Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 8, 2018
Jesus In the Flesh
There is a fantastic 17th century painting of a scene from today’s Gospel reading by an Italian Baroque artist by the name of Michelangelo Cavaggio. The painting’s title is “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. It portrays Jesus standing their looking down at his chest as he, with one hand, pulls his tunic aside to expose the gash left by the spear that was thrust into His side about ten days earlier at the hands of the Romans to ensure that He was truly dead as He hung lifeless upon the cross. Cavaggio depicts Jesus holding firm to the forearm of St. Thomas as He guides his hand so that his extended finger probes the depths of the wound. The expression on Thomas’ face is one of incredulity. He has a disbelieving look of amazement. In the background, stand two others of the disciples. It is an amazing painting for its artistic quality but also for the way in which it interprets our text and perpetuates the notion that Thomas was a doubter, at least, more of a doubter than the rest of the disciples.
Twice Jesus said to the disciples on the evening of His resurrection, “Peace be with you.” Yet, we find them still behind locked doors a week later. Still they don’t know what to make of His resurrection. Still they don’t grasp the significance of what it means that He lives. They have seen Jesus in the flesh. They have beheld His wounds. They know that He is risen. But the truth that they know in their hands is still not translated to the truth that they are to live. They still live in fear of what might happen to them if they are discovered by the Jews. They are afraid. The reality of the resurrected Jesus and what it means for all of the creation hasn’t connected for them.
In one sense, Thomas’ doubts are no greater than the doubts of the other disciples. None believes that everything is just fine. All are still more afraid of those outside than they are of God. Thomas was confronted with a situation much like yours. He is given the testimony of eye witnesses and is expected to believe them. It really doesn’t matter that you are removed by a few generations. At least you were told of the resurrection by somebody with confidence that it is true. With their whispers and locked doors, everything that the disciples were doing spoken against what they were saying. What could it mean that Jesus had risen from the dead other than death had lost its sting? They had no reason to fear those that could destroy the body only for they should fear Him who could destroy both body and soul in hell. They should trust more in the One that demonstrated power over death.
Was Thomas expected to believe the testimony of those that didn’t seem to really believe it themselves? Can he be expected to have more faith than the other ten? He says no. You have seen Jesus and you say that you believe but I cannot have that kind of faith unless I see Him for myself. How can I believe that the Jesus that you have seen is the Jesus that was crucified unless I see His wounds for myself? In reality, it seems that Thomas believes more strongly than do the others, for when it is his turn to see Jesus in the flesh, his response is one of exclamatory praise” “My Lord and my God!”
When confronted by a person that is obviously corporeal, that is fleshy – He has flesh and bones, the normal response is not to call upon him as God, even if one cannot explain his presence. But Thomas makes the connection quickly and clearly. This Man that stands before him is more than just a miracle of one coming back to life. After all, Thomas had seen Lazarus raised not long before. But Thomas recognizes Jesus as the One who is, the great I AM. He beholds and perhaps touches Jesus and he sees, the creator of the universe, the Redeemer of man, and Judge of all. Thomas no longer sees a good teacher or a wonderful miracle worker. He sees more than just a man through whom God does marvelous things. He sees his God in the flesh.
The reality that hits Thomas is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead but it is the reality of the incarnation – that God had become man; that it was God who died, it is God who is raised and stands before him yielding to his touch. God is not a concept. He is not standoffish. He is as close as the flesh and blood Jesus.
This is the reality of your Baptism. You were not baptized into some vague idea. It wasn’t just some outward act of initiation into a select group. It was an incorporation into the death and life of God in the man Jesus. In those waters, His wounds suffered on your behalf were exposed to you and His word of “Peace be with you,” were spoken as He gave to you His righteousness. The resurrection of which the disciples became eye witnesses and partakers is the resurrection that has also become yours for it is into the resurrection of your God and Lord into which you were baptized. What is there to fear and to lock yourself away from when it is the living nail-scarred hands of your God that embrace you?
It is also the reality of the blessed Sacrament of the Altar that the same Jesus seen and held by the disciples is the Jesus that gives His resurrection flesh and blood to eat and drink. Perhaps you do not believe because you see, but you do certainly see because you believe. This mystery is difficult to comprehension but is just as intimate as Thomas’ finger extended under the skin of Jesus. As you partake it is Jesus who is placed in the palm of your hand or upon your tongue with the wafer of bread. It is Jesus that passes through your lips with the wine from the cup. It is your Lord and your God that nourishes you and your faith unto life in His name.
One of the wonderful things about reading through the Small Catechism on Sunday mornings is that we are all reminded of its contents and the faith that we have publicly confessed, at least since our confirmation. We are reminded even of that lesser talked about section on the Office of the Keys which we read today and of which our Gospel reading is a source. It brings home the reality that the Faith that we confess is not an abstract faith. It is not a philosophy or an idea that we can be forgiven. It is reality that is born out in the going out of the Church, even as Jesus Himself went.
Jesus came into the world and took to Himself flesh as He was sent by the Father. In His authority over death, devil, and hell, He in turn sends His disciples (Apostles – the sent ones) that the ministry of the Church would still be an incarnational reality. It is through flesh and blood action and interaction that the ministry of Jesus continues. We may not see Jesus in the same way as Thomas, but we see the disciples, the followers of Jesus, carrying out the authority over sin that the resurrection demonstrates.
Jesus was once accused of blasphemy because He forgave sin. It is recognized that only God can forgive sin. If the incarnation of Jesus was not enough to convince the Jews that Jesus had authority to forgive sins, then His resurrection in the flesh authority is attested to by Thomas’ words: “My Lord and My God!” Jesus has such authority to forgive sin. And He gives that authority to men sent with that as their purpose.
Yes, they are to administer the Sacraments and so proffer forgiveness there. But Jesus bestows a special authority to His Church, which continues to be exercised in an incarnational way when one confesses out loud and another forgives in words spoken all by the authority of Jesus, our Lord and God.
We are drawn to the expression of Thomas and the other disciples in both Cavagggio’s painting and our Gospel text. But it would be prudent of us to focus more closely upon Jesus, who, in patience and with a compassionate expression, has and continues to forgive the sins of man, both inherited and committed. When you hear those words, “I forgive you,” believe them because they have been spoken by the authority of Jesus. They are spoken so that you have more than a concept. You have the incarnational reality of Jesus and His ongoing ministry through the life of His Church.
In the name of Jesus, who bears the scars of sin that we may wear the mantle of peace. Amen.