“The Peace of Faith from Word and Signs” (John 20:19-31)
Second Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2020)
“Why is Easter such a big deal to you Christians? All I’ve heard and seen on FaceBook and Twitter lately is your whining and crying that the stay-in-place orders and social distancing mandates have prevented you from assembling together on Easter Sunday. So, what! I haven’t been allowed to go to my favorite restaurant this past holiday weekend either! And I don’t know how long it’s been since I have been allowed to go to a basketball game or to my favorite pub! Quit your whining! This lockdown won’t last forever. You’ll have other Easters! Besides our own Montana governor has declared Easter Bunnies and Tooth Fairies as essential and not subject to his order to stay home. You were still able to get your hug from the Easter Bunny! So grow up would you!”
Well, Christians, what do you think about such criticisms? Aren’t they fair to a certain extent? After all, our faith does not hinge on the worship assembly itself. Yes, the day will come and we will get to gather together again. It would be entirely different if we, as Christians, were being singled out and were the only ones not being allowed our constitutional right to assemble or to exercise our freedom of worship as we see fit. But that is just not the case. Besides, no one has taken away our Bibles. The Lord has promised to be with us through His Word. We are still free to broadcast the Gospel (the Good News of Easter) on the internet and the air waves and to listen to it being preached and taught via our computer, smart phone , television set or even on the radio.
But when we are criticized for getting so worked up about Easter, these critics just don’t get it. In fact, most of our world just doesn’t get it when it comes to the reason Easter Sunday is so special and holy for us. It’s not that one Sunday is any more special than any other Sunday. It’s not even that somehow we feel a necessity to hunt for Easter eggs or hug the Easter Bunny! That, by the way, is plain ridiculous!
Easter is such a big deal because it is the celebration of the most singularly unique and eternally beneficial event of all time. It’s the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And that historical event, dear friends, is the very linchpin of the Christian Faith and the very salvation of sinners. As the apostle Paul reasons in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:14-20).
So, yes, Easter Sunday is a big deal to us all! The real message of the first Easter Sunday is the very confirmation, the “Amen” if you will, of the Christian Faith, as well as your personal assurance that Jesus is your only Lord and God. Jesus’ death on the cross most certainly won the victory over sin and death for you but Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the very divine and eternal validation of that victory.
This is why when the eleven apostles set about to replace Judas the primary qualification they were looking for was, as Peter states, that “ he must be a man who has gone in and out among us from the baptism of John to the day Christ Jesus was taken up from us…This man must become with us a witness to His Resurrection” (Acts 1:22).
There are many faith systems in this world, many religions. But not one of them has substantiated its truth claims or its promises of salvation and eternal life by the resurrection of any of its dead prophets, initiators, teachers or adherents. Mohamed is still dead. Buddha still lies buried. Joseph Smith is nowhere to be found or to be heard from again.
But as the angels told the women at Jesus’ open tomb on that Easter Sunday morning, “Jesus is not here! For He has risen, as He said… He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him.” (Matt. 28: 6, 7). Jesus and Jesus alone has conquered death! That’s a big deal!
Even though none of us alive today have seen the living Jesus nor were there to verify with our own eyes and senses that He did in fact raise from the dead, the historicity and veracity of Jesus’ resurrection is verified by more authenticated, documented, eyewitness testimony than almost any other event in the ancient world. The First century documents of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all give a detailed account of Jesus’ resurrection, presenting it as a historical fact and carefully detailing by name the eyewitnesses to the raised Jesus. The apostle Paul testifies to his own seeing of the risen Jesus in several of his recorded sermons, and speeches as well as various of his epistles. There are no first century documents claiming these men lied. No proof has ever been offered or found that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.
But what makes Jesus’ resurrection such a big deal to us Christians is what that resurrection means for you and me. His resurrection reinforces that everything Jesus taught is true and that He is, as He always maintained, the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). His resurrection substantiates that God has accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and we are forgiven (1 Cor. 15:57 ; Ro. 4:25). His resurrection is verification that the last enemy, death, has been defeated for us as well (1 Cor. 15; Heb 2:14,15). This is more than a big deal. To borrow from President Trump, this means that Jesus’ resurrection is a “huge deal” to our Christian Faith and our own personal faith in it and in Jesus.
So huge is this good news, in fact, that the risen Jesus Himself purposely met with His disciples many times over a period of 40 days to confirm their faith with His visible, physical, appearance and presence among them.
Now, some religious zealots might ask, Why would Jesus do this? Shouldn’t His followers simply have just accepted the truth of His resurrection without having to see Him? Does real saving faith need such proof? After all, we read in the first verse of Hebrews chapter 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The resurrected Jesus gives us the answer. Here in our Gospel reading this morning we hear the Apostle John report in his 20th chapter that on the very evening of Jesus’ resurrection, even as he and the other of the eleven apostles were huddled together in a room behind closed, perhaps even “locked doors,” out of the fear of the reprisals of the Jewish authorities who had put Jesus to death and now were unnerved because Jesus’ tomb was empty, suddenly Jesus stood in their very midst. Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.” Then John reports that Jesus immediately showed them the scared over wounds He had received in His hands and His side from the nails and the spear. In other words, the tomb being empty and the witness of the women that they had seen and heard from holy angels that Jesus had raised, and in fact, had even seen and touched Jesus themselves, was not enough for them. Jesus allowed these apostles the opportunity to examine with their own eyes and touch that it was really Him in the flesh and not some apparition or illusion.
So what gives? Was believing without seeing not enough? Apparently not! By appearing to them in this way, Jesus confirmed the Word of the Old Testament prophets that the Messiah would raise from the dead. He proved He had made good on His own promise to these apostles on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. He even substantiated the good news the angels had given the women, as well as their own testimony. Jesus did all this with the empirical evidence of His resurrection. Yes, faith is the conviction of truth without demanding evidence but Jesus clearly felt it important to confirm His Word and their faith in it with the physical evidence.
This has long been God’s practice. He has consistently given His people visible signs of His Word to them, especially His promises. We think of the beautiful rainbow given to Noah and all generations after him confirming the LORD’s covenant with the whole world that He would never again destroy the world with a flood. God gave Abraham the fiery pot that passed through the flayed in half animals as evidence of His commitment to the covenant He made with him. Then there are all those signs and wonders God did through Moses; the 10 plagues, the parting of The Red Sea, the bringing forth of the fountain of water from solid rock. How about God raising dead children through Elijah and Elisha, confirming His Word through their lips? And it would take us most of the morning to detail all the signs and wonders Jesus Himself performed during His 3 years of public ministry. And last but certainly not least, look at all those miracles as recorded in the Book of Acts which Jesus continued to do through these very apostles as they went throughout the world giving their testimony to Jesus.
Clearly, when the Lord speaks of faith in Him and His Word, He has not been speaking of some kind of blind faith. He is the One who has taken the initiative to give His people the empirical signs of the veracity and power of His Word to accomplish that for which He sends it. He often has given a visible sign of that which His Word proclaims and conveys.
So, how then do we understand the risen Jesus’ own words which seem to suggest the opposite? A week later when He again appeared to the apostles in that room behind closed doors, this time with Thomas present, Jesus said to this reticent to believe disciple, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
First of all, I think poor old Thomas often receives a bad and unjustified rap. He is often dubbed, “Doubting Thomas.” It is true that Thomas did not believe the other apostles’ word that Jesus had raised. But a week earlier before Jesus had appeared to them, neither had his companions believed the word of the women.
Secondly, Thomas does not demand any evidence beyond the very things Jesus freely had granted to the others the week before. Thomas asked to place his hands into Jesus’ healed over wounds. Jesus did not scold him. Instead, Jesus was happy to accommodate Thomas. He held out to Thomas His hands and side that he might examine them just as He had the week before done for his fellow apostles.
The problem here is not that faith in the word and verifying signs go hand-in-hand. What Jesus directs all our attention to is not to the quality of faith but the real blessing enjoyed by that faith that does not demand proof. The other apostles received the same signs, or proofs, as did Thomas. The difference is that Thomas made the signs a requirement to faith and the other apostles didn’t. Accordingly, the others enjoyed Jesus peace and Thomas, as of yet, didn’t. Jesus on His part acted the same toward them all. Jesus graciously gave to all of them the empirical proof to strengthen and solidify their faith in Him.
Here’s the point: signs and wonders do not create faith but they certainly can embolden faith that has already been engendered in the heart by the mere Word of God. In fact, only right faith interprets and appreciates what the sign rightly says and does. As apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Words of Christ”(10:17).
By the way, in His grace and His desire to keep you firm in that faith, Jesus is still in the visible sign business. He has instituted visible signs, empowered by His Word of promise , to allow you in faith to touch His wounds suffered for your forgiveness and salvation.
These “signs” are what we are accustomed to calling His Holy Sacraments (sacred acts). They are Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. Lutherans at the time of the 16th century Reformation, as well as Christians in the early centuries regularly referred to them as “signs.”
Dr. Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism: “Within the Church the Holy Spirit, through preaching and through ‘signs’ (that is, the sacraments), forgives us and keeps us in the faith” (art. iii) and again “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here” (art iii, par. 55). Similarly, we as Lutherans confess in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, “In other words, our faith is reminded and excited by the visible signs, just as it is by the Word preached” (Art. VII, par 3) and again, “Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them” (The Confession of Faith, art. xiii, par.2).
Easter then is a big deal to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ. The event of Jesus’ resurrection bolsters and confirms the faith we place in Jesus and His Word. Hearing over and over again the undeniable true testimony (witness) of those who actually saw and touched the risen Lord and receiving again and again the gifts of God, forgiveness, life and salvation, through the visible signs of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, confirm to you that your faith in Him is not simply a wish…a hope on a star…a dream, but that it is as solid as was the rocky precipice from which Jesus’ tomb was carved. The risen Jesus’ Word and Signs fill you with His peace. They assure you that you are forgiven for Jesus’ sake… that Jesus really is your true Lord and God… that because He lives you will also live even if you die!
Thanks be to God for Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”