The sermon that I’m posting this weekend is one that I preached in April of 2001 on the Sunday after Easter. At the time, I was in my final year of studies at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. I was preaching at a WELS congregation in the Wausau, Wisconsin area, where my wife’s entire extended family was gathered for her grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. The extended family probably accounted for half the church at the late service (that might be pushing it, but it was still quite a good chunk of the crowd)! Don’t worry — the service was about the risen Jesus, not Grandma! But there was a family element in the service: I preached, a family choir sang an Easter anthem, and two other family members were the organist and choir director for the service.
The Lord, in his wisdom, called my wife’s grandmother home to her eternal rest on Saturday, April 4 (which happened to be 10 years to the day that my wife and I were engaged). Grandma battled congestive heart failure for quite some time. She would have turned 88 just a couple of weeks later. But far more important is that she is now united with her Lord and all her believing loved ones in heaven — something she had been looking forward to for quite some time.
In light of this, I’m posting the sermon I preached eight years ago on the occasion of her birthday. As I said, the sermon was not about the birthday or the family, although the original sermon had an opening paragraph (not included below) that basically explained the occasion and reason why the seminary student guest preacher was in the pulpit. And since the text for the sermon is from the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter, it seems doubly appropriate to post it this weekend.
SEEING IS BELIEVING!
See the risen Lord through the eyes of faith
Believe the risen Lord through his Word of life
Text: John 20:24-31
Would you believe me if I told you that I know a man who is able to do miracles that science cannot explain? Would you believe me if I told you this man has healed the sick without any kind of breakthrough medication or medical treatment? Would you believe me if I told you this man restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and the ability to walk and run to the lame? Would you believe me if I told you that this man has not only brought others back from the dead, but that he even brought himself back from death? Well, you might be a little skeptical at first. You might think, “I know modern medical science can do great things, but I don’t know anyone who can produce those kinds of miracles.” But, chances are, you believe me when I say that I know someone who fits that description. You believe me because you know him. He’s your Savior, your Redeemer, your dearest Friend, the risen Lord, the Son of Man and Son of God. He’s Jesus Christ, and if you wonder why the members of this congregation as well as Christians around the world gather to worship him every Sunday, it’s because we’re here to celebrate his resurrection from the dead.
Do you suppose that an event as miraculous and important as Jesus’ rising from death might draw a little bit of skepticism? Do you suppose that some people who hear the Bible’s accounts of the risen Lord might wonder if this is historical fact or just religious fiction? Oh, there are plenty of doubters. In fact, one of the first doubters of Jesus’ resurrection was one of Jesus’ own apostles. He’s been labeled “doubting Thomas” ever since. One week later, Thomas’s doubts were removed. Today, one week after the festival of the Resurrection of our Lord, we gather in God’s house and gather around his Word so that he can drive away any doubts or despair from our hearts, too. Even though we can’t physically see the risen Lord Jesus, God’s Word will teach us today that seeing is believing. Our gracious God will teach us to see the risen Lord through the eyes of faith, and to believe the risen Lord through his Word of life.
On Easter Sunday you probably went to church expecting to hear the Easter Gospel read. After all, that’s the event we celebrated last week. On this Sunday after Easter, it works out rather nicely that the Gospel includes an event that happened exactly one week after the very first Easter Sunday. We don’t know why Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them on Easter evening. The others told Thomas that they had seen the Lord. They knew he had defeated death, they knew that he was truly alive, but words alone would not persuade doubting Thomas. Thomas was in more than just a state of grieving and psychological denial. He was in a state of unbelief. We could accurately paraphrase Thomas’s words this way: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands — which is highly unlikely — and unless I put my finger right into the very spot those nail marks were — which is highly unlikely — and unless I put my hand right into the spear wound in his side — which is highly unlikely — I will not believe it, and I don’t believe it because it’s absolutely impossible.”
Now picture Thomas. He had flat-out denied the possibility that Jesus was alive. All of a sudden, doubting Thomas is confronted with the reality of a risen Jesus. Do you think Thomas felt a little “unwelcome”? Do you think Thomas felt like crawling in a hole? What would Jesus say? “Thomas, I went from twelve apostles to eleven because Judas rejected me, and now I’m down to ten because you rejected me. Get down on your knees while I reject you all the way to hell!”
Thomas’s unbelief was great, but Jesus’ love for Thomas was greater. Remember: Thomas said, “Unless I put my finger where the nails were I won’t believe it,” and Jesus said, “Put your finger here in my hands, Thomas.” Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks I won’t believe it,” and Jesus said, “See my hands, Thomas.” Thomas said, “Unless I put my hand into his side I won’t believe it,” and Jesus said, “Reach out your hand and put it into my side, Thomas. Quit persisting in your state of unbelief! Believe, Thomas, believe!” Jesus, the doubt-dispeller, put all of Thomas’s doubts to rest.
In a recent issue of U.S. News and World Report, the featured cover story discussed the early years of the Christian Church and how persecution actually helped to spread the Christian faith. Considering what I’ve come to expect when the news media talks about Christianity, the article was fairly accurate and interesting. The article also revealed the writer’s own belief about Jesus’ resurrection. One sentence read, “After [Jesus’] brutal execution in Jerusalem, the belief that God raised him from the dead energized his disciples to boldly proclaim him “both Lord and Christ.” Did you catch it? It’s subtle, but the writer does imply that the church’s teaching of Jesus’ resurrection is a created concept rather than historical fact. If that’s the case, then the Easter Sunday accounts are fraudulent. Then Thomas was right all along, and there was no risen Lord inviting him to see and feel the nail wounds in his hands.
We might expect that kind of bias from the news media, but perhaps what is most alarming is that this denial of the resurrection of Jesus has crept its way into the church. Many Christians went to church Easter Sunday morning only to hear that the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is really story that encourages us to kill our sinful, selfish desires, and live a new life of love and peace and contentment and selflessness. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of encouragement, but the Bible’s Easter accounts are not symbolic stories with a hidden, mystical, spiritual meaning. They are historical fact, and by the grace of God and the power of his Word, you and I have come to know them as true. We may not be able to have Jesus appear before us today like Thomas did, but we have seen him. We may not be able to see Jesus with the eyes of our body like Thomas did, but we have seen him through the eyes of faith. When the Easter Gospel is read and proclaimed to you, your faith sees Jesus as the victor over sin and the grave. In some ways, we still can see the risen Lord at work today. Every time a child or adult is brought forward to the baptismal font, we see the risen Lord cleansing that soul from sin in the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. Every time you come forward to this altar, we see the risen Lord assuring each communicant of his love and forgiveness in the body and blood Jesus graciously dispenses to us in the simple elements of bread and wine. Yes, even today, in Word and Sacrament, the eyes of our faith see our risen Lord Jesus at work among us.
One of my professors at the Seminary told our class a story from his days in the parish ministry. He gave his Catechism class a quiz. One student put down all the correct answers, but underneath a couple of the answers she wrote down, “I don’t actually believe this.” Apparently that student thought that it was only important to know the facts, but taking them to heart was another story.
Jesus doesn’t want our faith to stop at head-knowledge; neither does the apostle John. Immediately after this account, John adds the following statement in verses 30 and 31: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” John refers to “many other miraculous signs.” He’s talking about the miracles of Jesus, of course, but there’s a reason John calls them “signs” instead of “miracles.” John uses that term “signs” because he wants us to recognize that there was more to Jesus’ miracles than a strange suspension of the laws of nature. Jesus’ miracles pointed to a reality with greater significance. They proved his divinity. They demonstrated his power. They assured Christians then and now that Jesus is not a clever magician or a captivating prophet, but that he is the Savior and Lord of all.
You’re probably very familiar with the last verse of this Gospel. You sing those words when you use the “Service of the Word” or the “Service of Word and Sacrament” in Christian Worship. By these familiar words, St. John reminds us the real reason he and the other writers of Scripture recorded the words and works of Jesus. The Scriptures are there so that we may believe the risen Lord through his Word of life. The Scriptures are there to point us to the object of our faith, our Lord Jesus. The Scriptures are there so that God can give us the blessings that flow from faith: the promise and possession of eternal life. In a way, it’s like a ticket to a concert or a sporting event. That ticket guarantees that you can enter and take your seat. You’re not at the event yet, you’re not sitting in your seat yet, but you know that you will when the event occurs. The faith that God’s Word produces is like that ticket. We know we have a spot secured for us in heaven, and even though we’re not there yet, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God has given us the ticket to eternal life.
When I taught Catechism class last year (1999-2000) as a vicar, I used a demonstration to teach the kids what faith is like. I asked for two brave volunteers from the class. I had one stand on top of a table that was in the front of the room. I told him to close his eyes and let himself fall backwards off the table, and his friend and I would catch him so that he wouldn’t fall to the floor. That student knew that we had the ability to catch him before he hit the ground, but he also trusted that we would keep our promise to catch him, and we did.
In a sense, that is what is happening when God calls us to believe the risen Lord through his Word of life. God wants us to go beyond the facts, beyond just head-knowledge; he calls us to take to heart the truths contained in his Word. It’s pretty easy to know the facts, isn’t it? In fact, it’s pretty easy to defend the facts! When I read a news article that misrepresents the facts of the Christian faith, it’s easy for me point out all the errors and stand up for the inspiration and inerrency of God’s Word. When I hear about other churches take the gospel of Jesus Christ and turn it into nothing more than a call for social action, it’s easy for me to point out their error and stand up for the real message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When I hear about activist groups that promote homosexuality and abortion and call them “a person’s right to choose for themselves,” it’s easy for me to point out their error and stand up with the real message of sin and God’s eternal judgment for those who refuse to repent and believe.
It’s easy to know the facts. It’s easy to defend the facts. It’s not always so easy to take them to heart. When the church budget gets tight and it looks like the fiscal year is going to end in the red, it’s much easier to shame people into giving more so that we can pay the bills. It almost seems illogical to simply preach the love and forgiveness of Jesus and then allow that message to inspire people’s hearts to give generously. When we try to reach out to the unchurched and bring them into God’s family of believers, it’s much easier to think that my smooth talking and my church’s slick brochures and programs will change their hearts. It almost seems illogical to simply preach law and gospel and then allow that to work in people’s hearts so that they see their need for Jesus. When life is full of turmoil, when the bills stack up and the family always seems to be fighting, when the economy turns south and our jobs suddenly aren’t so secure anymore, it’s much easier to think that the only solution that will really work is if we pull up our bootstraps and take matters into our own hands. It almost seems illogical to take God at his Word and trust that he will keep his promise to give us each day our daily bread and to make all things work together for the good of those who love him. However it may happen, when we fail to take to heart the truths of God’s Word, we’re putting ourselves into the same boat as all those people we condemned for not believing the facts of God’s Word.
Where we have failed, God’s Word has not. Through the power of God’s Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit led us to believe the facts of God’s Word. That same Holy Spirit uses Word and Sacrament to strengthen our faith so that we might take the truths of God’s Word to heart. Jesus’ Word has the power to overcome your guilty conscience, because St. John also tells us, “God is greater than our hearts. …He sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 3:20; 4:10). Jesus’ Word has the power to overcome your biggest problems, because St. Paul tells us, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Jesus’ Word has the power to put to rest your fears about what lies beyond this world, because Christ himself assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me with live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
By God’s grace and the Spirit’s work, you and I have come to believe the risen Lord through his Word of life. You believe him because you’ve seen him with the eyes of faith. After all, seeing is believing. Now let your believing be your living. Amen.