Sermon for Easter 2B, preached on Sunday, April 8, 2018.
We usually take this Sunday to heap scorn upon Thomas the Doubter. He was deliberately absent when the Lord gathered with His disciples. What could be more important than the fellowship of those who had been called by Jesus, seen Him die and then heard the reports of His resurrection? But this year we will not dump on Thomas but rather admit that Thomas and the rest of the eleven were sorry candidates for anything – much less that which our Confessions call the highest office on earth. But that is exactly what happened on the evening of that day, the first day of the week on the day when our Lord rose from the dead. The Lord looked upon the sad state of His disciples and ordained them as pastors and sent them forth with the peculiar power of the Keys.
Mary Magdalene had found the grave open and led Simon Peter and John to see where Jesus had been laid. She had heard the voice of Jesus speak her name and she had told the eleven that she had seen the Lord. And what was the result? They came together not as a people confident of victory awaiting the triumphant Lord. No, they came as the fearful, hiding behind locked doors. These who had heard that Jesus had overcome the chains of death were now huddled in fear of the Jews. Why would we expect more of Thomas than we saw in the eleven? It was a sorry lot of fearful fools useless to anyone but Jesus.
Yet the Lord came to them through the locked doors to speak to them the peace of victory death could not steal. In their disbelief He showed them His hands and His side. They were glad when they saw Him but not so glad that they would keep the doors unlocked next week when Thomas was finally among them. You and I might have left them to their fears and given up on them – but not Jesus. He has a future for these fearful disciples. He has elected them by grace to an office none of them merited and none of them even wanted. They were disciples but tonight they would become pastors and Jesus would confer on them the authority to forgive the sins of the penitent and retain the sins of the impenitent.
“As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you,” said Jesus. Disciples become apostles or sent ones, with a mission and a purpose. It is a gift and a responsibility. Perhaps they were wise to fear. For what could they do? They could not even remain with Jesus through to the end. Instead they scattered in fear that they might be next. Those who occupy the office of the ministry are not holy men who are the best of humanity but simply those whom our Lord calls and those to whom He confers the office of the keys. It is an awesome mystery to those who have been ordained and to those to whom they have been sent.
When He has said this, Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit. They did not in that moment become strong or wise or mighty. In fact, all throughout the Easter season they show forth their unworthiness by being timid and fearful. Even to His ascension our Lord has to teach them to desire the truth, to know the truth, and to speak the truth to a world in lies.
It was an ordination. The Spirit was breathed and the office conferred. You saw it here almost three years ago when a young man fresh from seminary came among us to be set apart by the Lord of the Church, to be addressed as Pastor, to absolve the sinner, and to speak the Gospel to those who know it not. The setting was different but the ordination was the same.
And then our Lord conferred the authority of the office. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold the forgiveness from anyone it is withheld.” You may think that the ministry is about loving people or helping them but it is not. It is about meeting sinners who come hanging their heads in shame with the voice of Christ speaking through ordinary men the extraordinary voice of absolution. You may think that pastors exist to make us feel better about ourselves when we screw up, help us fix things when we do wrong, and feel better about life’s troubles when we hurt or grieve or doubt. You are wrong. It is about sins forgiven. The center of all ministry is the forgiveness of sins.
The questions and answers our Catechism adds to Luther’s words do not speak the whole truth when they that Lutherans confess two sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. For Luther and for our Confessions we not only admit that it can be but joyfully proclaim that absolution IS a sacrament. So the Small Catechism says “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself [directly].” According to Luther in the Large Catechism, absolution is the heart of the New Testament.
Yet we live in an age when other things come to mind when we think of pastors and what they do before confession and absolution. On the night when our Lord was betrayed, the very last thing that Jesus institutes is the Sacrament of the Altar. He gathers with His disciples in the Upper Room to distribute bread which is His body and wine which is His blood. We confess that this is so precious that we keep the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day and every other day when people request it. Yet it must be noted that the very first word that Jesus speaks to His disciples after His resurrection is to establish the pastoral ministry and to equip that ministry with the office of the keys to forgive the sins of the contrite and to retain the sins of those who are not. And the center of this Supper is also that forgiveness of sins.
The office and power of the keys is not personal. It is not given to the pastor for himself but on behalf of the faithful, on behalf of the Church. Yet the heart of the New Testament and the core and center of our faith is this precious meeting of the sinner before the agent of Christ who has the power to absolve that sinner and give them the gift of a clear conscience. We live by the power of this absolution. And it is for this faith and for this gift that Christ looked at the sorry band of men whom He had called, of whom He lost only one, and call them pastors, send them forth in His name, and bestow upon them the authority of the cross to absolve the sinner and restore the fallen.
In the early Church the book of Acts records how this gift was so precious to the people of God that they were of one heart and soul and had everything in common. Whatever they had was sold and all that they had was laid at the apostles’s feet. This was not because they esteemed these men more worthy than themselves or considered them to be without fault or sin. No, it was because once they had experienced the greatest treasure of absolution, nothing in their lives had the same value again. So profound was their appreciation for the forgiveness of their sins that they could not claim anything as their own or go back to the old way of living. Everything had to change.
The reality is today that we do not esteem forgiveness highly because we do not think of sin as being so terrible. Death comes from illness or accident or old age -- not from sin. As long as we are all equally sinners, we play the game of not mentioning those faults, assuming that what we do not talk about does not exist. Or worse, we simply redefine sin so that what we think or say or do is no longer wrong in our eyes. Aall because we presume what God cares about most is our happiness, not our holiness.
This stands in stark contrast to Easter evening when Jesus entered through a locked door to a room of fearful disciples in order to inaugurate the new order created by His resurrection. There our Lord set apart by His Word and Spirit an oddball assortment of sinful men and called them pastors and conferred upon them the authority of the Gospel to forgive sins. It was the beginning of the ministry that still remains. Unworthy men like me and Pastor Ulrich are set apart with the Word and Spirit and conferred with the authority of the Gospel to forgive the sins of the penitent and retain the sins of the unrepentant. This is not on the fringes of the faith but the heart of the New Testament and the way the Gospel works in us.
In your homes the same forgiveness is central. You have been called to forgive one another as our Lord has forgiven you through the office of pastor. In this consolation of the brethren, we take sin seriously and we answer its power with the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin. If you confess your sins to a pastor and he tells you it is not so bad or it is okay, just try harder, run from that man. For he is no pastor. Sin is what caused our Lord to take flesh and blood, to suffer and die, and for sin He rose and established His Church and pastors to forgive in His name the guilty who repent. And in your homes do not answer sin by saying “that’s okay” or “Its not so bad.” There is only one way to answer sin. “I forgive you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Where sinners meet this Word of Christ, lives are rescued and the dead reborn and Easter’s power reigns.
Do not doubt but believe. Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!