel records for us God’s institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry. God has given pastors to His Church so that they can proclaim the forgiveness of sins, for the eternal salvation of God’s people. As Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” You have heard the message, and you have believed, though you have not yet seen the risen Christ with your own eyes. Blessed are you. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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