Witnesses of a Living Hope

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  These are Jesus’ words to the apostle Thomas as recorded in John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31).  The apostle Peter reiterates this sentiment in his first epistle, noting that those to whom he writes love Jesus and believe in him, even though they have not seen him (1 Peter 1:3-9).  Indeed, they rejoice with joy in their faith in Jesus Christ.

Indeed, we “are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” believing and loving Jesus, even though we have not seen him.  We have, however, beheld him veiled through his means of grace: through the Gospel which is preached, through the waters of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper.  Yet, we haven’t seen him with our own eyes.  It can be hard at times to have faith in something we haven’t seen, as we see with Thomas who doubts Jesus’ resurrection at first.

Yet, Thomas isn’t the only apostle who doubts at first.  Look at the rest of the apostles in John 20.  It’s Easter Sunday.  Jesus had told them that he would rise from the grave on the third day, the women have actually encountered the risen Jesus, and Peter and John have seen the empty tomb.  Yet, the apostles are locked in a house, “for fear of the Jews.”  This is the first day of the week, the Sabbath is over, and the apostles are afraid that the Jewish authorities will come for them, like they had come for Jesus.

Yet, as they are locked in this house who comes to them but Jesus.  He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.”  He then shows them his wounds of crucifixion whereby he won this peace for them.  The peace which Jesus announces is not just a pleasantry; no, it’s a concrete peace.  It’s the peace that Jesus Christ has made between sinful man and our holy Lord God.  And it comes through the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, through the wounds on his hands and his side as he stands in our midst.

Yet, Thomas isn’t here at this time.  The one Sunday he misses Church, Jesus shows up!  The truth is, though, that Jesus shows up every Sunday, in the Word and Sacraments by which his Gospel is given to us.  How can people believe, unless they encounter the crucified and risen Christ through these means?  You may not have seen Jesus with your eyes, but you now encounter him through his means of grace as he dwells in our midst.

Jesus also says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Then, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:21-23).

So, there’s two things here that apply to you and all of the Church.  First, Jesus reconciles us to God and each other; he makes peace between us and God and among us.  He does this by virtue of his death and resurrection.  Then, Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit upon us, making us God’s people who bear His Word to others with the power to forgive and retain sins.

Remember when God made Adam in Genesis.  He formed Adam from the dust of the ground, but Adam wasn’t a living being until God breathed His Holy Spirit into him.  Also, remember Ezekiel 37 and the valley of the dry bones.  God’s Word makes the bones come back together and clothes them with flesh and blood, and yet they’re not living beings again until God breathes His Holy Spirit into them.  Well, here after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples to make them living beings again.  No longer are they condemned to eternal death due to their sins.  They have been re-birthed into Christ due to his death and resurrection.  They’ve been given eternal life as living beings with God.  Now they can proclaim this Gospel, this Good News, to others so that they too can be reconciled to their Creator.

Peter notes this in his epistle.  He says that according to God’s “great mercy, he has caused you to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).

God has caused you to be born again; he’s given you the Holy Spirit in Baptism to make you a living being for eternity.  It’s the fulfillment of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

So, you are born-again Christians in the truest sense of the phrase, because God has done this to you.  He’s re-birthed you as His children.  God did it; God acts in Baptism to make you His child in Christ.  The Church has been given Christ’s means of grace and bears children to her groom, Christ, through these means.

And so you are born again to a living hope that just as Christ rose from the dead, so will you.  And God has in store for you an inheritance which has been willed to you through the death of Christ.  This is the restored creation; it is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading; it is kept in safekeeping for you until Christ returns on the Last Day.  So until Christ returns God, Himself is guarding you in this promise through faith.

This future inheritance of eternal life in a restored creation is something that you also do not yet see with your eyes.  You don’t see Jesus Christ with your eyes, and you don’t see the inheritance he has prepared for you and is safeguarding for you.  And yet you believe, because God Himself has birthed you into this hope and promise and keeps you in faith in it.

And to keep you in this faith and to bring others into it, the Lord gives us His Word in spoken, written, and sacramental forms.  His Word is a two-part Word also.  It is both Law and Gospel; condemnation and grace.  The Law condemns our sins and shows us our sinful nature so that we do not trust in ourselves to be saved, but rather throw ourselves at God’s mercy.  And the Gospel gives us this mercy of God for the sake of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.  The Gospel forgives sins while the Law binds or retains them.

Thus, you see the significance of Jesus’s statement to the disciples that they have the power to forgive and retain sins.  This is the power to preach the Law to bring people to repentance and the power to proclaim the Gospel to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.  This power is commonly called the “office of the keys,” and it is a power given to the entire Church; all believers have the power to proclaim God’s Word of Law and Gospel, condemnation and grace.  This is how the Church itself is upheld in faith.  Whenever we begin to think that it’s all about us and our works, the Law comes in to show us our sins and make us realize that we can not stand before God on the basis of our own works.  Then, the Gospel gives us Jesus Christ and his righteousness to cover our sins.

This is also how others are made a part of the Church.  The Law reveals to them the reason that things seem broken, or dysfunctional, or otherwise not quite right in their lives and in the world around them.  It’s because of sin.  It’s because of the inherited sin that we all have from Adam and Eve as well as the actual sins which we commit daily as fallen creatures.  The Law doesn’t provide the resolution to these, though, other than simply helping to keep order in a messy world.  The Law doesn’t save us, however.  It’s only the Gospel of Jesus Christ which forgives and heals and saves.  It’s being born again into Christ, an action which God performs upon us, that brings us to faith.

So, you as Christ’s Church have the power to forgive and retain sins; Jesus gives this to you, because He has bestowed upon you the Holy Spirit.  You have the power to speak God’s Words to others, because you have the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells with you and in you.  You don’t have to know everything in the Bible to speak God’s Word to others, and you’re allowed to make mistakes; we all do.   But, take comfort in the fact that the Holy Spirit has been given to you to enable you to speak God’s Word.

As an example, in Acts 5:29-42 we see Peter speaking God’s Word to the authorities.  He tells the story of the crucified and risen Christ, our Savior.  This is the essential story that needs to be told.  Notice that Peter’s time is short, he doesn’t have time to say much.

So, he only says a few words: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Peter doesn’t get into an argument about the ontological identity of Jesus Christ and his two natures and the communication of attributes and all sorts of theological categories.  He sticks to the essential narrative: God sent Jesus Christ, Christ died, Christ was raised, Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, through Christ we are brought to repentance and have forgiveness of sins (this is another way of saying “Law and Gospel”).

Then, Peter concludes by saying that he and the others are “witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Here’s the crux of the issue, then.  You speak God’s Word, because you are also witnesses to the crucified and risen Christ.  You may not have seen him with your eyes, but the Holy Spirit who has been given to you has seen him and reveals him to you.

This is exactly what Christ promised right before his ascension into heaven.  He said, “But you will receive power when the Holt Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

You have been called as the Lord’s people, born again by Him into a living hope that you have through Christ, called to be witnesses, and indeed enabled to be witnesses by God.  And you don’t have to go far to do it, because there are people all around us who need to hear this Gospel of a living hope.

And this is indeed a great hope that the world desperately needs.  The world needs the witness that we bring to it of Christ’s death and resurrection through which the world is saved and restored.  We just celebrated Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday and yet there are so many people out there who don’t realize the significance of these events.  For the Easter holiday is the celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection, the very means by which we have this living hope of the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting in the restored creation.  In Psalm 148, in fact, we see all creation praising the Lord for what he has done, because all creation looks forward with a living hope to the restoration Christ is bringing with his return at the end of the age.

Christ has called us to be witnesses to this living hope.  And he gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to do it.   Amen.

 

(Image: Jesus appears to the disciples (watercolour), by William Hole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_appears_to_the_disciples.jpg ).