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|April 11, 2010 -- 1st Sunday after Easter --
From the Holy Gospel: “Whosoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven them, and whosoever's sin you retain, they are retained.
This 1st Sunday after Easter. Lutherans keep the Latin Introit for This Sunday, Quasimodo Geniti: “As Newborn Babes, Desire the Pure milk of the Word.” And the pure milk of the Word of God is laced with one perpetual gift, the gift of the forgiveness of sins. And the reason for this one perpetual gift if that we are, in this life, even in this Christian life, perpetual sinners.
Today, we get two glimpses of the forgiveness of sins at work, one from the discussion between Jesus and Thomas. When the sermon for this 1st Sunday after Easter focuses on this exchange, the day is called “Unbelieving Thomas Sunday.” But, the Holy Gospel also focuses on the previous Sunday, the actual day of the Resurrection, when Jesus appears to his disciples behind locked doors, and there He establishes the Office of the Holy Ministry and ordains the chosen apostles into that ministry, in His stead and of and by His command.
But both of these brief encounters are found in the Holy Gospel of the Day, and together, they proclaim the nature of humanity's need for the ministry of forgiveness of sins.
In the familiar event of Thomas, the one we tend to call “Doubting Thomas,” when Jesus Himself correctly calls Thomas “Unbelieving Thomas,” the Evangelist, St. John, sets forth the nature of the Church – people gathered by the Holy Spirit through and for the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
Here, we find the newly ordained apostles doing what all Christians do by nature (the new nature, that is): telling the Good News. Notice, there is not practiced format for doing this in John 20. Thomas, also rightly called “Pouting Thomas,” chose to avoid the other disciples on the night of Easter, for he still considered Jesus dead, the hopes for being a disciple dead, and the possibility of Thomas soon dead. He pouted, by himself. And sometime after Easter Sunday and before Low Sunday, some of the disciples run into Thomas on the street, and they do what every Christian’s new man wants to do, they simply what to say, “ Guess what!” When we use the phrase, “Guess what!” we have something important, something good to tell the hearer. “Guess what! Dad got a big raise.” “Guess what! I passed the test yesterday!” “Guess what! We’re going on vacation to Colorado Springs!”
Well, the 10 disciples (12, minus Judas, minus Thomas) run across Thomas sometime in the week between Easter Sunday and Low Sunday, and they say, “Guess what!” “Guess what! We have seen the Lord!” To which, Thomas responds, “Where? Where is He? Show me!” And they respond something like this: “Well, He’s not here, now. But we’ll see Him again, soon.” Upon which, Thomas belches forth his bitterness and hurt: “That’s garbage! Unless I see Him for myself, unless I see the wounds of crucifixion, unless I touch them, I will not believe!”
Now, there is no record that the other 10 did anything further; if there were further words shared, God didn’t have them recorded. “These are recorded,” as the Evangelist says at the end of his Gospel account, “that you may believe, and believing may have life in His name.” The Word works. Nothing else avails in the world of Christian witness.
And thus, the lesson of “Unbelieving Thomas Sunday” is his need, your need, my need, humanity's need of the forgiveness of sins.
Now, there is first part of Holy Gospel – the part that Thomas missed by his absence. Jesus, behind locked doors, on the night after He had shown Himself as risen from the dead, establishes the Office of the Holy Ministry in the midst of the Church, and He ordains the disciples, the Twelve – though two are absent, one by death and the other by pouting, Here is what He did and said, “He said to them, ‘Peace by with you!’ Then He showed them His hands and side – the very things that absentee Thomas also will demand to see – and the disciples were glad. Now, we don’t know who all was in that gathering – God chose not to tell us, not so that we can each have his or her own opinion, but rather because there’s nothing there for us – where Scripture is silent, leave it alone!
But He does specifically address “the disciples,” which means the Twelve (minus two): “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them (the Twelve – minus two), and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is the ordination of the apostles into Christ’s Office of the Holy Ministry, which continues to exist today, for your benefit, through the pastoral office in your midst.
Now, for what does this office exist? It exists for proclaiming the Gospel, in all its truth, or as we say among pastors, “in all its articles.” It exists, as St. Matthew reveals in his Gospel account, “Baptizing them in name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [then – it doesn’t end with conversion] teaching them all things.” The ministry, according to St. John, includes “whosoever sins you remit (forgive), they (the sins) are remitted unto them (the believers). And whosoever sins you retain (refuse to forgive), they (the sins) are retained (unforgiven).” So, the role of the pastoral office is normative teaching and preaching, the exercise of the Sacraments, and the forgiveness and, (where sometime needed) the process of retaining sins, which is called the process of “excommunication.” This we call The Apostolic Office of the Holy Ministry.
These two themes belong together. And when put together, this is what you, the Christian in the pew, or in this case, the padded, yet still uncomfortable, chair: You start with two separate things: the congregation and the pastoral office – congregation and pastor. Here’s what you get when they are brought together by the Holy Spirit: you get haven of forgiveness known as the Church! The Church is the gathering, the congregation, with the pastoral ministry operating in the midst of the congregation. The formula is: Congregation plus Pastoral Office equals Church, for the forgiveness of sins. Take either one away, and you don’t have the Church! In Church, the pastor is not just a hireling, and the congregation is not just a social or support group. The two, pastor and congregation, are the Church of Jesus, which is the Church of the forgiveness of sins! The Church is God's chosen place and gathering, with the Holy Spirit perpetually bringing together Congregation and Pastoral Office. He creates and sustains Church, continually bestowing forgiveness, life, and salvation. Here you have the promise of your risen Lord Jesus, saying to one and all, continually, “Peace be with you!”