April 11, 2010
Opening Divine Service for
Westgate Circuit Pastors’ Conference
. . that you may believe. . .
Grace, Mercy and Peace are yours from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
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 anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld."
The resurrection of Jesus was surprising to those disciples. Expecting only death, there before their eyes is Life, Himself.
Is it possible for us to recapture some of that surprise? So much of what we see goes the other way. We get used to seeing things and people pass away. We so rarely see things come to life. Every daffodil and crocus that blooms anew ought to give us a little happy surprise.
I have noticed an occupational hazard in that after a few years of doing what I do, death is no longer surprising. I get to expect it. It is no longer as shocking as it once was, to get that phone call, “Dear pastor, our sister has died”, or “Dear pastor, our brother has died.”
Once when we were young, death seemed so far away didn’t it? It was so rare for anyone to die. Our mothers and fathers, for instance, didn’t they seem immortal? Now time has taken its toll, sin seeks its wages from our very mortal parents and from us.
Jesus, all throughout His teaching to His disciples, had been defining for them what life really means. He had said, 8 or 9 chapters earlier, I am the Resurrection and the Life. That’s what life really is. Life, as Jesus taught them, meant being with the Lord of Life. Death is separation from the Lord. Hell is not only the suffering caused by fire, it is the anguish of being forever separated from God.
On the evening of the first Easter the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. They were afraid all hell was gonna break lose. Until He who is the resurrection and the life stood among them. “Peace”, he said. And all fear and all hell passed away.
Jesus says, I’ve got the keys to death and Hades. I’ll make sure you my loved ones, won’t have to worry about such things. You won’t have to hide from death and hell. Peace be with you.
And then see how Jesus ties forgiveness to all this. Our forgiveness and Our forgiving.
He tells his Apostles: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." And the Gospel of forgiveness and life is let loose on the whole world.
Because sin separates us from God, Jesus wants His church to preach repentance and forgiveness to stamp out sin and thereby bring God back to people and bring people back to God.
Because sin separates us from God, the Lord of life, Jesus wants His church to preach repentance and forgiveness to stamp out death, that horribly shocking result of sin, and bring life back to people and bring His people back to life.
Because sin separates us from God, it makes people feel guilty, awkward, uncomfortable around Him, Jesus wants His church to preach repentance and forgiveness to bring peace back to people and to bring His people back to peace.
And what about Thomas? Shall we ridicule him or admire him? Shall we point out his error or follow his pattern?
Thomas believed. Thank God. Echo what Thomas said when He thanked His God, Jesus, He said, “My Lord and my God!”
Some have believed all this about life and forgiveness and peace because it was told to them by angels.
Some have believed all this about life and forgiveness and peace because they simply remembered what Jesus said.
Some have believed all this about life and forgiveness and peace because they have seen Jesus with their eyes and touched Him with their hands.
Some have believed all this about life and forgiveness and peace because the evidence is so strong:
n No enemy of Jesus could produce the dead body
n The friends of Jesus, thousands of them, all gave their testimony to this miracle of resurrection and life
n No one can reasonably doubt their testimony, because why would so many lie about a thing like that? Why would so many of those first Christians even gladly face persecution and death for Jesus, if it was all a lie?
No matter how it was that they came to believe, by seeing, by touching, by hearing the testimony of men or angels – all who believe must reckon that they are blessed by God, called by the Holy Spirit and enlightened with His gifts.
We who are many and varied have one Spirit who gives rich and varied gifts to teach us God’s love, God’s forgiveness and God’s life.
Martin Luther said it this way, in what I think is a familiar paragraph of the Smalcald Articles:
“The Gospel does not give us counsel and aid against sin in only one way. God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world. Second, through Baptism. Third through the holy Sacament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, [As Jesus said,] “where two or three are gathered [in my name, there I am in the midst of them.]”
Now this is so much more than a trivial, memorable paragraph of a theological treatise. It is more than ammunition in our debates with those who have warped ideas about the office of the ministry or the way to worship, or whatever other pet peeve we are on at the moment.
This is the very lifeblood of the church.
This is what sustains us sinners, us guilty, dying sinners.
All this that Luther lists is for you, so that you may believe, and my believing you may have life in his name.
First the Word: Jesus had His Apostles write down what they had seen and heard, in a book so that their testimony would be preserved and published throughout the world and throughout the generations. Jesus told John, and the others in that apostolic band to write this stuff down, because e wanted you to read it, as though He Himself was preaching it.
Second, Baptism. Sins are washed away in forgiveness. Death is turned to life. Separation from God is no more, Life and peace remain.
Third the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Our participation in the body of Christ, dead and risen and alive and giving life. Our participation in the blood of Christ. Shed for forgiveness of sins served now as our celebratory drink of eternal life.
Fourth through the power of the keys, those powerful keys that Jesus gave to His disciples "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld." Let’s never take those powerful words lightly. That absolution and forgiveness proclaimed and dispersed is the very key that locks up Death and Hades and opens up Life and Heaven.
And Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, [As Jesus said,] “where two or three are gathered [in my name, there I am in the midst of them.]” Like the disciples on that first Easter, we still gather with each other, around our risen Lord.
Like the disciples on that first Easter, we still gather with each other and Hear what He has to say to us “Peace be with you.”
Conversation and Consolation of the brethren. Let the Alleluias of Easter fill our conversation. Let the Good news of resurrection, life, forgiveness and peace be our consolation to each other.