There is an unfortunate tendency to view Salvation as basically a commodity to be obtained, as a carrot on a stick to motivate good works, and as a purely future hope. Along with those ideas is the notion of the Gospel as facts and information about Jesus, His Cross and Resurrection — as truth to be learned and accepted and filed away in your brain like a warranty on some purchase.
But Salvation is not a commodity. It is rather your participation, by grace alone, in the divine Life of the Holy Trinity — which is yours already here and now, in spite of sin, death, and the devil, by faith in the Gospel. It is an all-encompassing reality, determined by the Lord your God from before the foundation of the world, but accomplished, established, and embodied for you and for all in the Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead — and given to you by the Word and Spirit of God in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Name of Jesus, in the waters of Holy Baptism in His Name, and in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood.
The Gospel, therefore, although it certainly does include historical facts and true information about Jesus, is much more a matter of Christ Jesus coming to you and sharing Himself with you, body and soul, by the speaking of His Word, by the breathing of His Holy Spirit, and by the giving of His good Gifts from the Tree of His Cross in the Liturgy of His Gospel.
Accordingly, your Christian faith and life are not to be found in academic abstractions, far less in your personal feelings and emotions, but in the flesh-and-blood Person of Jesus Christ, in His living and active Word, which actually does what it says and gives what it promises, and in His Body, crucified and risen from the dead, given and poured out for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of sins. To live by faith in Him, therefore, is not so much a matter of what you know and understand as it is a matter of what you hear and receive; for faith comes by the hearing of the Word of Christ, that you might have life in His Name even without seeing Him with your eyes.
That gets right to the heart and purpose of this familiar Holy Gospel, although it is regrettably too often focused on the man who is commonly known as “Doubting Thomas.” That is not the title of St. Thomas in the Holy Scriptures, but rather a description that many have since associated with that holy Apostle of our Lord (perhaps because it makes us all feel better about our own doubts).
In point of fact, Thomas was hardly alone among the Apostles in his doubts. All of them doubted at first, according to the record of the Holy Gospels; and all of them required visible evidence and proof of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus before they would believe. What is more, precisely as Apostles of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, it was actually fundamental and even necessary — as St. John has noted in his First Epistle — that these men be eyewitnesses of Christ and His Cross and Resurrection, and thus able to testify and proclaim, not only what they have heard and seen, but what they have touched with their hands (in very much the way St. Thomas requested!).
But even so, and even as important and essential as the Apostolic Office truly is, this Holy Gospel is not really about St. Thomas (neither his doubts nor his confession), but about the Lord Jesus. It is to Him that the Holy Apostolic Ministry of the Gospel points, that you may have Life in Him. And as such, His Words and actions, and His response to St. Thomas, are the key to this Gospel.
Remarkably, the risen Lord Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what that man boldly demanded: “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.”
More to the point, Christ Jesus does much the same for you, as well. He responds to your doubts and fears with that same patience and compassion that He exercised with St. Thomas and the other disciples, with the same love that took Him to His Cross and Passion in the first place, and with the same forgiveness of sins that He obtained for you and for all people by His atoning Sacrifice.
He comes to you right where you are, locked up inside your little room of anxiety, confusion, and cynical uncertainty. And just when it all seems lost and hopeless, there He is, right there in the thick of it, in the middle of all your chaos and difficulties, bestowing His Peace and hope and joy.
Your dear Lord Jesus does not come to scold you for your doubts. He comes to ease your doubts by strengthening your faith — by responding to your doubts with the forgiveness of His Cross.
With that in mind, just think about the fact that poor “Doubting Thomas” is not remembered in the Bible for the sake of his doubts, but as one of the sainted Apostles of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
The Flesh and Blood of Jesus were more than adequate to heal the doubts of St. Thomas and the others, and to replace those doubts with the faith and Spirit of God. So those men did not die in false belief, despair, or other shame and vice, but in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.
And the very same Jesus who came to them in mercy and granted them His Peace now also comes to you and heals you, because St. Thomas and the other holy Apostles were sent into all the world to preach and teach His Word, to distribute His good Gifts, and to forgive sins in His Name.
That’s really the whole point to the word, “Apostle,” taken into English directly from the Greek word for someone who is sent with legal authority to speak and act on behalf of the sender. Think of an ambassador from one country to another, or the “power of attorney” that some of you may have been given for the benefit of an aging parent, an ailing spouse, or another loved one in need.
To receive an Apostle of Christ Jesus, therefore, is equal to receiving the Lord Jesus Himself, as He says to His sent ones: “He who hears you, hears Me; and he who receives you, receives Me.”
It is not by accident or coincidence that Christ Jesus comes to you with His Gospel in this way — that is, by the Apostolic Ministry of His Word and Sacraments. It is by His own divine Wisdom, according to His good and gracious Will, out of His great love for you and all other sinners, that your Lord has chosen to deal with you and give Himself to you in this way and by these means.
To consider the Office of the Keys, established and given by Christ Himself in this Holy Gospel, it’s not for any of us to speculate as to “how” or “why” the practice of Confession and Absolution should be beneficial and salutary for Christians. It is simply received as a gracious Gift of God in Christ Jesus, in the humble honesty of repentant faith, and with thanksgiving for such mercy.
As the Catechism has taught you to confess, when the Called Ministers of Christ deal with you in this way — by His divine command — it is valid and certain before God in heaven, because it is the way and the means by which Christ Jesus Himself cares for you within His Church on earth.
Through this Apostolic Ministry — of sinful, doubting men like Thomas, sinners like yourself — Christ comes to you with the mercy and forgiveness of His nail-scarred hands and spear-pierced side, in order to preserve you in His Word and faith, and to give you Life with God in Himself.
And along with that, Christ Jesus speaks and bestows His “Peace” upon your heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit. The Words with which He greets His disciples on each appearance in this Holy Gospel were a common liturgical greeting of the Jewish synagogue, now filled with new meaning and content by His Resurrection. And those same Words are likewise spoken to you, time and again, in His Liturgy of the Gospel, actually bestowing the very Peace which they declare.
It is for all of these Words and works of Christ Jesus that He calls and gathers you together in this “Upper Room” of His Church. For He desires to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, to give you His Life, and to grant you His Peace in both body and soul, by the Ministry of His Word. And it is here within His Church — where His disciples are gathered in His Name — that He does so.
He calls you to come, to hear and receive this Ministry, and to participate in the divine, eternal Life of the Holy Trinity in this Liturgy of His Gospel, because this hearing, receiving, and participating are your Christian faith and life and salvation in Christ Jesus in this body and life on earth, while you await the Resurrection of your body to the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Paradise. Hearing the Gospel and receiving the Lord’s Supper are as fundamental, vital, and essential to the spiritual life of your body and soul as breathing, eating, and drinking are to your temporal life.
That comparison is implicit in the way that Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon His Disciples in this case, in much the same way that God breathed His living and Life-giving Spirit into Adam. Indeed, as God’s Breath or Spirit gave life to Adam and his family, so does the Breath or Spirit of God bestow new life in body and soul upon all who receive the Ministry of the Apostles, which is the Ministry of Christ Himself. For Christ Jesus is actively present and at work in that Ministry, in His Church here and now, breathing His Spirit into you by His Gospel, His forgiveness of sins.
Though you have not seen the risen Lord Jesus with your eyes, you are blessed to believe in Him; not because you’ve been convinced by the facts and chosen to believe, but because the Spirit of Christ Jesus has worked repentance and faith in your heart, mind, body, and life by the preaching of His Word, by the washing of the water with His Word, and by His forgiveness of your sins.
Apart from these Gifts Christ freely gives — which are not simply from Christ Jesus, but they are the Gift and Presence of Christ Jesus Himself, His Word and Spirit, Body and Blood — apart from these Gifts you have no faith or life with God. That is the grave danger that you put yourself in when you absent yourself from the Liturgy of His Gospel, when you decline to be gathered with His disciples for the preaching of His Word, and when you are not present for His Holy Supper.
Then you are like Thomas when he missed out on that first appearance of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to His Apostles. We’re not told where he was, or why, but the significant and consequential point is that Thomas was not where the disciples were gathered on the Lord’s Day. And in much the same way, when you go your own way, when you rely on your own resources, and when you trust your own misguided sense of what is true and real, then you are left with your own doubts and skepticism, stuck in your own misery and fear, and burdened by your own sin and mortality.
Christ be praised that, even at those times of greatest doubt and deepest depression, at those times when you feel utterly trapped by your circumstances, and when it seems that absolutely nothing will go right — even then, your dear Lord Jesus has not forgotten you. He rather remains right here for you with the promise of His Gospel. By His Word of Absolution, He grants to you the blessing of His Peace. And He would give into your mouth His own Body and Blood, by which He forgives all your doubts, worries, and fears, and so also restores your faith, hope, and love.
St. John beautifully points to that ongoing Ministry of the Gospel when he makes mention of the “many other Signs” that Jesus performs in the presence of His disciples, which really continue to the ends of the earth and even to the close of the age. For those “Signs” of Christ Jesus include His Word and works within His Church on earth, and so also here for you — His Means of Grace and Life and every Blessing — the cleansing and new birth of Holy Baptism, the forgiveness of His Holy Gospel, and His Body given, His Blood poured out for you in the Holy Communion.
In these “Signs” of Christ Jesus, you are given nothing less than Christ Jesus Himself. And in Him, you also have that perfect Peace with God which surpasses all your human understanding.
In the Apostolic Ministry of the Gospel you have fellowship with St. John and St. Thomas and all of the Holy Apostles; and that fellowship is with the Father and His Son in the Holy Spirit — and so also with all of the children of God in Christ Jesus, who are members of His Body and Bride, the one, holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church of all times and places, on earth as it is in heaven. That is what is here for you, given and poured out for you from the wounds of Jesus at His Altar, that you should not die in your doubts and fears, but live forever with the Lord who loves you.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.