Sermon for Easter II - John 20:19-31 • Rev. William Gleason
He is risen! He is risen, indeed.
We are truly blessed to greet one another with such confidence. When Thomas first heard that wonderful proclamation, his response was a more incredulous, “Has He indeed?” He would not believe his fellow disciples who said, “We have seen the Lord.” Of course, these were the same disciples who dismissed as crazy the report of the women who were stunned by joy at seeing the living Christ. By the end of His forty day sojourn amongst His disciples, Jesus had appeared to over 500 followers showing His self visibly and tangibly to them so that they may believe. Still, as Matthew tells us, at Jesus’ Ascension there were many who doubted.
The disciples’ disbelief was simply the spiritual blindness of sin. It is the same darkness that shrouded the minds of our first parents when they turned from the light of God’s truth and embraced the shadowy gloom of Satan’s lies. Ever since then, all of Adam’s children have been blind from birth. We are spiritually blind to the reality of God’s true divinity, and also blind to the reality of our true humanity. The only remedy for this blindness is to enter again into the Light which is the Light of Christ’s Word. In that Light, we see by faith the grace and love of our Creator who redeemed us from Satan’s curse, and we see the true life that He has in store for us.
Like many biblical stories, there are many pictures, icons and statues depicting Doubting Thomas; but the one I find most remarkable is the one painted by the 16th century artist Caravaggio. In it, Thomas is portrayed in a most animated, almost humorous, pose of skepticism: he is bent over so he can peer closely into the side of Jesus, his left hand perched doggedly on his hip, and his eyes are opened wide in order to scrutinize every bit of this wound. His right wrist is held by Christ, as He draws Thomas’s hand, his index finger extended, right into the hole that is in Jesus’ flesh. Two other disciples stand watching, mouths gaping open, as if they are more astonished by a shameless act of touching, than by the miraculous appearance of the crucified Christ.
But here is where Caravaggio has captured most vividly an essential element of this scene. Unlike many other pictures where Thomas is barely touching the body of Christ, this artist has Thomas’s finger stuck right into the side of Jesus, so much so that the Savior’s skin is pushed up by Thomas’s knuckle. Seeing this graphic illustration, I, too, find myself scandalized by this impetuous invasion of Jesus’ body. But that’s it! It’s Jesus’ body—His real, flesh and blood, living body. I can empathize with those men and women who simply could not believe what they were seeing. Or, perhaps, to put it more accurately, could only believe what they could see.
Which gets to the heart of this Gospel: the source and the surety of our faith. Jesus asked Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen Me?” Before we can address the answer to that question, let us understand clearly what Jesus was asking. He asked Thomas, “Have you believed…?” Believed what? We see that from Thomas’s response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas made a very bold confession of faith in who Jesus is. This Man is the Lord; He is the Son of God, true God of true God. How can Thomas make such a claim? How can he believe such a confession?
Jesus asked him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me?” The answer is, of course, no. Thomas’s faith, and his confession of faith, did not come from his sight, or anything else in him. It is just as our Lord made it clear to Peter, who made the same confession about “the Christ, the Son of the Living God;” He said, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Peter’s faith and Thomas’s faith—just like the faith of the other disciples, and all who have seen Jesus, or those who haven’t—is born of God. That is why Jesus declared to Thomas the same blessedness of faith that Peter enjoyed, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
At this point, one might ask a simple and logical question: if seeing is not believing, if our faith is a gift from God, and if we walk by faith and not by sight, then why did Jesus appear to His disciples at all? Why all this fuss to show Thomas the reality of Jesus’ living body? Why walk and talk, eat and drink with the disciples on the way to Emmaus? Or on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius? Why show Himself to almost five hundred other disciples, but to no others?
It is because God is making a new Creation through His Son. He is calling forth by His Word a new Israel, not like the old whose bones dried up with their hope in the Law, but a new one raised up from the graves that once entombed their bodies, flesh and blood that is now filled with the Spirit of the Living God. He is creating a new Bride for His Son, who, like the first Eve, is born from a pierced side. Only this time, it not a rib that comes out, but water and blood; and from this water and blood, with the testimony of His Spirit, God creates His Church, a holy and blameless Bride to present to His Son.
But this new Creation is not yet finished. The old creation was finished on the sixth day, and God saw that it was very good. However, it was turned from good to bad by sin. It became so wicked that even a cataclysmic flood could not wash all the evil away. Neither could the blood of countless animals atone for all the sins of the people. Only the flood of water and blood that came from God’s Son, crucified at Calvary, could redeem His fallen creation. And on the cross the redemption of His creation was also finished. And it was very good. But this new Creation is not yet finished.
Our Lord is still working, still calling, still gathering His elect from all over the world. And the means of His working is the same as when He created the world, and when He redeemed the world: His Divine Word. The same Word of God that was in the beginning, by whom all things were made, also became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Theotokos, the blessed Virgin who bore God. He came into this world to overcome the world. To take back from captivity His creation held in bondage to sin, and Satan, and the darkness of death. He came to dispel the darkness of sin and death by the Light of His Word. Just as in the beginning when He separated the light from the darkness, so also He calls His Church out of darkness into His marvelous Light that they may share in His victory over the world. And the disciples, so privileged to see the risen Lord, were to share in that victory and in the testimony of His victory.
The apostle John wrote in his first epistle: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” When Jesus appeared to the disciples, when He showed Himself to Thomas, they believed and were glad. But it was not their seeing that made them believe. Rather, the Word of God enlightened their minds that had been darkened by sin and unbelief. It was the Light of Christ who stood victoriously in their midst. The Truth of His Word overcame the darkness of the world and its lies that once shrouded their hearts and minds. And like the Caravaggio painting where Thomas is pointing us directly to the Author and Finisher of our faith, so this Gospel story points us to the One who is the Light and Truth.
Through the testimony of His Apostles, Christ continues to proclaim His victory over the world. When He showed Himself to them, He breathed on them His Holy Spirit and gave them the office and the authority that sets people free from the darkness of death: the Ministry of the forgiveness of sins. It is in forgiving sins that Christ imparts life and salvation. That forgiveness He dispenses by His Word and Spirit, by the preaching of His Gospel and Sacraments. The voice of Christ’s minister absolving sins is the voice of Christ absolving sins. The proclamation of the Gospel in the Church is the breath of the Spirit blowing through our land. The baptismal Font and the holy Chalice is where we find the flood of cleansing water and blood pouring forth from the side of Christ. And in the blessed Host the very body that Thomas once put his hand into, is now put into your hand and mouth so that you may believe and confess Christ as Lord and God. And when we sing after every Lord’s Supper, “Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,” we are making the bold confession of all those who behold by faith the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Victory over the world is victory over the lies of this world’s ruler, Satan. He was defeated when Christ overcame the world. But he is still in this world, and he still holds captive a host of lost souls who are gripped by his deceptions. We, too, are still in this world. And Satan is busy at his old tricks of luring us back into his control. The method is still the same: tempting us to sin and casting doubt about God’s word. It is not hard to see the devil at work when Christ has revealed to you the Truth of the Gospel, but don’t underestimate the devil’s power; he lurks around seeking someone to devour. Resist him. Hold fast to the Truth of Christ’s Word. Do not disbelieve, but believe and overcome the world with our most holy Faith. For Jesus is among us; His Word is proclaimed “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.” Amen.