It has become fashionable for newspapers and news magazines to do stories about Jesus at Christmas and Easter time. While such a practice is certainly fine, inevitably these stories will call into question the truthfulness of the Bible and cast doubt on the reality of certain events in Jesus' life in which faithful Christians believe. That was certainly the case this Easter. From a museum in Israel a trumped-up story travelled that a casket that may have once contained Jesus' bones had been found. And in magazine articles entitled, "Rethinking the Resurrection" and "The Search for Jesus," so-called scholars and theologians weighed in with their theories on what "really" happened with Jesus. In almost every case, the resurrection was treated as something that was less than fully real. "Jesus was only raised spiritually," they would say. Or, "Easter is a myth that is meant to teach us deeper truths about life." In some way they would always deny the reality that the dead corpse of Jesus in the grave came alive again and physically exited the tomb. They could not say that the Scriptural account is true, that Jesus is literally risen from the dead in glory as the victorious Son of God.
In many ways such people sound a lot like Thomas in the Gospel. He just couldn't believe that Jesus was really alive again. Sure he had heard the report of the empty tomb and the message the women said they received from the angel. Sure he had heard the rest of the disciples tell of how they saw Him that Easter evening. But to Thomas it all just seemed a little too good to be true. Maybe the shock of it all had just gotten to them and they were in denial. Maybe it was some cruel hoax. But whatever it was, Thomas would not believe unless he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched Him with His own hands. He couldn't let himself accept their story unless he had some hard evidence. He wanted proof.
We must admit that we also are a lot like Thomas--not that we don't necessarily believe in Jesus' resurrection; but sometimes we do have doubts and questions; sometimes our faith is tested. "Is this really real," we say to ourselves, "or some sort of religious fraud? I want with all my heart to believe this, for it is the basis for my hope of salvation. But I don't want to be a fool, either. How I wish I could actually see Jesus! How I wish He would give me some sort of sign!" The Scriptures say that we walk by faith, not by sight. But our sinful nature prefers to walk by sight, not by faith. Especially in this TV age, things don't seem totally real to us unless we see them. Like Thomas, we only want to believe what we can look at and experience and feel for ourselves. But Christ calls us simply to believe His Word and to hold firmly to the truth of His resurrection. He calls us to trust in the reality of Easter even when right now we can't see everything first-hand as we might wish. For He promises that our faith will one day turn to sight.
On the Sunday after Easter, the disciples were again gathered together, and this time Thomas was with them. Though the doors were shut, Jesus, the Son of God, in His resurrected and glorified flesh, came and stood among them. After giving them a greeting of peace, He came to Thomas and invited him to see for himself that He really was alive. Jesus asked Thomas to touch the place where the nails had been driven through His hands and to feel the place where the spear had pierced His side. Jesus said, "Do not be unbelieving but believing."
When Thomas saw and touched the risen Christ, he fell before Him and said, "My Lord and my God!" It was true! Jesus really was alive! It wasn't just a story they were telling. For there He was, in the flesh, no longer in a state of humiliation, but exalted in Easter majesty, nevermore to die again. What else could a believing Thomas now do but fall down before Jesus and worship Him?
And what else can we do this Easter season but also bow down and worship the risen Christ? For although we have not seen, yet we too believe in Him through the witness of His Word and Spirit. We who have been brought by God to faith in the Easter Gospel confess with Thomas, "My Lord and my God!" We now understand that our eternal life is built on this living reality of Easter. We now recognize that Christ's bodily resurrection is no uncertain or inconsequential matter. For it is written, "If Christ is not raised, then your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." Our faith is founded on a crucified and risen Lord, one who truly died in the flesh for us and who truly rose again in the flesh to give us the victory over death and the devil. Only a Savior who is truly alive in body and soul can save us fallen people in body and soul. And Jesus has done just that. For the Scriptures say, "But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive." Jesus really is alive and has conquered death for us. Jesus really has made full payment for our sins. Jesus really has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The risen Christ truly is our Lord and our God!
We must cling with all our hearts to the reality of the resurrection, the true, physical coming forth from the grave of Jesus. Because our own hope for eternal life is based entirely on the fact of Easter. As Jesus said, "Because I live, you will live also." Something less than a real resurrection for Jesus means something less than real life for us after death. But because Jesus did, in fact, rise bodily from the grave, we know that we who have been baptized into His body will also rise from the grave on the Last Day. Life after death is not only a spiritual reality, with our souls in heaven; it will also become a very physical, concrete, fleshly reality too at the end of time. For it is written, "Christ will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body." And Job spoke these familiar words of faith, "I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God." This is our sure and certain hope in the resurrected Christ.
You'll notice that both of these appearances of Christ took place on a Sunday--the first one without Thomas on Easter, the second one with Thomas on the eighth day, that is, seven days later. It is because of this that the church made Sunday its primary day of worship instead of Saturday as it was in the Old Testament. Though in Christian liberty we may worship on any day of the week, Sunday came to be observed as the Lord's Day because of Easter and Christ's resurrection appearances. Thus, like the early church, we are to think of every divine service as a little Easter. And, like the early church, we are to think of every divine service as another resurrection appearance of Christ. For the risen Christ continues to come in the flesh to His people who are gathered in His name. Jesus Himself is truly and literally present here to bestow on us overflowing forgiveness and abundant life in the continuing ministry of His Word and His Sacraments. The resurrection appearances of Christ did not stop with His ascension.
So it is that the risen Christ is truly here to speak to us words of peace and absolution. For He said to His apostles and to the men who follow after them in the apostolic ministry, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." On the basis of this passage, the Catechism states, "I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command . . . [by retaining or forgiving sins] . . . this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself." You see, Christ Himself still deals with us and speaks to us in the words of the absolution. For those words are spoken in Christ's stead and by His command. Therefore, they are not just the pastor's words, they are Christ's words. Jesus Himself is the One who says, "I forgive you all your sins." Just as He did with the disciples, the risen Jesus comes to us also and calms our sin-stained and fearful consciences, saying, "Peace be with you." "Through my cross I have reconciled you to the Father. And now I am alive forever to bless and keep you in my love. Therefore, let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you."
And then our resurrected Lord invites us to touch His hands and His side in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Like Thomas, He bids us to come into contact with His own living flesh and blood, so that our faith may be strengthened, and so that we may share in His life. We touch the nail marks in His hands. For with His own hands, Christ give us His true body, which is imprinted with the mark of the cross. And we reach out our hand and put it into His side. For what was it that flowed from Christ's side but His precious blood? Therefore, when we reach for the blessed cup of Christ and receive His life-giving blood, we are touching His holy side. Jesus says to us as He said to Thomas, "Do not be unbelieving, but believing." Though the world may see nothing extraordinary going on here, we know and trust that Jesus is indeed present among us. The risen Christ truly comes to us and gives Himself into us, that He may live in us and we in Him forever.
To you who have been given such faith, the Lord speaks this benediction, "Blessed are (you) who have not seen and yet have believed." For by so believing in Christ, you have life in His name.
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