SCRIPTURES – Acts 5:12-20; Rev. 1:4-18; John 20:19-31; Ps. 105
“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.” John 20
Last week I read through, in all four Gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and of what He said and did in the days after, until He ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter. Read through the Gospels yourself and you’ll see that, after proving that He really was alive, and then explaining that His crucifixion had been necessary, Jesus focused on one main thing: the forgiveness of sins. He spoke of little else after His resurrection. He forgave His disciples, sometimes individually, and then sent them out to proclaim forgiveness in His name.
Why this focus on forgiveness? Why didn’t Jesus appear to His followers and say to them, “Be at peace! I have conquered death, and so you don’t have to fear it. Follow Me and live victoriously!” Or, why didn’t He say: “I have triumphed over all who oppose Me and over every evil. Follow Me, and enjoy My victory!” Both of these things are true; Jesus did triumph over death and every evil foe, and we who believe in Him share in that victory. And yet, He didn’t speak of this. Neither did He tell His disciples to do so. Sin and its forgiveness: this is what Jesus spoke of. Sin and its forgiveness is what He commanded His followers to proclaim.
Why? I guess it’s because we’re pretty stubborn and persistent sinners! “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!” Maybe you’ve never sinned like Thomas by stubbornly doubting Jesus’ resurrection. You truly believe that Jesus rose, and in His body, not just as a spirit. Good! But, each of us stubbornly holds onto other sinful demands. Sometimes, it’s: “Prove to me where God says that!” Other times, it’s: “What difference will doing this make?” Or: “I won’t change if he doesn’t!” We are born with an attitude of stubborn self-righteousness, and it affects our attitudes and behaviors throughout our lives. In fact, this is one reason why we baptize babies: to forgive, and give them power to fight against, this original sin!
Is this really such a big deal? Well, consider how Jesus responds to it. First of all, consider that He responds. When He appears a second time to His disciples, eight days after Easter, He turns to Thomas and says to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.” How startling this must have been to Thomas. It was not only true that Jesus was alive again. He had heard Thomas’s stubborn words! He knew his sin… and it was against Him!
The Lord knows your sins, also. They are never hidden. With the Father and the Holy Spirit Jesus is the almighty, all-knowing God. His eyes are like a flame of fire. Do not ever think that He does not see the wrongs which you do, or that He is not aware of the proud and stubborn and self-righteous thoughts and desires that motivate your actions! Oh, He knows them… and He knows what they are. “Do not disbelieve, but believe,” He says to Thomas. Our sins, even those that we consider insignificant, are to Jesus the refusal to believe in Him; the refusal to believe Him. “Prove yourself to me!” demands Thomas. As if Jesus does not deserve to be believed upon and followed and worshiped until He satisfies him! He does not need to prove Himself to any of us!!
Thanks and praise be to our Lord Jesus that He comes to us now, not in anger, but in gentleness: showing us the wounds in His hands and side, which He received as He took our sins and their punishment upon Himself; breathing His Holy Spirit upon us to make us new within; and then speaking, not words of vengeance and punishment, but words of forgiveness. “Peace be with you!” Thomas heard these words from Jesus before He heard the reminder of his sinful words.
“Peace be with you! Your sins are forgiven.” We are blessed to be able to hear these words ourselves and receive our Lord’s forgiveness week after week. Since Jesus gave His life for us on the cross, bearing our sins and their eternal punishment to remove them from us; since He saw fit to make the forgiveness of sins the primary topic of His discussions; and, since He commanded His apostles to speak His forgiveness; the forgiveness of sins – of your sins – is our main focus here week after week.
You are reminded of it at the beginning of the Service. I make the sign of the cross over you (and some of you make it upon yourselves) to remind you of your baptism, when the cross was marked upon you. In Holy Baptism you were joined to Christ in His death and resurrection, and God put His name upon you and took you as His child. Christ’s cross, given to you in your baptism, is the sign of your victory over sin. Your sins cannot condemn you, and sin has no power over you! You are welcome here in the house of the holy God, because He is your Father who loves you!
You are given Christ’s forgiveness as you confess your sins and receive their forgiveness from my lips. Think about this. At the beginning of the Divine Service you confess your sins to God. It is a simple acknowledgment of the truth that you are a sinner. But then, I forgive you. How is this right? Did you sin against me? Isn’t it only the one who is sinned against – or, ultimately, God Himself – who can forgive? This is what many other Christian Churches say. Jesus disagrees with them. “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” He puts the forgiveness He won for us into the mouths of the apostles and pastors He sends. I forgive you because Jesus told me to do so. Your sins are forgiven! Believe this!
And, that you might in a sense touch this forgiveness (as Thomas desired), week after week the forgiveness Jesus won for you by the sacrifice of His body and the shedding of His blood touches your lips and is put into your mouth. How graphic this sounds! Do not be offended by this. As Jesus bore the marks of His wounds after His resurrection and showed them to His disciples, so He shows them to us now in the mystery of Holy Communion.
Finally, as we leave God’s holy house to re-enter the sinful world and resume our lives, Jesus’ peace is again spoken upon us: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you His peace.” Your Lord has forgiven your sins! “Peace be with you!” Christ’s peace rests upon you and goes before you. We live our lives in the peace of His forgiveness.
“Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life,” God’s angel told the apostles. As Christ’s people, this is what we do. And, receiving His words in faith, we receive Jesus and His Holy Spirit. We are now “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” (Rev. 1) Our bodies are His temples. Peace be with you, and peace be through you! To the praise and honor of Jesus, our crucified, risen, and eternally living Savior. Amen.