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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter – April 24, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
At our Easter service last Sunday, one of our young worshippers turned in a Connection Card with a question written on it. His question was, “What is the purpose of religion?” His question was probably lurking in the minds of many people last Sunday, including many adults.
Set aside the broader question of the purpose of religion in general. Contrary to what some people think, different religions will answer that question very differently. They are not all the same. So let’s get more focused and rephrase the question as, “What is the purpose of this religion? What is the purpose of Christianity? It is an excellent question to ask on the most important day in the Christian calendar. What does this all mean?”
The question isn’t a new one. In fact, some version of this question was certainly lurking in the minds of the disciples themselves on the first Easter. They had heard that Christ was risen, just as our worshippers, including this ten-year-old boy, did last Sunday. But that night they went back home and locked the door. They were afraid that the same people who put Jesus on the cross would coming looking for them next. They were right to be afraid about that, because they soon would!
Not only were they afraid, but it is obvious that the reality of the resurrection had not yet sunk in. They had seen the empty tomb. They saw the grave clothes all neatly folded up. They had heard Mary Magdalene say that she had seen the Lord, that he was risen – but it didn’t make sense to them. They went back home, afraid and confused, scratching their heads about what it all meant.
And then that evening the risen Lord Jesus came to them. “Peace be with you,” he said. He showed them his hands and his side. This was a real body, which we’ll see even more clearly in upcoming texts this Easter season. His wounds were still there, proving that the risen Lord was the same person as the crucified Christ. “Peace be with you,” he said again. Then Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit by breathing on them, and with the Spirit he gave them their mission, the mission of the church: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
That all happened on Easter night. But one of the disciples was not there that night. For some reason, Thomas was absent. And when his fellow disciples told him about it, he didn’t believe them! “Unless I see and touch those wounds with my own hands, I will not believe it,” he said.
Thomas spent another full week wondering about what it all meant. He spent another full week in his confusion and his doubts. It was the following Sunday that Jesus came again to his disciples – just as we are here today a week later! This time Thomas was there. Jesus again said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Go ahead, touch my wounds. Do not doubt, but believe.”
Some corners of the modern church have come close to romanticizing doubts, almost encouraging them. It is unfortunate that earlier generations shamed people who had questions or doubts, but in the modern church the pendulum has swung so far the other way that doubts are almost celebrated. It is certainty that is more likely to be shamed or ridiculed in our time.
To avoid either extreme it is important to note two things: First, Jesus is exceptionally patient with Thomas. He doesn’t scold him for not believing the testimony of the other disciples. From this we can be assured that Jesus is patient with our doubts too, with our struggles to believe and to understand.
But Jesus didn’t want to leave Thomas in his doubts either. He wanted to move Thomas from doubt to belief, to trust, to the certainty of Christ’s resurrection. In the Large Catechism, Luther describes doubt as a close cousin to despair. Jesus didn’t want to leave Thomas in that confusion that leads to despair, and he certainly does want us to be stuck in our doubts either.
In order to move Thomas from doubt to faith, he invited Thomas to touch him. We don’t even know that Thomas accepted the invitation. All the artistic portrayals show him poking his finger in there, but nowhere in the scriptures does it say he did. Instead, it tells us that Thomas responded with a confession of faith: “My Lord and my God,” he said. At last, Thomas believed!
What is the purpose of the religion that emerged out of these encounters? The purpose is that we would believe it too! The purpose of Christianity is nicely summarized in our gospel reading today. The purpose is that we would have the peace of Christ. The purpose is that we would take up the mission of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in his name. The purpose is that we would believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, conquering death for us as the firstborn of the dead, the firstborn of many into eternal life.
Jesus goes on to say to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have NOT seen, and yet have come to believe.”
Just then John, the narrator, adds his two cents, writing, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that YOU may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Both Jesus and John are directly addressing YOU. They are telling you what the purpose of all this is. They are telling you the meaning of it all. They are inviting you to believe, to trust, to have faith, that Jesus Christ is your Lord and God, and that he was truly raised from the dead. When you believe this, you have the freedom of forgiveness, you have the peace of God’s presence, you have the assurance of eternal life. When you believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, you will have life in his name!
To be honest, I don’t care much about what the purpose of religion in general is. I respect my neighbors of other faiths and am sometimes curious about what they believe, but what I really care about is what is true. And the truth is that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died on the cross for the sin of the world and rose again in bodily form. This really happened in history. The writings we call the New Testament hold up as eyewitness testimony to historical events as well or better than any other ancient literature. The bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a fable or an archetype or an inspirational symbol. It really happened.
In his stunning poem, “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” John Updike writes of the resurrection:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
Dear friends, today we are invited to walk through the door. As our psalm for today says, “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter it.” And, as we know, righteousness comes through faith in Christ. We are invited to walk through the door of faith. We are invited once again to believe. As Jesus said, “Do not doubt, but believe,” and “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” As John said, “These things were written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, and that through believing, you would have life in his name.”
May God’s Word today help you see what his all means, what this is all about. May the testimony of the disciples renew you in faith today, so that you would know the peace of Christ, so that you would join in the mission we share to proclaim forgiveness in Jesus’ name, so that you would confess with Thomas that Jesus is your Lord and your God, so that you would believe that he is truly risen from the dead — and that through believing you would have life in his name.
I can’t speak for the others, but that’s what THIS religion is all about.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church