Sermon for Easter 2C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
When you pick up your church newsletter, what’s the first thing you read? I go straight to the back, to the calendar because I want to know what’s going on. Every now and again I’ll notice a little box, usually on a Friday or Saturday, and in that box there’s a question, “Where will you be on Sunday?” Such a simple question, and yet it is an important one. Are you going to be in the place where God’s people are gathered together, where Christ bestows His peace, or are you going to be absent, on your own, away from where Christ promises to be?
On that first Easter night, Jesus’ disciples gathered together, except for Thomas. He was absent. Why he decided to join the gathering, we don’t know. Maybe he was extremely afraid of the Jews and didn’t want to risk being arrested. Or maybe he decided he was going to go back and pick up his old life, so why waste the time getting together. Or maybe he decided to give up. Jesus was dead, there was no reason to stick around. Whatever the reason or excuse, Thomas wasn’t there with his fellow disciples, even though that’s where he needed to be.
Without Thomas, the other 10 gathered together and locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews. The locked doors and windows may have been able to keep the Jewish authorities out, but it couldn’t keep Christ out. Miraculously, right in the middle of the room, Jesus appeared to His disciples. Imagine this, Jesus, their crucified Lord and Teacher, the man they abandoned at the cross, was now risen, back from the dead, standing in their midst. What thoughts must have been running through their heads? Was Jesus going to scold them? Was He going to chastise them for leaving Him, for denying Him, for not standing by Him in His darkest hour? The fear the disciples felt for the Jewish authorities must have been nothing compared to the fear they must have felt now, seeing the risen Jesus.
But Christ didn’t come to scold and chastise, He came to give peace. The very first thing that Jesus said was, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). These words weren’t an empty platitude or hollow encouragement. They were words spoken by the Almighty God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. They were performative words and did what they said. They gave peace to the 10 and abolished their fears. These words gave the disciples joy and gladness. Christ wasn’t there in anger, seeking vengeance. He was there to give His disciples peace, to quiet their fears, to forgive their sin.
And this is why Christ comes to us today in the Divine Service, to give you peace and forgiveness.
Like the disciples who came together on that night, we come together. Every Sunday we gather together as the community of believers; and like the disciples, we come with fears. We come with the fears of everyday normal life weighing on our minds and bodies. How am I going to overcome this illness? How am I going to get everything done at work and home? How am I going to take care of the kids while dad is deployed?
We come with the fears of faith troubling our souls. Like the disciples who feared the Jews, we’re afraid of others. We live in a world that is hostile to Christ and all those who believe in Him. We’re afraid of the persecution that might come to us, the persecution that our brothers and sisters in other countries are already suffering. We have no idea what’s going to happen to us, to our children, our grandchildren, or our great-grandchildren. Will there be a church for them to gather in?
We come with the fears of our sin, plaguing our consciences. Just a Peter was overcome with the guilt of his triple denial, we’re overcome with the guilt of our sins, sins we commit over and over and over again. Will God forgive me? Can He forgive me? Has my sin broken my family and friendships beyond repair? These fears can be terrifying, but they’re fears that Christ’s peace overcomes; peace that He graciously gives to us in His Word and Sacrament.
When we gather around God’s Word and Sacrament, our risen Lord comes into our midst. As His Word is read from the lectern, Jesus is present, speaking to you, telling you all that He’s done for you. As His Word is preached from the pulpit, Jesus is present, proclaiming His life, death, and resurrection for you, giving you faith in Him and in His cross. When you come to this altar, Jesus is most certainly present, feeding you the Holy Supper of His very body and blood, the same body and blood that was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the grave on Easter Sunday. With this eating and drinking, Christ strengthens your faith and gives you peace and forgiveness.
And that’s why it’s so important that we gather together as the Church, as the community of believers, because it’s in the Church that Christ comes to bestow His peace.
Thomas didn’t receive Christ’s peace that first Easter night. He neglected the gathering of the disciples. He wasn’t present where Christ was present, and because of this, he remained in his fears, doubts, and questions. He didn’t have his faith strengthened by the Lord’s peace. Whatever excuse Thomas had for skipping the gathering in that room, it kept him from witnessing His risen Lord and from receiving His grace.
This is what happens to us when we neglect the coming together of the saints. We’re very good at coming up with excuses for not coming to Church. The work week was very stressful and we need that extra couple hours of sleep on Sunday morning. The house is a disaster and the yard has grown into a forest, so we better skip church and take care of that stuff. We’re mad at the person who sits a few pews ahead of us, and we don’t want to see them. We’ve sinned just way too much this week and we think we’re not worthy to enter into God’s house. We make these excuses, and hundreds of others, and we can make them convincingly, but none of them are any good.
In fact, it’s precisely because of these excuses that we need to come together where Christ is, to receive His grace and forgiveness. When we hear God’s Word and partake in the Sacrament of the Altar, we’re refreshed after a long week. When we hear the Word, our focus is turned from the never-ending to-do lists of this earthly life to the everlasting life that we have in Christ. Being in church together with those we’ve argued with, confessing our sins together and receiving Christ’s absolution together enables us to forgive each other and share Christ’s peace with one another. Receiving Jesus’ body and blood into our mouths we receive the forgiveness of all or sin, no matter what we’ve done, and we’re made worthy to stand in God’s presence.
When Thomas finally joined the disciples eight days later, one week after Jesus rose from the grave, he received the much needed peace of Christ. Jesus again appeared to His disciples in the locked room and said, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:26). This peace was for all of them, including Thomas. Having received this peace, Thomas’ faith was strengthened and he believed in His risen Lord.
In our sin, we’re very skillful at making up all kinds of excuses for not coming to Church. But when we do this, we cause great harm to ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the body of Christ. When we neglect the gathering around Jesus’ Word and Sacrament, we neglect Him. We take ourselves away from the place where Jesus promises to be, the place where He graciously gives forgiveness and peace. We can’t afford to miss this! We need to be gathered with the rest of the faithful. We need the forgiveness and life that Jesus gives in His Word and Sacrament. We need to be in this room, to hear our risen Lord say, “Peace be with you.” In Jesus’ name...Amen.