It was what we would call Sunday evening - the evening of the first Easter. A group of disciples, both men and women, were gathered together behind locked doors.
It was a time of great confusion for this little gathering. Some of the women among them had actually seen Jesus. At least they said they had. John wrote that when he saw the empty tomb, he believed something, but it is not quite clear what he believed. Peter, too, had seen Jesus although the Bible tells us little about that meeting. Two disciples from Emmaus had seen Him as well. So, there were some there who had seen Jesus and believed, but most of them had not seen Him and these had no faith.
Furthermore, even if they all believed that Jesus had risen, they weren't quite sure what that meant or what if anything they should do about it. Jesus had taught about His resurrection before He died, but His teachings did not really sink in. Because they weren't expecting the Messiah to die and rise from the dead, they had given no thought to how they would respond or what they would do afterwards. They had not asked Jesus any questions about what they should do after He rose. They were in totally uncharted waters.
Then there was the perceived danger that the Jewish leaders might come after Jesus' followers. The only thing they could think to do was hunker down and meet behind locked doors. Basically, they wanted to hide - to draw no attention to themselves. They wanted to become invisible to the Jewish authorities. The group that gathered in that room on that evening was afraid and confused and depressed.
Then Jesus showed up. It didn't make any difference that the doors were locked. It didn't make any difference that the disciples were trying to hide. It didn't make any difference that the disciples were confused and bewildered. One moment they could not see Him and the next moment He was there among them.
As we study the record of Jesus' appearance to His disciples on that Easter evening, we learn that Jesus did not wait for this little band to come to Him. He knew that would never happen. Instead He came to them. He appeared among them even though they had barricaded themselves into their meeting place.
He had every right to chastise them. He had every right to say to them, "I went in and out among you for three years. I told you that I was going to rise after I died. What is your problem? Why didn't you believe the women when they told you that they saw me alive?" He had that right, but He did not use it. He could have scolded them, but He did not.
Instead, He came to them in peace. He said to them, "Peace be with you." He patiently allowed them to examine the scars of the crucifixion. The Apostle John would later write about this event in his first epistle: [1 John 1:1] That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands … Here Jesus shows His love, His tenderness, His desire for [1 Timothy 2:4] all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What a comfort this is for us as well, for we know that Jesus has every right to judge and condemn us for all the wrong we have done. Jesus has every right to scold us for ignoring His teachings. He has the right to punish us for the wrong we have done and the good we have left undone. Never the less, He comes to us just as He came to His disciples - He comes in peace.
He not only comes to give us peace, but He also comes to give us authority. This is one of the amazing things about His relationship with us. Here is this group of disciples. A few had some sort of meager faith, but most of them had no faith at all. When Jesus appeared to them, He did not reproach them for their unbelief, sin, or weakness. Instead He comforted them, gave them strength, and lifted them up.
As He built them up, He gave them a new authority. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." With these words, Jesus gives His church the same authority that God the Father gave to Him.
With these words and many others, Jesus began telling His church of her mission. The Father sent the Son. The Son in turns sends the disciples. What a joy, comfort, and blessing it is that we can hear the words of Christ as He gave it to His disciples. What a treasure God preserves for us in the Bible - the book that presents the very teachings of Christ as He gave them to His messengers - the prophets and the apostles. What a privilege, blessing, and joy we have as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and associates to pass these teachings on to others in our lives. We have the privilege to pass these teachings on to others even as the apostles wrote them down and passed them on to us.
As Jesus sends us it also means that the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," are not just empty vibrations in the air. It means that we as believing children of God have the authority to forgive one another of our sins. It means that I - even though I am a poor miserable sinner myself - that I as a called and ordained servant of the Word can speak for Jesus Christ Himself when I say, "I forgive you all of your sins." When the guilt of your sin persecutes you and frightens you, you can rely on the words I say, not because I say them, but because of the words of today's Gospel. For in today's Gospel, the risen savior, Jesus Christ Himself said, "If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven …"
Sadly, there is a flip side to this authority. When a person is guilty of manifest, public sin and refuses to repent - when the pure word of God convicts someone of an open, obvious sin, but he or she refuses to repent, our Lord's words are clear: "… if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." The judgment of the church as exercised through the called and ordained servant of the Word is the judgment of God. There is no forgiveness of sins until the sinner repents.
Therefore, it is a terrible, terrible thing if anyone will not hear God's Word. For it is through God's word that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and drives us to repentance. It is through God's Word that the Holy Spirit creates and establishes the faith that receives the salvation Jesus earned for us with His death on the cross. It is through God's Word that He showers us with His blessings. How wonderful it is that we can hear God's Word as it is read and experience God's Word as it is combined with the elements of the water, bread, and wine of the sacraments.
One of the disciples was missing out on all the blessings Jesus gave to His church that evening. Perhaps Thomas had legitimate reasons for his absence - the Bible does not say. It simply makes it very clear that he was not with the gathering on that particular night. It is from this simple absence that Thomas will always be known as "Doubting Thomas." This is really not fair. The other disciples didn't believe the reports of Jesus' resurrection until they saw Him with their own eyes, but Thomas - because he was absent - gets saddled with the doubting reputation.
When Jesus appeared to His church the next week, He did not single out Thomas and say, "Sorry guy, you weren't here last week. I gave out all the blessings then. You are out of luck." No, instead He invited Thomas to investigate His wounds: "Bring your finger over here and touch the nail scar in my hand. Bring your hand over here and put it in my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believe."
This shows us how much Jesus loves us - how kind and patient He is with us. Jesus searches out His lost sheep and gently restores their faith. In our weak humanity, we cannot believe, but God sends the Holy Spirit to us - to establish and strengthen our faith. It is by the power of God and God alone that we can join Thomas and confess Jesus as my Lord and my God." It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can pass that confession on to others and so continue the mission that the risen Lord gave to His church. Amen.
Please quote from my sermons freely. I expect people to copy my sermons or I wouldn't put them on a site like this. I only ask that you quote accurately if you attribute anything to me.
Should you decide to contact me, I would be very interested in knowing where you are. Please include the name of your city, state or province, and country when contacting me.
Send James T. Batchelor an email.