Beckett: Sermon – Believing Thomas

Date: April 24, 2022
Festival: 2nd Sunday of Easter
Text: John 20:19-31
Appointed Scriptures: Acts 5:12-32; Revelation 4:1-18; John 20:19-31
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Sermon Hymn: LSB #470 O Sons and Daughters of the King

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Introduction: The Legacy of St. Thomas

The Apostle Thomas has an unfortunate nickname in Christian tradition: Doubting Thomas. But this is unfair to Thomas and not an entirely honest reading of the Scriptures. Did Thomas doubt? Of course he did, but so did the other disciples. If we were to read St. Luke’s account of Christ’s resurrection, Mary Magdalene and the other women, at the behest of the angels, told the apostles that Jesus is risen and they were all to meet Him in Galilee. And Luke writes, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” [Luke 24:11]. Then Peter got up and ran to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and “[marvelled] at what had happened” [Luke 24:12]. Whether his astonishment means he believed is up for debate. So, if we wish to emphasise Thomas’ temporary unbelief so much by giving him such an unfortunate moniker, we should put “Doubting” at the beginning of every apostle’s name, even our own.

But jumping to St. John’s account we read this morning, Jesus shows up, shows them His wounds, and they believe. Thomas was not with them when this happened. He, too, doubted that Jesus had risen. It wasn’t until he saw and touched Jesus’ wounds that he believed and then confessed, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ legacy is not his doubt and his unbelief; his legacy is his belief and his confession, “My Lord and my God.” What the evangelist writes next is key to our contemplation this morning, “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” [v. 31]. In other words, the whole point of John’s Gospel account is that you might make the same confession as “Doubting Thomas,” or rather, Believing Thomas, which is to say of Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” so that you might have eternal life.

Jesus as Lord

Now, what does it mean to say, “Jesus is my Lord?” Well, we must understand what it means to have a lord. Seeing as we don’t live under feudalism, we no longer know what it means to have a lord. In kingdoms that exercised the feudal system, during times that had an absence of forceful kings and emperors, there were local lords who expanded their territory given to them in order to rule the people. These lords had administrative as well as judicial functions. The people living in their territory, then, were under their lord’s jurisdiction and therefore subject to their authority. So, to say, “Jesus is my Lord” is to admit you are under His jurisdiction; you swear obedience and allegiance to Him alone. Like the apostles in our Acts reading had to face, whose authority do you ultimately obey? Whose word do you obey above all others? Man’s? Or Jesus’ Word and authority, the Lord of heaven and earth?

In the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, we share Thomas’ confession, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” Our brother, Martin Luther, lived in such a feudal system and thus knew quite well what it meant to have a lord. In his Large Catechism, he writes the following on what it means to say Jesus is my Lord, “He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and from all evil. For before I did not have a Lord or King, but was captive under the devil’s power, condemned to death, stuck in sin and blindness” [LC, Part II, 27].

As Lord, Jesus has authority over you, and He uses His authority not as a tyrant but as a rescuer. He has redeemed you from sin, which means to buy back. Much as a lord in the feudal system might buy a slave or servant to be his own, the Lord Jesus bought you from your former taskmasters—sin and the devil—and has made you His own. He has authority to rescue you from sin, and He has done so. You are under Christ’s jurisdiction, which means you do not live under the power of sin, the fear of death, or the dominion of the devil but rather under Christ’s own power, the hope of life, and the dominion of His grace. As Lord, Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades [Rev. 1:18], and He will use His Lordship to rescue you from Death and Hell when He returns in glory.

Jesus as God

And what does it mean to say, “Jesus is my God?” Much like the word “lord,” we first must know what it means to have a god. Luther is also helpful here. In the Large Catechism, he writes in his explanation of the First Commandment, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him in the heart” [LC, Part I, 2]. Or, as he says rather succinctly in the Small Catechism (and y’all should have this memorised), “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Everybody has something they place their ultimate fear, love, and trust in. So, everybody has a god—even the atheist, ironically enough. The question is: Do you have the right God?

To share Thomas’ confession that Jesus is your God is to say you fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Many put their love and trust in things like money, their job, sex, politics, false religion, and other things, and these things become their god. But all these things inevitably betray their love and trust. Money cannot save you from death, much as we try with expensive procedures and products to look young. But Death is no fool. And although you might buy many things, you are only filling a bottomless void. Your job cannot protect you from sin and the devil. Sex cannot tell you who you are. Politics cannot save humanity. Humanity already has a Lord and God as Saviour and His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,” and so on. Only Jesus has the keys to Death and Hades, and He alone can open the door to save you from their domain.

What Jesus Does as Your Lord and God

So, with Believing Thomas you confess about Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” But unlike earthly lords and manmade gods, Jesus is not Lord and God to assert His dominance over you; rather, Jesus is Lord and God to do what kings are supposed to do—to rescue you from your enemies: sin, death, and the devil. So, how does He reign as your Lord and God today? My question emphasises the present tense on purpose. We can talk about what Jesus did, which is of paramount importance in our confession. But equally as important is what Jesus presently does for you because He is not only risen; He is also ascended. This is emphasised in our reading from Acts this morning.

As they faced the Sadducees, the Apostles mention the past of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but their emphasis is on the present of His ascension. Pay close attention to what they confess, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you crucified by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” [Acts 5:29-31]. Now, this English translation of “leader” is rather ambiguous. A closer translation would be “ruler” or “prince,” which are synonymous to “lord.” As “ruler” or “prince,” the Apostles confess Jesus as Lord. And as “Saviour,” they also confess Him as God, because “Saviour” is a term the Prophets and psalmists often attributed to Yahweh.

This Jesus whom they crucified, and whom God the Father raised from the dead, is the Lord and God of the Apostles who is exalted—in other words, ascended—at the right hand of God the Father to do what? To give repentance and forgiveness of sins. As I’ve noted several times in the past, Christ in His ascension is not on vacation. He is at work; He is at work in giving you forgiveness of sins today. And how does your Lord and God do this for you presently? In the means He instituted before He ascended to the Father: His Word and Sacraments.

The Book of Acts is called such because it covers the acts of the Apostles after Jesus’ ascension, or more accurately it covers the acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles, which is why the book begins with Pentecost. Our preaching and administering of the Sacraments are the continuation of the Holy Spirit’s work, which is Christ’s power and authority to give you forgiveness of sins. As your Lord, Jesus has placed you under His jurisdiction to give you forgiveness of all your sins. Also, as Lord, Jesus gave His Apostles His authority to forgive sins [John 20:21-23], and He continues to do this through your pastors whom His Spirit has called and ordained to give you forgiveness of sins in the Sacraments.

In Absolution, He pardons your sins. Like a court case, you come before the Lord at the beginning of the Divine Service, confess all your sins and crimes, and He pronounces you not guilty. In Baptism, you are brought into the death and life of Jesus and receive the promise of the bodily resurrection just like Jesus’ resurrection. In the Eucharist, you consume His life-giving body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

As your God, He has the power to make such ordinary, earthly elements do His extraordinary work of forgiving your sins—to make them white as snow [Is. 1:18], to separate them from you as far as the east is from the west [Psalm 103], to blot them out, to purge them [Psalm 51], etc. Therefore, come to the Table, where your ascended Lord and God Himself meets you to give you repentance and the free forgiveness of sins, to whom be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

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