21 December 2011

Peace Be with You in the Body of Christ

As a disciple, Thomas should have believed the testimony of the other disciples, who had seen the Lord. And as a disciple, he should have been there with them in the first place, when Jesus came. It is fundamental to the Christian faith and life to be gathered together with the other members of His Body, the Church, on the Lord’s Day. For it is in the gathering of His disciples in His Name that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus comes and takes His stand, and speaks His Word, and grants His Peace, and bestows His Spirit, and gives Himself to you and all His Christians. It is in His Body that you find Him, and have your peace and rest.

So, Thomas should have been there with the disciples when Jesus came, and, having not been there, he should have believed their testimony. For these things, he was called to repentance, and brought to repentance, to receive the Lord Jesus, to be forgiven, to be at peace, no longer faithless but believing. The fruits of his repentance are found, even in the midst of his cynical doubts and skepticism, in the fact that he was with the disciples on the Eighth Day. He was back in church. He was where he belonged, and where he needed to be.

We may certainly suppose that the other disciples were instrumental in re-gathering their brother Thomas to their fellowship. He doubted their word — and basically called into question, either their integrity or their sanity — but they did not shun him, shut him out, or spurn his presence. Evidently, they encouraged him to be there with them, and they supported him with their company. Precisely that kind of encouragement and support is part of what it means to be a congregation of the Church, to be members of one Body in Christ, to belong to the household and family of God.

You would notice and do something about it, if one of your children or siblings were absent from the family gathering. So should you be aware when your fellow disciples, your brothers and sisters in Christ, are absent from His Body, and in love seek them out and call them “home” with the confession of His Cross and Resurrection, with the testimony of His Gospel:

“Dear friend, we want you to be here with us. Not only so that you might love and serve us, but so that we might love and serve you. Let us bear one another’s burdens. Let us share your doubts and fears, your griefs and sorrows, and bear them with you in Christ Jesus. Let us hear His Word together, and pray and sing together, and thereby call upon His Name, and hope in His mercy.”

Whatever words and gestures the other disciples may have used, they had Thomas together with them again on the Eighth Day of Easter. And there the were, a rag-tag collection of men, tossed about and torn by mixed emotions, anxieties and hurts, weariness and expectations. One of their number, Judas, was already lost and gone, having hanged himself in despair. Simon Peter was yet to be restored, after having denied Jesus on the eve of His Passion. And despite the Resurrection appearances of the previous Sunday, and several eyewitness reports, the disciples still struggled with doubts; their faith waxed and waned, and they were as often incredulous as confident.

Who knows what hurt feelings there may have been among them? We know they had often argued among themselves, as to which of them was the greatest. There were jealousies and resentments between them, and no doubt as many differences of opinion as there were personalities. What reservations and suspicions did they have about each other, as they were gathered together behind closed doors? Was Thomas ashamed of himself, or feeling sorry for himself? Or was he covering up his fear and protecting himself by acting sullen or surly?

There’s always a lot going on beneath the surface, and more than meets the eye, in a roomful of sinners. Frail, fallen men of mortal flesh and blood are besieged and beleaguered by all kinds of things, constantly in flux. You know that from your own experience. In truth, that gathering of disciples was not unlike this congregation, with ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, doubts and fears, hopes and dreams, and hurts both new and old. You bring all of that with you into this place, into this gathering. So does your neighbor. So it was for Thomas and the other disciples.

How is it that such fractured and fragmented people become whole? How is that disagreements and division are healed and give way to community? Is it just that misery loves company, and so we get together to commiserate? Is it a case of circling the wagons against the big bad world out there? Or, what is it that brings you from being so afraid, so angry, so bitter and cynical, and so depressed, to being at peace — with God, with your neighbor, and with yourself — and believing in Christ Jesus: that He was crucified for all your sins, and that God the Father raised Him from the dead as your righteousness, life and salvation?

This, too, is for you and for this congregation as it was for Thomas and the other disciples: The Lord Jesus comes, and stands in your midst, and He speaks, “Peace be with you!” He calls you to repentance, which is to say, He calls you to Himself. For He has risen from the dead, and in His Resurrection He forgives you, He gives you life. His Absolution raises you from the dead, as surely as He Himself has been raised. That is what the preaching of His Gospel does, for His Word does and gives what it says: forgiveness of sins.

That Word is preached to you, even now, from the testimony of the Apostles then, including Thomas. In this respect they differ from you, and from all other Christians; they excel the prophets who came before them, and the pastors and teachers who follow after them. Blessed are their eyes, Jesus says elsewhere, because they have seen what the righteous men of old longed to see.

And what the holy Apostles have seen with their eyes, what they heard with their ears, and what they touched and handled, they have spoken and written, testified and professed for the whole Church on earth, even to the end of the age. What they believe, because they have seen, they give to you, who do not see, and yet you believe by their Word.

In this regard, as an Apostle, as one of the Twelve, Thomas is exactly right to insist upon seeing. It is necessary that he also be an eyewitness of the crucified and risen Jesus. His apostolic office and vocation require it, just as a replacement for Judas will need to be an eyewitness of the Resurrection, and Saul of Tarsus will behold the risen Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus.

That same Lord Jesus has given His Apostles to His Church, as the first of all His gifts, so that by their preaching and teaching, by their confession and their doctrine, you might believe in Him, and have life in Him, and share in the fellowship of the holy Apostles — which is, in fact, to share in the fellowship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Blessed are your ears, therefore, because they hear what the Apostles saw. And blessed are you, because faith comes by such hearing of the Word of Christ.

Not only that, but also, what St. Thomas the Apostle saw and touched and handled — the Body of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus — he has also handed over to the Church, and now to you. For along with the confession of the Cross and Resurrection, there is also given the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, which began with the Twelve, who ate and drank with Him both before and after His Passion. And, again, what they received from Him, they also delivered to His Church, and that apostolic tradition continues to this day, to this place, to this gathering of the disciples of Jesus in His Name.

In this Supper, Jesus does for you what He did for Thomas and the other disciples. He opens Himself to you. He entrusts Himself to you. In a sense, He humbles Himself, and makes Himself weak and vulnerable, subjecting Himself to being handled, investigated, and scrutinized, as it were. Not in the same way as He did for Thomas, obviously. You cannot put the Sacrament under a microscope and see the wounded hands and feet and side of Jesus; not with your eyes, at any rate. But your ears do hear the same Word of the same Jesus:

“Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink of it, all of you; this is My Blood.”

With this Word, He gives to you the fruits of His Cross and Passion, in which His almighty power has been made perfect in weakness. It is in such strength that He entrusts Himself to you, and suffers Himself to be grasped and consumed; that He might lay hold of you in love, and heal you, and grant you peace, and feed and sustain you, and give you His own life.

Here, then, is the flesh of Christ, which was nailed and pierced for you; the Body that was crucified for you. Here is the holy and precious Blood, which poured from His wounds on the Cross, now poured out for you from the Cup, for the forgiveness of your sins.

He comes to you in this way, and shares Himself with you in this way, in voluntary weakness and humility, so that you, who are weak, may receive Him and hold Him and rest yourself in Him without fear. He knows your hurts, your wounds and scars of heart and mind, body and soul; remember that He is your faithful and merciful High Priest, who has suffered and been tempted in every way that you are. Therefore, in compassion for you, He has borne your hurts, and He still bears in His Body your wounds and your scars. He is forever the Lamb who has been slain, who died for you, and yet, behold, He lives. He is your Passover, who has been sacrificed for you. He is your Meal, your Meat and Drink. He does not consume you, but He bids you to eat and drink.

It is remarkable, really, that St. Thomas recognizes Jesus by the marks of His Passion, by His bodily wounds. They identify Him as the Crucified One, to be sure, and yet, there He is, standing in front of Thomas, talking to him; not a ghost, but a true Man, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Son. Thomas, the twin, certainly understands that wounds and scars distinguish this Man, Jesus, from anyone else who might have looked like Him. This is no case of mistaken identity, then.

But, remarkably, what St. Thomas recognizes in the wounded Body of Jesus is the Lord, his God. And that isn’t a matter of logic or reason or scientific proof. That is the theology of the Cross. That is the true greatness and glory of God, the grace of His Self-giving for the salvation of sinners. That is divine compassion, which does not simply comfort, console, and commiserate, but condescends to relieve suffering and rescue from all harm and danger, from hurt and pain, from doubt and fear, from sin and death.

How ironic is that? Your Lord and your God is this wounded Man. True, Thomas got to see Him in a way that you don’t. But, then again, consider what it was that Thomas actually saw: a Man of real flesh and blood, like his own (like yours), with evidently open wounds, into which he could poke his finger or insert his whole hand. That is what the Body of Christ is like. That is what God’s Body is like. Because He has made Himself your twin. He has made Himself like you. Not only flesh and blood, but wounded, scarred. As you are. As Thomas was. As all your neighbors are; some of them in ways you can see, and others of them in ways you may never know, or that you will only perceive by listening carefully.

So, then, I want you to consider this: In your wounded, weak and weary neighbor, you are given to see your dear Lord, Jesus Christ. And, yes, you are given to care for His Body, by caring for your neighbor. So closely has He identified Himself with fallen man, and joined Himself to fallen man. So closely has He identified Himself with you, and joined Himself to you. No sooner should you be ashamed or afraid to reach out your hand to your neighbor, to your hurting brother or sister, to your friend or foe in need, than to reach out your hand for the Sacrament.

But you are not the Savior of His Body. Nor was St. Thomas, nor any of the Apostles. It is rather His Body that saves you and all of His disciples. It is to His disciples that He gives His Body, and as you eat, so you are; as you drink His Blood, so do you have His Life and His Spirit in you, and the power of His Resurrection. The wounds of His Cross have enabled you to enter into His Body by way of Holy Baptism, to receive and rest in His Body in the Holy Communion. And thus you are a member of His Body, the Church. The flaws and failings of His Christians — your own flaws and failings, and those of your fellow disciples — are no proof against His Resurrection, His Life and Salvation, but by such wounds you recognize your Lord, your Savior and your God.

His Crucifixion embraces the wounded — all of them, everywhere, whatever their woundedness might be. His Crucifixion fully embraces your woundedness, too, whatever it is. He reaches out His arm, and stretches out His hand, to gather to Himself all the fractured and fragmented children of men, and He brings them into the fellowship of His own wounded Body.

Who, then, would dare to say that anyone does not belong here?

He retains His wounds, even in His glorious Resurrection from the dead, in order to gather such disciples to Himself from all the nations, even to the close of the age. And, so as to remain closer than a brother, a merciful and great High Priest, to all of His disciples on earth — including you — while you bear the Cross, even unto death.

Nevertheless, this wounded One has also been raised, never to die again. This Lamb who has been slain is alive forevermore. In Him — in His own Body of flesh and blood — the curse of sin has been undone, death has been defeated, and Satan has been crushed with all his dire accusations.

Which is why the gathering of the disciples of Jesus is far more than a pity party or misery loving company. It is a holy communion of men and women, boys and girls, united to one another within the one Body of Christ Jesus. You are knitted and joined together by Him, who is your Head. Therefore, you share His life, and you live in Him, and together you are growing and maturing into the fullness of the stature that belongs to Christ. In love, you serve and support one another, and the whole Body is built up through mutual repentance and forgiveness. Not by your own reason or strength, but by the apostolic ministry of the Gospel, by the apostolic doctrine of Christ, by the apostolic fellowship of the Lord’s Altar.

The health and strength of the Body is the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, all of which is granted by the apostolic Word that is preached to you.

Within this Body of Christ, though you are wounded, and you are crucified, dead, and buried with Him, you also share in His Resurrection, and you are preserved by the power of His indestructible Life. The wounded Body of Christ is also risen, alive and glorified, and that is also true of you in Him. The wounds that you see and feel and experience in yourself do not undo or contradict your faith and life in Christ. They do not rob you of His righteousness and holiness, which are yours by His grace, bestowed upon you by and from His wounds.

As surely as the Body and Blood of Christ are given and poured out for you to eat and to drink, so surely shall your body of flesh and blood be raised from death to life everlasting.

Do not be afraid. This Altar of the Lord is your Peace and Sabbath Rest, and here His Peace is with you, as He Himself is with you. So does He abide with you, and so shall you be with Him, where He is forevermore, unto the eternal Eighth Day of His Resurrection.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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