Coming through Closed Doors, Hearts, and Minds
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 20:19-31, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have some discouraging news for you on the religious front. A study released by Rasmussen Reports on Good Friday found that 64% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That is down significantly from only a year ago when Rasmussen released a poll finding that 77% of Americans believed the resurrection to be a historical fact. A staggering 13 point drop!
Now, polls can be misleading, but you have to admit those numbers are discouraging. But not near as discouraging as it would have been on that first Easter. You see, the 64% of Americans who reportedly believe in the resurrection in 2013 is 64 percentage points higher than the total number who believed in Jesus’ resurrection on Good Friday in 33 A.D. No one believed it! And that includes all of Jesus’ disciples, who were huddled together behind locked doors.
It is very easy to become discouraged. Pastors know that, especially when it seems their hearers do not take seriously the message they preach. Far too many people despise preaching and God’s Word rather than hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Others, like those who opposed Peter and the apostles in our First Lesson, hear the Word, but reject it because it doesn’t fit their own preconceived notions or personal agendas. Sadly, all of them are shutting their hearts and minds to the Gospel and are in danger of losing their salvation.
Parents also know this kind of discouragement. You faithfully raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. They grow up, and rather than embrace that faith, they begin expressing an increasingly indifferent or negative attitude toward God’s Word.
Perhaps you feel discouraged as you come here today. Worship always seems like “the same old thing.” You wonder if you’re really getting what you need in order to grow in faith. Or maybe, you look at your life, how you seem to fall into the same sins day after day, and you wonder why you don’t see much improvement. You might struggle with doubt, like Thomas, wondering if all this stuff is really true. The rest of the world seems to be getting along fine—or at least just as good as you are—without it. Perhaps the circumstances of your life have so beaten you down, that you’ve begun to wonder if there really is a God. Or if there is a God, if He is powerful enough or cares enough about you to help you.
Or maybe you’re concerned about some of your fellow Christians who are no longer joining us in worship. You wonder if we did something to offend them, if there is something we could do to draw them back. You look around on Sunday mornings and see all the empty pews and you wonder just how long this little church of yours will be able to stay open.
The truth is we all feel discouraged from time to time. We all have doubts. Doubt and discouragement—these are results of sin. The sinful nature that we were each born with. Specific sins in our own lives. The effects of the sinful actions of others. And the fiery darts aimed at us by Satan. As the disciples gathered together that first Easter, they faced these same things. They hid behind locked doors, filled with fear, inundated with doubt and discouragement.
But there is One who removes fear and doubt and discouragement with His Word of peace—Jesus Christ! We don’t know much about His resurrected body, but we do know that Jesus left a sealed tomb with even the grave clothes intact. Now, He appears inside a locked room. Jesus’ resurrected body is not hampered by time, space, the rock of the tomb, or the walls and the doors of a building. This is very Good News to us who receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion—the risen Christ is able to be present anywhere at any time He chooses.
Because they had abandoned the Lord on Good Friday, the disciples may well have expected rebuke; but Jesus calmed their fears. “Peace be with you!” He said. Then He showed them His hands and side—the marks of the nails and the spear. Jesus clearly identified Himself as being there in true flesh and blood. He is not a ghost, but fully human with the same body they had seen so often. This gives us an important understanding of our own resurrection: not just our souls, but also our very same bodies will live forever with the Lord. With Jesus’ presence and comforting Word, the fear evaporated, the discouragement and doubt melted away. Jesus’ disciples knew that He was alive and they rejoiced.
Reemphasizing that peace He brings, Jesus prepared His followers to expand His church after His ascension. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” Jesus’ followers would carry on His work of salvation, bringing the world the message of peace and forgiveness Jesus earned on the cross.
Jesus further explained how this work would be carried out in His name: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’” The Church has called this authority the Office of the Keys because this action either unlocks or locks the way to eternal life. It works because Jesus did His work and gives His disciples the authority to carry it out in Jesus’ name.
Have you ever stopped to consider what a wonderful gift this Office of the Keys is for those who doubt or are discouraged? By His words and works, Jesus provides you with certainty that your sins are forgiven and the gates of heaven are unlocked and open to you. In Holy Baptism, God sealed you with His triune name and made you His child. In the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ gives you forgiveness you can taste and touch and smell and see. By giving the keys to the Church, Christ provides a way for you to hear His words of forgiveness in your own ears so you may know for certain that all your sins are forgiven.
Unfortunately, many churches do not correctly understand this wonderful gift of the Office of the Keys, and fail to appreciate it. Most Evangelical churches rarely, if ever, mention the keys. They consider confession useful only for counseling, but not for the remission of sins. Sadly, they stumble on the same stone the Jews did in Luke 5:21. They insist only God can forgive sins, missing Jesus’ promise to continue forgiving sins through His Church.
Many churches have removed the confession and absolution so that they do not offend visitors. After all, it makes people uncomfortable to say we are poor miserable sinners deserving God’s punishment. Instead of using Christ’s Sacraments and His keys, these churches direct people to live a life of obedience to the Law, which they believe gives evidence of faith, thereby assuring salvation. The worst thing about this false teaching is that no one can ever be certain if he has done enough to please God.
Other churches attempt to use the keys. They pronounce forgiveness to penitent sinners, but then add an extra step beyond Jesus’ instruction. Instead of receiving the pure Absolution of Jesus, sinners are told they must do “something more to make amends for the sin”—they must do penance. Sadly, this mixing of the Gospel of forgiveness with the Law of works will lead sinners to uncertainty and cause them to focus on their own actions.
The need for certainty is why Christ has given His Church the Office of the Keys. Luther’s Small Catechism explains: “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive Absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” This doctrine allows pastors to say boldly, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are keys—unlocking the one who hears them from the prison of sin, and opening the door to heaven itself. And because it does not depend on you, but Christ, it frees you from doubt and discouragement.
Now, I’m not trying to pick on any particular church. We Lutherans don’t have much to brag about, either. Though, by God’s grace, we have the correct Biblical understanding of the Office of the Keys, we often fail to administer them correctly. Though we rightly do not insist that everyone must go to private confession or do penance, far too many of us neglect the blessing of individual confession and absolution. We also often fail to carry through on administering church discipline. When Jesus gave to His church His keys, He commanded not only to forgive sins, but also to retain or bind sin. Luther explains: “For ‘the key which binds,’ indeed, is nothing but a divine threat with which God threatens the hardened sinner with hell” (LW, vol. 13, p. 329).
What is a “hardened sinner”? Some people may believe “hardened sinners” are those who are in prison. But most hardened sinners are not in prisons with bars; they have imprisoned themselves away from the means of grace. All people struggle with sin and fail daily. To remain free, Christians need to receive Christ and His Word of peace. Those who begin to drift away from the body of Christ, finally drift so far away that they no longer have a desire for Christ and His Word. This is how the devil gradually and deceitfully “hardens” their heart.
Pastors should constantly evaluate their ministry and ask: “Am I proclaiming the clear Absolution of Christ in worship services? Am I carefully watching members of the flock when the devil tries to tempt them and to harden their hearts?” Please note: This is not just the responsibility of the pastor or elders. Each member of Christ’s church should be fully concerned about every other member so that the devil cannot lead them into doubt or despair.
When you see another member going astray you should first go to him privately, gently. Understand, when you first contact him, he—like Jesus’ disciples on Easter evening—may be expecting a rebuke. Certainly there are times when that might be necessary, but generally you have to first let him know that you love him, that you care for him. Remind him of the forgiveness Christ has available for repentant sinners in His Word and Sacraments. If patient and loving admonition and encouragement fails it may be necessary remove him from the congregation. But, if after hearing the whole counsel of God, the person sees his erring ways and repents, the unconditional, life-saving Gospel needs to be spoken clearly to him. Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven.” When these words are repeated in His name and by His command, there is no room for doubt. You have won a brother back! Even the angels in heaven rejoice!
This sounds so overwhelming. And believe me it is not easy. In fact, it is impossible for you and me to accomplish these things. But we are not called to results. God’s Word will bring the results. We’re called to faithfulness. Where we have failed to be faithful, we need to repent, receive forgiveness, and, in so far as possible, make right our wrong. As we lovingly reach out to our straying brother, we find confidence knowing that it is Christ who gives us His authority and power to forgive and retain sins. And He gives us God’s Word to do so.
Incidentally, this is why God’s Word is the focus of our worship, rather than the innovations of man. We follow the historic liturgy because it is drawn directly from God’s Word and points us to the forgiveness earned by Christ on the cross. We sing hymns from the hymnal not because of some old-fashioned tradition, but because when we sing these Gospel-based hymns we can be certain we are proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness. We have a high view of the Sacraments for we believe that through these means of grace, God grants us His certain forgiveness.
Discouraged pastors can take heart from our text. Just as He was able to appear to His disciples through closed and locked doors, Christ and His Word are more than able to pass through any closed hearts and minds. God opens hearts to believe the Gospel. Through the power of preaching the Word Christ miraculously enters hearts and minds that were once closed, locked, and barred by sin and doubt.
This text is Good News for parents, too! When you feel frustrated or afraid concerning your children’s reactions to the Word, rejoice at the miracle of Easter evening! Just as Christ miraculously entered the locked Upper Room, He is also able to pass through the seemingly closed doors of your children’s hearts and minds. When the living Word of the living Christ is spoken to them, it goes to work in their hearts and minds, forming Christ in them.
Parishioners, when you notice one of your brothers or sisters is missing, reach out to them in love with the peace of the Lord. Invite them, encourage them, and pray for them, confident that God’s Word opens hearts and minds.
When you become discouraged with worship, remember that “the same old thing” can be a good thing if it is the right thing. Can you imagine ever getting tired of a loved one telling you, “I love you”? Isn’t that what the Lord is doing through the Office of the Keys? “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “I love you. You are mine. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.