The First Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 19) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who went to the cross bearing our sin and guilt, and who now declares us innocent of all wrongdoing through His Word of absolution, dear fellow redeemed:
Sometimes our mistakes leave marks that are visible to others. A few years ago, an NFL player was playing with fireworks. One of them went off in his hand and caused extensive damage to his fingers. His injury is a constant reminder to himself and others of the mistake he made. But most of our mistakes, most of our sins, do not leave visible marks. Most of the time, we are able to cover up our sins, and no one ever knows about them but ourselves.
And as long as no one ever finds out, it’s like the sin never actually happened, right? This is what we tell ourselves. It starts when we see something we want. We make sure no one else is around. We check over our shoulders and check again. Then we indulge ourselves. The pattern is the same whether it is a child sneaking cookies, someone looking at explicit content on his smartphone, or an employee stealing things at work. “As long as I don’t get caught, then everything is okay.”
But of course everything is not okay. We might have been able to hide our sin from others, but we can’t hide it from ourselves. We see it. It plays over and over again in our mind. We wish we hadn’t done it, but we can’t take it back. We want to come clean, but we can’t bear the thought of other people knowing our deep flaws. How do we deal with these invisible scars? How do we deal with the guilt of our own sins? Today’s Gospel reading shows us the way forward.
We hear about a paralyzed man. We’re not told how he got that way. It could have been an accident that was totally out of his control. Or maybe it was because of reckless behavior. Whatever the cause, this young man had some dedicated friends. Four friends carried him on a bed to the house where Jesus was preaching, but they could not make their way inside. The crowd was too large. So they climbed up on the roof and removed enough of the clay roof tiles, so they could lower the paralyzed man before Jesus.
Imagine the scene: Jesus is preaching, and everyone’s attention is fixed on Him. Then there are footsteps above on the roof. Then pieces of dust and dirt and clay start showering down on people’s heads. Everyone looks up, probably Jesus too. Then blue sky, the room gets brighter, and heads peer down from a hole in the ceiling. Then a large object fills the space and is lowered down through the opening. What a scene!
Now put yourself in the place of the paralyzed man. You’re up pretty high. There’s nothing you can do but trust your friends to hang on and not drop you. You inch lower and lower, looking to see past the edge of your bed at the people in the room. And then Jesus comes in view. What is the look on His face? Is it irritation? Surprise? Anger? No, the look on His face is warm concern; it’s compassion.
What would you say to Jesus if you had His attention like this, looking Him right in the eye? What would you say if it were just the two of you with no one else around? We have rehearsed this before. When the troubles in our lives keep getting worse and nothing is going the way it should, we want to ask Him why. Doesn’t He see? Doesn’t He care? Why doesn’t He help? We wonder why He doesn’t take away our pain, make everything better. We think of all the things we would say to Him face-to-face if only we had the chance.
Perhaps it was the same for the paralyzed man. Maybe he wondered why he should have to suffer like this. Why him and not everyone else around him? But when the opportunity finally arrived, he said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. Jesus knew. He knew the hardships of this young man. He knew the deep concern of those who brought him. He knew what brought them to Him. “[W]hen Jesus saw their faith—the faith of the friends and of the man set before Him—“He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.’”
Is that what the man needed the most? It seems like what he needed most was physical healing. He needed to be able to walk again, so he would no longer be such a burden on his friends. But that was not his greatest need. We don’t know the young man’s history. We don’t know what troubles he had faced, what anguish he had felt, what guilt weighed down on him. If we knew about his past, maybe we would think he deserved his paralysis. Maybe we would think he should have neither spiritual nor physical relief.
But the Lord is ever merciful and gracious. He constantly gives the opposite of what is deserved. The times that we get angry with Jesus or question Him are the times that we think He is failing us. He is not giving us what we believe we deserve. That is dangerous territory. We are not entitled to anything from God. We don’t deserve anything good from Him. We deserve to be punished for our sins. We deserve eternal damnation.
But that is not what Jesus gives us. He lets us bring all our grievances to Him, and then He meets us not with anger or with annoyance. He meets us with absolution. He comes to us with grace. “Take heart, My child,” He says; “your sins are forgiven.” What sins of the paralyzed man did He forgive? The sins that only He could see, sins that we know nothing about. And what sins of yours does He forgive? Only the ones He can see.
Which sins are these? We ask that question in our Catechism. The answer is the sins that we commit in every area of our lives—the sins we commit as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, employers and employees; the sins of our disobedience, dishonesty, laziness; the sins of unkind speech and hurtful action; sins of neglect, wastefulness, and so on.
Many of these sins only you know about. Only you know the depth of your sinfulness, the darkness that clouds your love for God and neighbor. Only you know the extent of your selfishness, your pride, and your judgmental attitude toward others. But today’s reading shows that Another knows.
When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins, the scribes and Pharisees thought to themselves, “This man is blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins, and this man is not God!” They did not say this out loud. No one could have known what was in their hearts, no one except Jesus. “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’”
Just as He could see faith in the paralyzed man and his friends, so He could see sin and unbelief in the scribes and Pharisees. Nothing is hidden from Him. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jer. 23:24). The Lord sees. He sees all. That is terrifying. It means He knows all the sins that we have carefully tried to hide from others.
But this is also comforting. Because the Lord knows all my wrongs, I don’t have to try to hide them. I don’t have to carry my burden of guilt. I can own up to them, admit them. I can hand them over to Him. That’s exactly what we do when we confess our sins. We pull them out in the open. We bring them into the light. And we leave them there for Jesus to deal with.
And Jesus says, “I’ll gladly take them. I will take them away.” But He doesn’t take them somewhere and bury them where they might be found again and brought against us. He took your sins to Himself, and He erased them and all the evidence of them. The trail of evidence leading to your sinfulness goes to the cross, and it stops there. The evidence never points to you, because Jesus blotted out all evidence of your sinning with His holy blood.
On the cross, Jesus suffered only for the sins of yours that He knew about, only for the ones He could see. And He saw them all. He suffered and died for the sins you have never told another soul about. He suffered and died for the sins you have convinced yourself are unforgiveable. He forgives them. He paid for those sins.
When He looks at you, He does not see your sins anymore. He sees His dear child. He does not ask for anything. He does not seek payment or proof that you know how badly you messed up. He looks at you with mercy and compassion and says, “Your sins are forgiven! Rise up and go your way.”
This is the message that He has sent me, your pastor, to proclaim. The crowds were right to “[glorify] God, who had given such authority to men,” because He has. He has given His church the authority to forgive sins, and that forgiveness is announced publicly by your pastor. I have been around you long enough to see some of your sins, just as you have seen some of mine. But when I or the vicar speak the absolution, we speak the forgiveness of all sin, even the sins nobody else knows about.
Jesus knows your sins even better than you do, because He suffered in anguish paying for each and every one on the cross. The absolution that you hear today is a constant pointing to His sacrifice. And if His absolution does not settle the question in your mind about whether or not He forgives your sin, He also invites you to His table. There He places His own holy body and blood in your mouth, and He tells you what that faithful eating and drinking is for—“for the remission of your sins.”
You see your sins, but Jesus does not see them anymore. He forgives them.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who came as the Physician for the spiritually sick (Mt. 9:12), dear fellow redeemed:
The account of the healing of the paralytic is recorded in three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Both Mark and Luke offer the interesting detail that when the friends of the paralytic could not get into the house where Jesus was teaching, they opened up a hole in the roof. Then they let down their friend on his bed before Jesus. This would have been something to witness! If you were in the house, you would have wondered what was going on when pieces of the roof rained down, beams of light cut into the room, and faces peered down from above.
As striking as this experience must have been, Matthew says nothing about it. All he says is that some people brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. This shows us that how the paralytic was brought to Jesus is not the most important detail. The most important details are what happened when he was set before Jesus.
Now what was this young man’s most pressing need? No one could fail to see the sad condition he was in. He was paralyzed. He could not walk. Perhaps he could not even move his arms. The friends of this person went to the great trouble of hoisting him up on the roof and lowering him down before Jesus. What were they expecting Jesus to do? Jesus recognized the young man’s most pressing need. “Take heart, My son” He said; “your sins are forgiven.”
If you were in the position of the paralyzed man, would you have been disappointed about what Jesus said? Would you have been perplexed that Jesus seemed to ignore your paralysis? But the paralyzed man did not protest. Maybe his paralysis was not what troubled him the most.
Can you imagine a scenario in which no physical pain is worse than the spiritual turmoil of your heart and soul? What if this man struggled with serious depression and had lost the will to live? What if he had become paralyzed by doing something foolish, and he carried a great burden of guilt for his actions? What if he worried that God was punishing him for past sins by making him paralyzed? If any of these were true, he would have seen his paralysis as a symptom of a much deeper problem, a problem which seemed to have no solution.
But then Jesus spoke. His words brought calm to the inner sea of turmoil. It cast beams of healing light into the paralytic’s troubled heart. He was not yet able to rise from his bed, but his spirit was lifted up. He was comforted. How do we know Jesus’ Word had this effect? There was no change that could be observed in the paralytic, unless a once troubled countenance now showed signs of relief and peacefulness. The scribes, for their part, denied that the young man’s sins had been forgiven. They said within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7).
Their assumption was that Jesus was not God. That assumption was about to be challenged. Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” What is the answer? You and I can easily say both things, but we do not have the power to make either of them happen. Jesus has the power to do both, and He proved the power to give spiritual healing by giving physical healing.
As proof “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” Now if the man could not stand up, what would it mean? That his sins were not forgiven. But the second miracle was proof of the first. He did get up. His sins were forgiven. And all because of Jesus’ powerful Word.
We said earlier that Matthew did not include the detail of how the paralyzed man was brought before Jesus. But Matthew did include a detail that Mark and Luke did not. At the end of this account, Matthew wrote that the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” That is an interesting conclusion for the crowd to arrive at. Jesus proving that He could forgive sins made the crowd marvel that God “had given such authority to men.”
Until Jesus’ coming, there had never been a human being who could forgive sins. People could set broken bones and treat illnesses. They could help the poor and console the grieving. But of and by themselves they had no answer for spiritual distress. And they had no answer for “the wages of sin,” which is death (Rom. 6:23). But now here was a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, who had an answer not only for physical ills, but for spiritual ones. He had the authority to forgive sins.
Now if you are authorized to do something, you wouldn’t say the power is yours. Authority is granted to you by someone else. So if you are given the password to a company account, you receive it from someone above you. You are entrusted with what is theirs. Any authority we have in our vocations comes in this way. Even the authority parents have over their children is not something they produce by themselves. They are given authority. And who gives it? In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).
This is how it works also with the authority to forgive sins. After His resurrection, Jesus declared to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21,22-23). The authority Jesus received from His Father, He passed on to His disciples. He emphasized the same thing shortly before His ascension into heaven. He told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore” (Mt. 28:18-19).
Jesus makes it clear that the authority to forgive sins—something only God can do—is now put into the mouths of His disciples to declare. And that is something to wonder about! How could Jesus give something so sacred, so precious, so powerful as the authority to forgive sins to sinners? But that is what He does. Each of you as children of God has been given this authority. When your brother or sister in Christ sins against you and repents of the sin, you can say to them, “I forgive you, and God forgives you.” You can still forgive them even if they are not sorry—and it is important that you do. But the sins of the impenitent are not forgiven them by God “as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, Office of the Keys).
The Lord has also called certain men to stand in His place and declare the forgiveness of sins publicly. This is the chief responsibility of pastors. Their job is to forgive sins. They have no special power to do this because of who they are; pastors are sinners like everyone else. Their authority is given them by Jesus to speak His Word. The Word of absolution is powerful because it is from Jesus. This is why pastors preface the absolution with, “By the authority of God and of my holy office.” The forgiveness comes from God to the sinner through the Word.
It is a great comfort to know that Jesus’ absolution is available to us here and now. You may be troubled by a certain sin that you have never told anyone about. You may be filled with passions and desires that you know are against God’s Commandments. You may be tempted to look at things you know you shouldn’t, or to listen to things that attack your faith. Maybe you give the impression on the outside that everything is fine, while on the inside you are full of spiritual turmoil.
You do not need to carry these burdens. The Lord knows your struggle. He knows what you need the most. He says to you, “Take heart, My [child]; your sins are forgiven.” He can forgive your sins because on the cross He made full atonement for them, every one. The scales of justice were balanced by Jesus offering up Himself in payment for your sins.
But you may struggle to believe that even your great sins are forgiven. “How could God forgive this?!?” you wonder. You feel ashamed. You come to church, but you do not let yourself be comforted by the absolution. You go to Communion, but you feel just as troubled as before. In times like these, I encourage you to make an appointment with your pastor. One of my duties as your spiritual shepherd is to apply God’s Word to your specific situation, to your specific troubles and pain.
No one likes the thought of exposing their sins to others. But there is a certain relief in uncovering sins long hidden. You don’t need to try to keep buried anymore what your conscience keeps digging up. The way to be freed of your hidden sins and hidden hurts is through confession and absolution. If you confess your sins privately to your pastor, he is bound to keep that confession secret for the rest of your lives. He hears your confession of sin as God hears it, and your pastor never brings it up again to others just as God never brings it up again.
The healing absolution of Jesus, the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins and peace with God, is God’s powerful Healing for Hidden Hurts. Some of those hurts are self-inflicted, and some are inflicted by others. The hurts inflicted by others can cause you to be consumed by anger and even hatred, which can cause great spiritual harm. But through confession and absolution, all these things are left with Jesus at the cross. He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4), and in place of these burdens, He gives His eternal rest and gladness.
So bring your sins before Jesus with humble hearts and believe the soul-cleansing Word which He declares to you: “Your sins are forgiven!”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who died and rose again to secure for us forgiveness and peace with God, dear fellow redeemed:
For nearly three years, 12 select men accompanied Jesus as He traveled through Galilee, Judea, and the surrounding areas. They were not His bodyguards. They were not His support staff. They were His disciples. Every day they listened to His teaching and witnessed His frequent miracles. They developed a strong bond with Him. He was a leader like no other. They enjoyed the renown of being specially chosen by Him, but they also felt the hostility of those who rejected Him.
They resolved to stay with Him to the death. When Jesus decided to go to Judea not long before His crucifixion, Thomas declared to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). Peter spoke with this same confidence just before Jesus was arrested. He said that even if the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he never would. “Even if I must die with you,” he boasted, “I will not deny you!” The other disciples agreed (Mt. 26:35).
But Peter did deny Jesus, and the rest of the disciples abandoned Him. Three years together, and they left Him to be bound and put on trial like a criminal. As far as we know, only John was present at Golgotha where Jesus was crucified. Judas Iscariot had hanged himself earlier that morning after betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities. The other disciples were keeping a low profile “for fear of the Jews.” Would they be the next targets of the jealous rage of the religious leaders? Would the death penalty be urged in their case too? As Jesus rested in a dark tomb, they cowered in the darkness of their habitation with the doors locked tight.
But then reports began to come in on Sunday morning: Some women found the tomb open! Two angels told them Jesus had risen! Peter and John investigated the tomb and found no one there! Mary Magdalene reported actually talking with Jesus! Two men said they conversed with Him on the road to Emmaus! Could it be? Had Jesus actually come back from the dead?
Then suddenly Jesus appeared to the disciples in the middle of their tightly secured place. “Peace be with you,” He said, and “He showed them His hands and His side.” This is the first the disciples as a group had seen or heard from Jesus since leaving Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Their relief must have been two-fold: Jesus has risen from the dead, and He is not angry with us! This was wonderful news!
The problem was that one of the remaining eleven disciples was not present at the time. Thomas had stepped out on some errand or another. When he got back, his friends told him everything that had happened, but to him it seemed too good to be true. His fellow disciples kept telling him, “We have seen the Lord,” but he wanted the proof they had gotten. He wanted to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side that they claimed to have seen.
Why do you suppose Thomas was so stubborn about this? How many eyewitnesses had reported seeing the Lord? Did they lack all credibility? Were they liars? Were they just imagining things? Remember that Thomas had followed Jesus those three years just like the other disciples had. So why would Jesus appear to everyone else but him? Why should he be singled out? He did not think he was less important than the others. If Jesus was angry with him, He should be just as angry with them. Thomas didn’t deserve this!
All of us have had “why me?” moments like this. Why does everyone else seem to have close friends, while I get picked on? Why do they seem to be blessed with so much, while I have to scrape by? Why do others have a happy home life, while mine is a constant struggle? Why do they have good health, while I have constant aches and pains? Why are they rewarded for poor work, while my good efforts are ignored? Why me? Why doesn’t God bless me? What about Me?
Like stubborn Thomas, we focus on blessings we do not have, rather than the ones we do. We play the idea over and over again in our minds that we deserve better, we deserve more. We think we have done nothing to earn God’s anger—at least not more than a thousand others we could name. So why should they prosper while we suffer? And this is how we start to think of God as our enemy instead of our compassionate Savior.
Do you think Jesus regretted visiting the disciples when He did that Easter evening, when Thomas was not there? Did He take stock of the people in the room and wish He had chosen a different time? Jesus did not make a mistake. He never does. He knew Thomas was not there. He knows everything. He knew what Thomas had been saying to his friends all week. When Jesus appeared to the group the second time, He looked Thomas in the eye and said, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Then Thomas saw how foolish he had been. Of course Jesus had risen. Of course his friends were telling the truth. He now realized that he had failed to honor his Lord in the best way possible, which was to believe His word.
Jesus was not punishing Thomas by first appearing when he was gone. He was giving Thomas an opportunity to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7). Would Thomas believe what Jesus had promised, even if there were no external proof? Thomas showed what little regard he had for Jesus’ words. He expected proof on his terms! Jesus gently admonished him and called him to repentance for this, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Those words were not just for Thomas. They are for you and me: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Being a disciple of Jesus means trusting Him even when He seems to be ignoring you or punishing you or even playing favorites. He does not love and care for others more than He loves and cares for you. You are no afterthought to Him. “God shows no partiality” (Gal. 2:6).
So why do others receive blessings, when you, like Thomas, seem to be left out in the cold? It is not for us to know why one person is burdened by extra cares and troubles while another is generally happy and content. It is not that one necessarily has a stronger faith than the other. It is not that God is punishing one and not the other. Just as we do not know why the Lord tested Thomas as opposed to a different disciple, so we do not know why particular tests and trials come our way.
But we can be certain than none of these tests and trials are sent by God to push us away from Him. They are intended to bring us closer. He promises to work all things together for good for those who love Him, who put their trust in Him (Rom. 8:28). In other words, it should not concern us that others appear to be happier, more successful, or stronger. How things appear may not actually be how they are. They will have what God in His wisdom chooses to give them, and we will have the things that He determines are right for us.
His purpose is not to give us everything we want in this life, or even everything we pray for. We do not always want the right things. His purpose is to save us—to give us peace, His peace, “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). This is what the disciples needed, and this is what He gave them. They had rejected Him, run from Him, and sinned against Him, but He had not rejected them. “Peace be with you,” He said. “I am not angry. We are at peace. This is what I came to do. I came to bring peace by the shedding of My blood and to declare this peace for the world by My resurrection.”
Jesus is also at peace with you. He has not forgotten about you and the troubles you have. Just as He was fully aware of Thomas’ struggles, so He is fully aware of yours. And just as He came with the blessing of peace to Thomas, so He comes to you. Even though you feel shut off from all help with the doors and windows locked tight, Jesus comes into your very midst. He does not come visibly showing you His hands and side; He comes through the means in which He has promised to be present.
He comes through His word of absolution spoken by His representative, your pastor. The disciples were the first of His representatives to whom He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In the same way, when I speak that forgiveness to you in church or in private confession, it is just as powerful and sure as if Jesus appeared before you and said it Himself. He does not need to be visibly present for His word to be true. He did not need to present Himself to Thomas for His resurrection to be true. He had risen whether Thomas believed it or not. In the same way, He has won forgiveness for all people whether they believe it or not.
Jesus also comes to you through His holy Sacraments. When the sinner is baptized at the font, He is there anointing the baptized with His righteousness and peace. When baptized believers later approach the Communion rail, He offers His own body and blood to give them—to put right in their mouths—the peace of sins forgiven. You cannot see His presence. But you can hear His voice, a voice which says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
You are blessed to have this faith in the world’s Savior. He came for you. He gave up His life for you. And He rose from the dead for your victory. What further proof of His love could anyone ask for?
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(painting is portion of “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who preaches peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near (Eph. 2:17), dear fellow redeemed:
If you asked a child or a sibling or a friend not to do something, and then they went ahead and did it right in front of you, how would you respond? You would probably like to be able to stay calm and level-headed in such a circumstance, but you may find that your temper gets the best of you. The disobedient action often results in an equal and opposite reaction. And the offender would have to see this coming. He or she would expect consequences for their bad behavior.
What they would not expect is if you came up to them and said, “I am not angry with you at all. I forgive you, and I love you. We are at peace!”? Can you imagine how wide-eyed that person would be? The consequence that was deserved and expected does not come about. This is essentially how Jesus dealt with His disciples on Easter Sunday.
You will recall Jesus’ warning to them the night before His death, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mt. 26:31-32). Peter and the other disciples said that they would sooner die than deny Jesus (v. 35). Later that evening, Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to watch with Him in the garden, but they all fell asleep (vv. 38-45). Not long after, when soldiers came to arrest Jesus, “all the disciples left him and fled” (v. 56). Peter and John mustered some courage and entered the courtyard of the high priest to see what would become of Jesus. There, Peter explicitly denied three times that he even knew Jesus, the One whom he had accompanied for three years.
On the third day after His suffering and death, Jesus rose again and left the tomb. He appeared to some women who had come to anoint His dead body. He said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Mt. 28:10). Jesus had every right to be angry with His weak disciples, but there is no hint of that in His words. He even called them His brothers!
The women conveyed Jesus’ message to the disciples, but we are told that “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Lk. 24:11). Even more reason for Jesus to be irritated with them! But then what are the first words He spoke to them when He appeared in the place where they were hiding? He said, “Peace be with you!” Think of how they had contradicted Him, and told Him they would never fall away. Then they did fall away. They acted like they did not know Him. They hid.
And Jesus spoke peace. This is unexpected. We assume there should be judgment, harsh words, a clear consequence. He did rebuke their unbelief (Mk. 16:14). He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Lk. 24:38). But His primary message to them was peace. Jesus was not finished with His disciples. He had big plans for these men. They hardly seemed the right candidates for His work. They were so weak, so filled with fear. This is why Jesus came to them with a gentle word of peace. He wanted them to know that He would not count their faithlessness against them, and that He was not bitter toward them.
When Jesus spoke peace to them, He was not expressing a wish or simply trying to cheer them up. He was giving them peace. What He says, He delivers. He declared to them the powerful Word of comfort that God would not punish them for their sins. Peace had been made between God and man by Jesus’ death on the cross. His resurrection was God the Father’s stamp of approval on His saving work. Peace was theirs both now and forever. But it was not theirs only.
Jesus said again to His disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (v. 21). What He was sending them to do, He also made clear. He breathed on His disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (vv. 22-23). Jesus gave the authority to forgive or not to forgive sins to His Church, beginning with His apostles. He wanted the peace of His death and resurrection, the peace of sins forgiven, to be declared to generation after generation from that time forward.
The first mission prospect of the disciples was Thomas, one of the Twelve who was not present when Jesus appeared. What did they tell him? They said, “We have seen the Lord!” In other words, “The Lord is risen! He is victorious over death and the grave! He has won peace for us with God!” But Thomas would not believe it without physical proof. He needed to see and touch the marks from the nails and spear. He would settle for nothing less. How stubborn he was! The report of one disciple may have been dismissed as a dream. But by that time, the women claimed to have seen and talked with Jesus, as did the two disciples from Emmaus, as did Peter and James and John and all the rest.
But Thomas’ stubbornness is not so hard to understand. You and I have had our share of doubts too. Like Thomas, we have wondered if Jesus could really be present. When we are struggling and the difficulties of life are piling up, it certainly seems as though we are alone with no one to care for and help us. We cannot feel the presence of Jesus. We imagine that wherever God is, He must not have time for our problems. And sometimes we also demand proof from God beyond His promises, as Thomas did.
But God has nothing to prove to us, any more than He had anything to prove to Thomas. He did appear to Thomas about a week later, but it was with a firm rebuke for his unbelief. He said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29). Even so, He still commissioned Thomas as He had the other disciples to spread the Gospel message of His death and resurrection for the salvation of all.
This is a shocking message to the world, and we know why. The idea seems too far-fetched that God could be at peace with me after all the sins I have racked up, all the occasions I put my needs above everyone else’s, all the time I spent thinking I knew best. The disciples were that way too. No matter how often and how clearly Jesus said it, they did not believe He would rise from the dead. At heart, you and I are the same as every human being. We want a god of our own making, one who does not require us to wrestle against our own fallen nature, one who does what we think he should do. But the god we want is not the God that is.
The true God loves us, and because He loves us, He is not content to let us stay secure in our sins. God the Father sent His only Son to take on our flesh and join us in our weakness. Jesus came to make peace, but not by a treaty and not by striking a deal with sinners. Peace with a perfectly just God required holy blood shed on man’s behalf. Jesus supplied that for you and me. He made peace for us with God.
That is a peace we need to hear about often. We need to hear it often because we continue to sin. We have a hard time forgiving others. We do exactly what God says we should not do. We are like that child or sibling or friend who hears what was expected of them, and then does the exact opposite. This is why God established the office of pastor.
The authority to forgive or not to forgive sins belongs to the whole Church, to every single believer in Jesus. That means you are qualified to extend forgiveness to anyone who sins against you. But it is not your calling to preach, to baptize, and to administer the Lord’s Supper. It is my calling to do these things publicly on behalf of the church. I have been called to dispense and administer the gifts of Jesus to anyone who repents of sin and trusts the promises of God.
And so Sunday after Sunday I forgive your sins. God knows you need to hear this. And it is not just a reminder. When I speak God’s Word of forgiveness, you actually are forgiven, right then and there. Any and every sin you brought with you to church is blotted out before God through that Word of forgiveness. No matter how you have sinned against Him in the past—like that long list of sins the disciples committed against Jesus—all of that is forgiven and forgotten in Jesus’ word of peace.
This realization of what God does for you may be almost as shocking as Jesus suddenly appearing to His disciples in that closed room. But Jesus was there declaring peace just as surely as He is here declaring peace. If the Lord did not want you to be comforted, there would be no pastor saying His words to you. There would be no Sacraments where His grace is dispensed. There would be no Bible to turn to again and again to read and review. But you do have all these things. You know who Jesus died and rose again for. It was for you, even weak, sinful you.
Your Father in heaven does not give you what you expect. He does not give you what you deserve. He gives you Jesus, and Jesus gives you salvation. Jesus Speaks Peace to the Weak. You are weak by nature, but you are strong in Christ, and that is the only strength that matters. Peace be with you! Your sins are all forgiven in Him!
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