One of the finest sinners who ever lived was Thomas, the doubting one. The risen Jesus breaks in on him and his fellow disciples shaking in their boots, wondering if the religious leaders’ goons would get them like they did their crucified rabbi. Our Lord, on that day and today, has to deal with the first two moves of a sinful heart: doubt and despair.
These guys had spent the past three years with Jesus. They were witnesses to the signs and wonders that John relates in his gospel. They’d seen the signs, but they couldn’t read ‘em very well. Not even Mary Magdalene’s first sermon to them about Christ’s resurrection did them much good. They just couldn’t see it. “Okay, fine; he’s not dead. That’s not going to help us when we have the same folks breathing down our necks who killed him.”
Scared spitless was what these guys were. It’s fairly typical for us sinners. Martin Luther said the first commandment bids us to fear, love, and trust our God. But even with a history of watching Jesus at work, the disciples despaired of any hope whatsoever. They could have just dipped their toes into the pool of sin by seeking help from somewhere, from their own bigger goons, from thicker doors or heavier hinges. At least they would have been looking to something in God’s creation for help. But they didn’t even go there. They succumbed to despair, thinking there was no hope, no future. They were paralyzed by fear.
If Jesus simply knocked on their door, there would have been a load of underwear to toss in the wash, so he appeared in their midst at the same time that he spoke a fear-quelling word: “Relax, it’s me.” On the surface, that sounds like a command. But when you get a demand from your beloved, from the one who’s so outright bodacious in your eyes that you can’t turn away, even the most significant demand begins to sound like an invitation and promise.
For those of us who recognize the disciples’ despair in ourselves, Jesus comes with the same word: “Relax, it’s me. Peace be with you.”
When it comes from Jesus’ lips, “Peace be with you” is pure gospel for the fearful (John 20:19). All the world’s demands come at some cost. They require that you give something up of yourself: your time, your energy, your money, your safety, your future. Whether those demands come from your work, your family, or even your play, a demand’s fulfillment depends solely on what you do.
But Jesus came to a group of people who were hanging on to the knot at the end of their rope. They had nothing left that they could pull together to do for themselves. That’s sweet news for us sinners all these centuries later who know how little we can do about our futures. For those of us who recognize the disciples’ despair in ourselves, Jesus comes with the same word: “Relax, it’s me. Peace be with you.”
Whenever Jesus showed up after the resurrection in the Gospels, it was always to people who were wandering around in despair: Mary Magdalene at the tomb, Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the disciples out in the boat catching a total of zero fish. Jesus came searching out those who hadn’t an ounce left to give, and his first word was “Peace. I’m in control now, just as I was at the first moment of creation. I took what was formless and void and made something good out of it. Just so, I’m taking your chaos and turning it into the kingdom of God. Relax already!”
No sooner did Jesus quell the disciples’ fear and despair than he had to do it again. For as soon as Jesus begins creating his people anew, he also sends them out into the world they’re so scared of. He sets the disciples (and us) to the very task God sent him for. Jesus pushes them out into the world to do his work, the same exact stuff that got him nailed hand and foot to a couple of eight-by-eights. He had the audacity to claim that he could do what by rights belonged to God alone: forgive and retain sins. The religious leaders called it blasphemy, and the world will claim the same thing when Jesus’ followers announce real forgiveness to sinners. That’s something worth being scared of.
Thus, Jesus had to do it all over again. He said, “Peace. Remember me? I’m the one who made you and claimed you. It’s me who’s sending you. Can there be any doubt that if I’m crucified and risen, that you won’t be, too? I will care for you in your disasters and raise you to new life. Get busy. You have one single bold and impudent job. Open your eyes and find those who have nothing left and give them the one something who can give them everything. Give me to them. Forgive their sins. And tell those who haven’t hit bottom that they’re not there yet. But tell them that once they experience they having nothing more to give, you’ll have a word for them, God’s Word, God’s Son, that is, for them full and free.”
The one guy who missed out on all this promising, commissioning, and peace-giving was Thomas. He was no doubt off occupying himself in the only things left he thought he could count on. Maybe he was slouched in front of his computer screen, managing his finances. Maybe he was texting a pretty girl he’d met in Jericho back before he’d encountered Jesus. Maybe he’d gone to the library to study the Scriptures to wring some reason for this disaster out of it.
Isn’t it just like a sinner to demand more than what God offers in his promise? It’s not enough that Jesus declares it so – we want to have proof.
Wherever he was in his search for a way to put the chaos of Jesus’ failure to rights, he never expected what he got when he slipped through the door where his friends were hiding. He showed up hours later, and the disciples bombarded him with what happened. They gave him a world premiere; they tried out their new song of Jesus and forgiveness on him. They declared these promises of the risen Jesus to their friend, but it wasn’t enough for Thomas. And there we have the second move of the sinful heart. Isn’t it just like a sinner to demand more than what God offers in his promise? It’s not enough that Jesus declares it so – we want to have proof.
Luther called this move we sinners make “enthusiasm,” or God-within-ism. We don’t accept either God or his son Jesus Christ at their word. Proof is what we want and think we need. Some want to take God’s forgiving Word and add worldly success and prosperity as final proof of God’s good intentions. Others want the emotional kick of a spiritual gift like speaking in tongues. Still others think God’s Word isn’t really real unless they get an emotional kick in worship. Some won’t believe until there’s world peace or their kids listen to them, whichever comes first.
For Thomas, it was visual proof that he thought would do the trick: actually seeing Jesus standing in front of him with holes in his right hand and left, in his feet, and in his side. But when Jesus showed up so that Thomas could poke his finger into the spear wound in his side, it was no longer a matter of proof. Those wounds and Christ’s beating heart and breathing lungs tell the story.
“Proof-schmoof,” Jesus says, “I’ve already taken care of that. What’s been proven is that you and every other sinner will cling to your unbelief and doubt until it kills me. But I’m risen above all your doubts and despair. I’ve bundled them up and tucked them into the holes in my flesh. Poke around in there all you like. You’ll find your past with all its disasters, your present inability to conjure up something out of your life. It’s all death. But now look at the pulsing veins next to those holes and see your future.”
Once you’ve used your own index finger to probe the death and life encased in Jesus, the only thing that’ll do for sinners is to be slathered in the forgiveness and eternal life he brings. Jesus told Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus didn’t let Thomas waste much time on the picking and poking. All that was left was for Thomas, the rest of the disciples, and those feisty women who followed with them to bring it, to preach it.
In believing, we are sprung free from doubt and despair, from our own death.
If doubt and despair are what spring from the sinner’s heart, then just as Christ promised to Thomas, people like us who have not seen are bound to believe. And in believing, we are sprung free from doubt and despair, from our own death. Just as Jesus’ disciples were sent out with his death and resurrection on their lips, so have the countless generations following them been sent out to proclaim the good news that draws us to him. They were sent that we might believe.
The task for the baptized is to deliver the goods so that doubt and despair are not the last word on our identity. On account of Jesus’ forgiveness, we are called to pass on the same soul-slaking announcement of mercy in Christ in this parched world. Those for whom the disciples’ despair or Thomas’ doubt is still deeply entrenched are waiting to hear it: “Because of Christ’s death for you, there is nothing more for you to do for God. There’s no sin for you to clean up anymore. Jesus has it stored inside him until the end of time and into eternity itself.” Now, instead of doubt, faith rises up at the sight of our Lord again, offering up his wounded, risen body in Word and Sacrament, so we never need proof.
We can’t poke a finger into a slit in his side like Thomas did, but the Lord wants us to grab him nonetheless, knowing that the death that seasons every molecule is claimed by our risen Lord as his own. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “Here I am, broken and poured not for just anyone, but for you, for your forgiveness, for your faith. Peace. Peace be with you.”