Our text is today’s Gospel (John 20:19–31): 19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (ESV)
There are areas of life in which we insist upon certainty. If you took your car in for a brake job and the mechanic said he could only be fifty percent certain that the new brakes would work all the time, well, I think you would take your car to another mechanic. Of course, there are times when we have to live with uncertainty. Let’s say a person in the prime of life has just received a diagnosis of cancer. The doctor recommends surgery, saying that there is an eighty percent chance of the surgery being successful. Now, a decision has to be made: does one go ahead with the surgery, knowing that there is a twenty percent chance of failure? On a more personal level, I already know that this summer I will have to live with the uncertainty of the weather forecast, when the eighty percent chance of rain that would be so good for my garden will dwindle down to a few drops or will skip my garden entirely!
In this fallen world, we often have to live with uncertainty. But there is one area in which you absolutely should never tolerate even one percent of uncertainty. I am talking about the forgiveness, the salvation which God gives you in Jesus. I have heard Christians say “I hope God forgives me” or “I hope God loves me” or “I hope I’m saved”. To speak such a way is to speak in the way of doubt verging on unbelief. Such talk is a sign that one does not trust God to keep His promises.
In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul writes: all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory (1:20). When you live by faith in Jesus—the Son of the living God, come to save sinners—then you believe with all your heart that God keeps all His promises, for all God’s promises find their Yes, their fulfillment, in Jesus. Trusting that God loves you for the sake of Christ, you utter your Amens to God for His glory. With great joy and confidence, you proclaim: “I am forgiven, I am saved; Amen, Amen, this is most certainly true!”.
Your dear Saviour Jesus took from you all your sins and your guilt and shame and placed them on Himself, putting them to death in His death. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, but your sins, guilt, and shame did not; they remain buried forever. Here, now, is how Scriptures speak of your sins: [O Lord,] You have cast all [our] sins behind Your back; [You] blot out [our] transgressions for [Your] own sake, and [You do] not remember [our] sins; [You] have compassion on us; [You] tread our iniquities underfoot. [You] cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (adapted from Isaiah 38:17; Isaiah 43:25; Micah 7:9).
Do you get the point? The LORD your God wants you to be absolutely certain that you are forgiven, that you are saved. Today’s Gospel tells us quite a bit about this certainty that God wants us to have.
First of all, the certainty of forgiveness and salvation is always connected to the risen Christ. If Jesus had remained in the grave, then we would always be wondering if something went horribly wrong on Good Friday. But Easter is God’s testimony that Good Friday was part of His plan all along, that Jesus’ cry from the cross, It is finished!, was a cry not of defeat but of victory. Jesus’ dying in our place fulfilled all that was necessary for our salvation, so that we can be absolutely sure that we are saved and forgiven. The risen Christ suddenly standing among the fear-filled disciples and speaking His Holy Absolution, Peace be with you, removes all uncertainty concerning our salvation. We know we are forgiven, saved, because Christ Jesus has risen from the dead and has given His Holy Absolution to His Church.
The certainty of forgiveness and salvation is always connected to the risen Christ. But the question is: how do we gain access to this forgiveness and salvation? Well, it is obvious that we cannot travel back in time to that first Easter and hear Jesus say Peace be with you. And so somehow Jesus must come to us today, but in such a way that gives us the certainty that we are indeed saved and forgiven.
Now, sometimes Christians are tempted to look within themselves for certainty. “I know I’m a Christian because I made a decision to follow Jesus” or “I know I’m forgiven because I feel forgiven” or “I know I’m saved because I do a pretty good job of keeping God’s commands”. But looking within ourselves leads to pride or despair as we either take part of the credit for our salvation or we view ourselves as hopelessly beyond the boundaries of God’s love, as if there were a limit to God’s love.
The certainty of forgiveness and salvation is found only in the risen Christ. We cannot travel back to the first Easter and we cannot find certainty within ourselves. But nonetheless, our Lord truly wants us to be certain of our salvation. That is why He has given His Church pastors.
It is not at all that pastors are super-saints; rather, pastors are to consider themselves to be the chief of sinners. St. Augustine even counseled pastors to commune themselves first, because a pastor should confess himself to be the congregation’s greatest sinner, the one most in need of the Lord’s forgiveness!
And it is not the pastor as a person who gives certainty. Sadly, it has occasionally happened that after years of service, a pastor has been found out to be a scoundrel. Perhaps he had repeatedly cheated on his wife or stolen money from the congregation or has finally admitted to not actually believing the Gospel he has been preaching all these years. What is the congregation now to think of all the times that pastor had absolved them of their sins and administered the Lord’s Supper? Has all the certainty of forgiveness been destroyed through this pastor’s unfaithfulness? Not at all, for it is never the person of the pastor that gives certainty but rather the Lord working through the Office of the Holy Ministry to give certainty to His dear Church. And so, even when a pastor turns out to be an unrepentant scoundrel, both the Sacraments and [the] Word are [still] effective because of Christ’s institution and command (AC VIII 2; Concordia, p. 34). Rest assured that the Lord has promised to work through the Office of the Holy Ministry even when the office is held by evil men.
On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus gave to His Church what we Lutherans call the Office of the Keys: [Jesus] breathed on [the disciples] 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”. Just as a key works in two ways—to both lock and unlock a door—, so Christ has given to His church on earth [the special authority] to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent (Luther’s Small Catechism). This special authority of the Office of the Keys enables the Church to preach the Law, which locks unrepentant sinners out of a saving relationship with God, and also to preach the Gospel, which opens up this relationship for repentant sinners (adapted from The Christian Faith: a Lutheran Exposition (pp. 281–282).
Now it is very fitting that all Christians be willing to speak a word of forgiveness to each other and to those who are in a state of despair over their sins. If someone comes to you torn up over something they have done and in need of comfort, I hope that at some point in the conversation you will be bold enough to say: “my friend, I have good news for you. God loves you and forgives you for the sake of His dear Son Jesus, who died for you and who rose from the dead so that you too may live forever with Him!”.
All Christians are called to speak forgiveness as the need arises. But there is a difference between declaring something to be true and making something true in the very speaking. I can say “the sky is blue”, but my speaking it does not make the sky blue. Just so, any Christian can declare “God loves you and forgives you”. But such words do not actually deliver forgiveness; rather, they point the sinner to the Word of God. God’s Word is the means by which God delivers His grace.
But God has also made it possible for His forgiveness to be delivered through the very speaking of a man. In healing and forgiving the paralytic in Matthew 9, Jesus showed that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins; and when the crowds saw [this…,] they glorified God, who had given such authority to men (vv 6, 8). And Jesus is still exercising His authority to forgive sins on earth by speaking through His called and ordained servants. You see, God so desires sinners to be absolutely certain of His forgiveness that He has created the Office of the Holy Ministry. “The authority of the Holy Ministry—the authority of a man to forgive the sins of a penitent sinner—rests upon the authority of the Man Christ Jesus, who paid the price for our forgiveness in His death upon the cross. The absolution of God, delivered through the Word of Christ, is the most powerful word in all the earth. It has the power to reconcile the sinner to God and, thereby, to restore everything that was infected, broken, and out of joint because of sin” (Lutheran Catechesis).
As the Lord’s called and ordained servants, pastors speak a word that does not merely give information but which actually performs what it says. In today’s Old Testament lesson, when the Lord’s called servant, the prophet Ezekiel, prophesied over the dry bones, something actually happened: the bones came together and, filled with the breath of life, lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Just so, when a pastor speaks the words of Holy Absolution, what he speaks actually happens: sinners are actually forgiven, set free from their sins.
In the Divine Service and also in private confession, when I say “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with [you] Himself (Luther’s Small Catechism). This does not mean that I myself am forgiving your sins, but rather I am speaking in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ. It is your risen Saviour who is forgiving your sins. I am merely His mouthpiece.
And that is the point precisely. Your Lord Jesus desires you to be absolutely, 100 percent certain of your forgiveness and salvation. That is why God does not use your strength and will power, your thoughts and feelings, to give you certainty. Rather, He works through things that are visible and tangible. God works through water connected to His Word to cast the devil out of your heart and to make you His own dear child. God works through the words of His Holy Word to proclaim His promises in Jesus. God works through bread and wine, again, connected to His Word, to bring you the Body and Blood of Jesus, the same Body and Blood which were given and shed on the cross for you. And God works through a man, a flawed man, a man filled with great weaknesses, a man who does not deserve at all to be called as a ordained servant of the Word. God calls such a man—He has called me—into the Office of the Holy Ministry, authorizing me to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments for the blessing and benefit of the Church of Christ.
By now, after being among you over fifteen years, you know just how flawed a man I am. But you also know that it was God who called me into the Holy Ministry, who made me an ordained servant of the Word. It was God’s doing, not mine. And so you can be certain that in Holy Absolution you actually receive the forgiveness of sins from God Himself through the word of His minister. For it is not me nor my word but rather Jesus and His Word spoken to you. Yes, it is the actual word of Jesus spoken to penitent sinners: I forgive you all your sins!. And through the hearing of this word, you are justified by God and you receive the forgiveness of your sins for Jesus’ sake. God works through a man, your pastor, not for the sake of the man nor because of his worthiness, but as God’s servant, who stands before you in the stead and by the command of [the] Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may know with all certainty that God loves you, that God forgives you and has saved you for all eternity.
“As surely as I live,” God said, / “I would not see the sinner dead.
I want him turned from error’s ways, / Repentant, living endless days.” (LSB 614)
That first Easter, God did not want to see Thomas remain dead in his unbelief. And so, the risen Christ appeared to Thomas so that he would turn from the errors of his ways and confess Jesus as his Lord and God. And now, the risen Christ has given to His Church the Office of the Holy Ministry. Yes, the risen Christ is working through His servants of the Word, baptizing, absolving, preaching, and distributing His true Body and Blood, all so that you may not disbelieve, but believe, that you may be absolutely certain that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The risen Christ is present in your life now through His Holy Word and Sacraments to speak and to give to you His peace—the peace of His forgiveness, the peace of knowing for certain that you are are saved, that you have eternal life in His Holy Name. Yes, in spite of all your sins, failures, sufferings, and sorrows, the risen Christ is certainly with you, giving you His peace now so that you may live endless days with your dear Saviour in glory. Amen.