Easter 2: Jesus Is the True Way to Saving Lives

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lesson: John 20:19-31

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

Today’s Gospel begins on the evening of the first day of the week—the day of our Lord’s Resurrection. Early that morning, a group of women went to our Lord’s tomb. Mary Magdalene sees that the tombstone is rolled away so she runs to tell Peter and John. Peter and John run to the tomb and Mary Magdalene follows them back. Meanwhile, the other women who were with Mary Magdalene enter the tomb to investigate. They see two angels who announce that Jesus is not there but risen. This group of women are instructed to tell the disciples that Christ is risen. They probably see Peter and John running toward the tomb, but the women don’t say anything to them.

Peter and John arrive at the tomb and find it empty. They leave. Mary Magdalene then returns and figures she is speaking to the gardener. But then Jesus reveals Himself to her and she is the first person to see the resurrected Christ! The other women report to the disciples what they saw. Then Jesus appears to these women!

Having heard these reports, Cleopas and another disciple head to Emmaus. Jesus joins them but they don’t recognize Him. He shows them in all the Scriptures the things that speak of Him. When they arrive at Emmaus, they recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread. Then He disappears from their sight. By now it is approaching evening, and they return to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they heard and saw. Jesus then appears before Peter alone. The ten disciples (apostles) hear of all these things and yet they go behind locked doors.

You would think they would be filled with joy at the Resurrection of our Lord and all the eyewitness testimony. Christ Jesus has conquered death, taken away the world’s sin, and defeated Satan! With Christ as the Victor, what fear could they possibly have?

But think about their situation for a moment. Yes, they heard from the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus would come to die and rise. Yes, Jesus Himself told them multiple times. But they witnessed a most horrific death sentence for an innocent Man. They saw with their own eyes the torture Jesus faced as He was falsely tried, insulted, beaten, and crucified.

This would be a hard thing to unsee! They knew Jesus was very dead. So, to now believe that He lives? How can this be? And plus, if the Jews will torture Jesus this way, what would they do to His followers? So, they hid in fear.

We can look back and say, “What were they so afraid of? If God is for them, what can man do to them? Don’t they see that Christ is risen?” We can also look back at times in which we were fearful of something and it turns out that there was no cause for alarm. We hear a strange sound at night, we don’t recognize someone approaching us who looks shady and that person turns out to be an old friend, we get a phone call from someone close to us who says he needs to come over right away and we dream up all sorts of negative things about what is going on, only to find out he has a joyous message.

Or we see everyone buying toilet paper and we join in their fear and start hoarding ourselves. Or we hear about a virus and then we do things that we would have laughed at the thought of doing just a few months ago. As a society, we’re willing to put millions out of work in fear of what might happen.

And as disciples of Jesus, we have bought into the thought of having an extended period in which God’s people are not gathering in His house to receive His gifts! We are taught to fear the virus and fear consequences of the government more than fearing God.

No pastor worth his salt has taken the decision to cancel services lightly. A pastor who fears God will have pleaded to God for forgiveness from discontinuing services, praying that this is God’s will for the time-being, and that God will have mercy on all who are impacted by this decision.

Cancelling services is not without precedent. In 1918, The Lutheran Witness reported that churches closed during the outbreak of the Spanish flu. It appears some did so as the virus made its way into their communities and others did so when Health Boards ordered it.

Even though the disciples were filled with fear, Jesus then appeared before them and the most amazing thing happens. Jesus not only announces His peace to them, but He sends them to serve as ministers of His Church. He gives them the authority to forgive and retain sins! He tells a group of grown, scared men that they will now go out and forgive the sins of the penitent but retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.

This ministry of Christ through the Church is truly a life and death matter. For those without forgiveness remain soiled in their sin. And those with forgiveness have their sins blotted out and they are covered with the very righteousness of Christ. Those who refuse to confess their sins and acknowledge their iniquity have their sins retained. That is, they are not forgiven.

Why do some refuse to confess their sin? They are a number of reasons. Some deny the Bible’s teaching. They figure their sin isn’t sin. Perhaps they think they have a valid reason for their sin. Others are filled with pride and do not want to admit guilt. Others prefer to be stuck in the stench of their sin than to receive the freedom given by Christ through the forgiveness of sins. Many today have adopted modern thought and have thrown out the Bible’s teachings. So, cohabitation, the taking of the lives of the unborn, divorce, and new definitions of marriage have all become fashionable. Many Christians no longer believe God’s Word on these matters. And they would rather hold on to their convictions which contradict the Scriptures than to repent and receive the forgiveness of sins.

When Jesus sent the apostles to forgive and retain sins, this work was not to be done arbitrarily. Pastors don’t forgive one repentant sinner and retain the sins of the next repentant sinner. Pastors don’t retain the sins of one person living in impenitence or unbelief and then forgive the next person living in impenitence or unbelief. Instead, they are to be guided by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Forgiveness comes to all who repent, turn from their sin, and receive the Gospel. Retaining sins is for all who refuse to repent, refuse to turn from their sin, or do not believe the Gospel. And this action of God’s ministers is valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

Those with the forgiveness of sins are set free from their sin, they are declared righteous by God, are seen by Him as holy as Christ Himself is holy, and are acceptable to God to receive eternal life.

Those without the forgiveness of sins—those whose sins are retained—are lost and condemned. Their argument is not with the minister who retains their sin or the church who isn’t giving in to their way, but their argument is with God. For God is truly holy and perfect. Therefore, He sets the standard on holiness. He establishes His expectations. And since all of us fail to live by those expectations of perfection, we plead guilty of all sin and work to do better. We believe in Jesus who sets us free from our sin. We never insist that the Church or God’s ministers must now accommodate certain sins or give in to any sinful lifestyle. For that is darkness.

Jesus came as the light of the world to give us peace. We have peace with God through His work on the cross. He died to set us free from our sin. Therefore, having been set free, we do not return to our sin to place ourselves back in bondage. And when we are set free from our sin, we have peace with God and the confident hope of eternal life.

This, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is truly a life and death matter! The forgiveness of sins is all about saving lives. Jesus instituted the ministry so that sinners can have their sins forgiven. God establishes churches so that sinners can hear the saving Word of Christ, be absolved of their sin, be baptized into Christ, and receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Through these means, sinners are declared by God to be saints—holy ones.

This is not just a spiritual custom or ancient tradition. This is the way to everlasting life and salvation! Through Christ Jesus who shed His blood to take away the world’s sin.

I’ve heard several reports of churches being investigated for having services during the shelter-in-place mandates. It seems discriminatory to me when 50 people can pack into a grocery store, but 15 people are not allowed to gather in a church, spread far apart from one another. When the governor of Kansas was confronted for her restrictions on churches, she said that this is not about restricting religious freedom, but about saving lives. Now granted, she was talking about the temporary extension of a mortal human’s life. And of course, the Church is always interested in protecting human life.

But the true saving of lives does not occur through stay-at-home orders, restrictions on social gatherings, or even through hospitals or finding cures for diseases. Instead, the true saving of lives comes through Jesus who has given His orders to the Church—to forgive and retain sins. For without the forgiveness of sins, there is eternal death and condemnation. But with the forgiveness of sins, there is everlasting life and salvation.

The true, eternal saving of lives is the work of Christ through His Church. That is why, after appearing to many on Easter and after expounding to the Emmaus disciples how the Scriptures testify of Him, Jesus then establishes the ministry by breathing on His disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit, and sending them out to forgive and retain sins. There is nothing more important in this life than the work of Christ through the Church. Therefore, listen intently to His Word, for it is truly spirit and life. As John 20:31 reports in our Gospel, “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.” This gift of everlasting life is granted to you because Jesus Himself rose from the dead and He lives. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen