The Marks of the Risen Savior

Sermon preached at Risen Savior Lutheran Church for the dedication of their new church and preschool building.

 Click here to listen to this sermon.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

This is a day that has been long in coming. A day for which many of you here have dreamed and prayed for over ten years—the dedication of your own church. It was my privilege to be with you for some of important milestones along the way, and I want to thank you for inviting Aimee and me to be here with you today.

From a human standpoint, it started out as a thought, a prayer, and a hope. Perhaps a church could be planted in Tea—a place and a people at which, in which, to which, and from which, the Gospel would be preached and taught. A small group of people started meeting for Bible study. After a while, that group, supported by the South Dakota District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod decided to start holding Sunday worship services. Trinity Lutheran Church of Hartford agreed to share the time and attention of their pastor.

As we met at the Tea Elementary School gymnasium in God’s presence at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, 2004 all of the basic body systems of the Church were present. We had an assembly of saints gathered around God’s Word and Sacraments. All that was left to do before being born was to grow and develop.

Nine months later, December 19, 2004, this congregation was received into membership in the South Dakota District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. You chose the name Risen Savior Lutheran Church, for the message of our Crucified and Risen Savior is the Good News that we have to share every Sunday. And so, it is quite fitting that you dedicate your new church building on this Second Sunday of Easter, a day in which we hear of our Risen Savior’s appearance to His disciples in the locked room on Easter evening and on the following Sunday.

Please listen to the Gospel assigned for this day, John 20:19-29, as we consider it under the theme: “The Marks of the Risen Savior.”

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them 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.”

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But He said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Poor Thomas! How would you like to be stuck for almost 2,000 years with a derogatory nickname? Simon Peter is “The Rock.” James and John are “The Sons of Thunder.” Thomas starts out as “The Twin” (Didymus), but ends up “Doubting Thomas. It seems rather unfair, doesn’t it? Peter denied Jesus three times. We don’t call him “Denying Peter.” Even the traitor Judas is not called “Betraying Judas.” So why does Thomas get stuck with the insulting name?

Now, I don’t deny that Thomas doubted. In fact, it would be more accurate to call him “Disbelieving Thomas” at that point. Jesus nearly does. But really Thomas was no different from any of the other disciples. They’d all scrambled like rats off a sinking ship on Good Friday. St. Luke tells us that when the Risen Savior appeared to the women at the “tomb they told all these things to the eleven and the rest…but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:9-11). Not one of the men, Thomas included, believed the women’s report of the Risen Savior.

That night the doubting disciples were huddled in a locked room. The Risen Savior was suddenly there in their midst. He declared peace to them and showed them the marks of His crucifixion on His hands and in His side. He breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit, and sent them out as apostles to preach His Word to forgive and retain sins. The disciples knew that Jesus is truly risen—body and all. They’d been in His presence. They’d seen Him and heard Him. He’d shown them the marks. And they were glad!

Unfortunately for Thomas, for one reason or another, he wasn’t there at the time. When the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas replied, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my find finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.” He demanded visible, tangible proof before he would even consider the possibility. Thomas was not just a doubter, he was mule-like in his stubbornness, a poster boy for skepticism. For Thomas seeing is believing.

We get pretty tough on Thomas. And rightly so. But Thomas did us a great service with his doubt, with his denial of the disciples’ testimony, with his demand of positive proof. How? Because, as St. Gregory puts it: “More does the doubt of Thomas help us believe, than the faith of the apostles who believed.” I thank God that Thomas doubted, for when he “touched the wounds in the flesh of his master, he healed in us the wounds of our unbelief” (quoted by Chad L. Bird in Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons).  

Thomas’ problem was pragmatism. He wanted tangible proof, something you can hold onto; or in this case, something you can put your hand or finger into—like one of those marks left by the nails or spear of the crucifixion. He had seen the blood drip and ooze and gush from Jesus body. He has seen the wooden cross stained crimson with Christ’s blood. He had seen the stone rolled in front of Jesus’ borrowed tomb. He has seen it all. And for Thomas, seeing is believing.

But Scripture makes it clear: seeing is not believing. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” says the writer to the Hebrews. Indeed, faith is often believing the opposite of what you see—for that’s the way God reveals Himself to us. God hides Himself. He wears a mask, a disguise if you will. Jesus looks like a mere man, lives like a common man, and dies like a notorious criminal. Yet faith says that while Jesus is truly man, He also God of God, very God of very God. Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, David’s son, yet David’s Lord.

Your life as a Christian is often the same way. You do your daily work, you sweat, you put up with hassles of overbearing bosses, unmotivated associates, rude customers, unruly students, where one day just as tedious as the day before. Yet faith says, “My labor is holy, divine work, for I am God’s instrument being used in service to my neighbor.” You get sick, you lose weight, you hurt, you cry, you wonder how long you can last through the latest trial or travail. Yet your faith says, “I am a blessed child of God, well pleasing to Him, and no matter what may happen to me here and now, I will live forever in Christ.”

No, believing is not seeing. To believe is to confess that God is where God seems not to be, but has promised to be. To believe is to confess that God is good when God seems to be bad because He has promised to work for your good and for all of those who love Him and have been called according to His purposes. To believe is to confess that what looks like “life” is really death, and what looks like “death” is really life. To believe is to confess that the reality is God hiding behind the exact opposite of what you see. That is faith!

And that is why faith is a gift. It has to be a gift… because you can’t do it! Like Thomas, you consider these things to be real: things that you can touch and see and experience. Things like a freshly dug grave at the cemetery; a bank account running on “E”; a child who just won’t listen; a spouse who no longer care enough to even argue; co-workers or fellow students who talk behind your back; friends who betray; a conscience that won’t let you get a full night’s sleep; an unfulfilling job; a sickness that saps your strength as it seems to grow stronger and more vicious each day. These are the things you consider real; as clear evidence that God is holding out on you; that He is angry with you; that He’s disappointed with you; that He doesn’t love you as much as He does others.

But such thoughts, though natural to Old Adam are unbelief—the most dangerous of sins. And the only way to get rid of them (or any other sin) is to repent. Repent of expecting God to conform to your warped standards and expectations. Repent of craving constant “proof” that God is on your side. Confess your own blindness, your self-interest, your ego, your woe-is-me attitude. Repent and beg God for the gift of true sight—the gift of faith—which sees that which is unseen, which finds life in death, which sees the love of God in Jesus Christ poured out on the cross and raised from the tomb for you.

That is why I thank God for Thomas, for Thomas was just as we are. Yet the Risen Savior didn’t wait for Thomas to get his act straight before He reached out to him. After eight days, Jesus returned to the disciples, and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus spoke directly to Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand and place it into My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

And that’s enough for Thomas. He’s seen the Risen Savior. Like a blind man reading Braille, he’s read the love-scarred marks on His body. But more than that, the Lord has spoken His Word to Thomas. And Thomas believes. He sees with the eyes of faith, and confesses that faith: “My Lord and my God!”

That is the way of our Risen Savior—the way of grace. He doesn’t abandon Thomas to drown in a sea of doubt; He stretches out His nail-scarred hands and pulls him in. And He does the same for you.

He takes your doubts and your fears and your shame and your bitterness and your death and He makes them His own. And He takes His faith and His hope and His life and His joy and His glory and He makes them your own. He doesn’t remove your outward troubles; He gives you something better: inward peace. He may leave in place your dysfunctional family, your disease, your addiction, your pain, your failure, but He will not leave in place a heart empty of peace. For that’s what He is all about: giving you peace. The kind of peace that knows that no matter how great your sin, Christ’s love is greater. The kind of peace that knows no matter how bad this world may get at times, any suffering here is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. That’s the kind of peace Christ gives: peace that passes understanding.

And where do you find this peace? Certainly not in your heart. For your heart is as easily fooled as your eyes. No, the Risen Savior points you once again to the marks of His body; in this case, His body the Church. His Church gathered here in this new building we dedicate today, and His Church gathered in various places around the world. Risen from the dead, the living Word-become-flesh speaks to you in His Word and tells you exactly where and how He comes to you.

This text is an excellent start, because here we are told how Jesus breathes on the disciples, sends them as His apostles, and tells them to forgive sins by speaking His Word. So, when you hear your pastor declare the Absolution, you can be certain that you are forgiven—as certain as if the Risen Savior was speaking the words to you Himself. Likewise, the Lord promises that He’s present with forgiveness in the waters of Holy Baptism. You only see water at the font, but the Lord declares that He shares His death and resurrection with you there so that you have forgiveness and eternal life. Similarly, the Lord declares that He is present in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion, giving you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

No, you don’t have His holey hands or pierced side to see and touch, but Christ is still truly present with you in His Word and Sacraments. May you always abide in these marks of the Risen Savior, for by them you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Part of this sermon is drawn from a sermon by Chad L. Bird found in his book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons.

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