21 December 2016

The Peace of the Lord 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 to all His Christians.  It is in His Body that you find Him and have your Peace and Sabbath Rest.

Thomas should have been there with the disciples when Jesus came; and, having been absent, he should have believed their testimony.  But for his failure to believe the Word of the Gospel, he was called to repentance and brought to repentance, in order to receive the Lord Jesus, to be forgiven, and 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, 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 he 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 gathering of your family at home.  You should be no less aware when your fellow disciples, your brothers and sisters in Christ, are absent from His Body; and then, seek them out in love and call them home by the confession of His Cross and Resurrection, by the testimony of His Gospel.

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 they were, that rag-tag group of guys, 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 doubt.  Their faith waxed and waned, and they were often more skeptical than confident.

That gathering of disciples was not unlike our own congregation with all its ups and downs, with all its strengths and weaknesses, all its doubts and fears and hopes and dreams, and all its hurts both new and old.  You bring all that with you into this gathering, and your neighbors do, too.

How is it that such fractured and fragmented people become whole?  How is it 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?  How is it that you come to believe in Christ Jesus — that He was crucified for the forgiveness of all your sins, and that God the Father raised Him from the dead to be your righteousness, life, and salvation?

You have heard the answer in this Holy Gospel.  The Lord Jesus comes and stands in your midst, and He speaks, “Peace be with you!”  He calls you to repentance and thereby 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: the forgiveness of sins.

That Word is preached to you now from the testimony of the Holy Apostles, including Thomas.  In this respect they differ from you, and from all other Christians.  They surpass 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.

It is what the Holy Apostles have seen with their eyes, what they heard with their ears, and what they touched and handled, which they in turn 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, that you might believe by their proclamation of the 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; just as 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, that by their preaching and teaching, by their confession and their doctrine, you and others should believe in Him, and have life in Him, and share in the fellowship of the Holy Apostles — which is, in fact, to participate in the fellowship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

So, too, 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 the Church has handed over the same Lord Jesus through all the generations ever since, even to this time and place.  For along with the confession of the Cross and Resurrection, there is also the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, given first of all to the Twelve who ate and drank with Him both before and after His Passion; and what they received from Him, they delivered to His Church.  It is that apostolic tradition which continues to this day, and 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 that He did for Thomas, obviously.  You cannot put the Sacrament under a microscope and see the wounded hands and feet and side of Jesus.  But your ears hear the Word of the same Lord, who says: “Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink of it, all of you; this is My Blood.”

With this Word of Christ, He gives to you the fruits of His Cross and Passion, in which His almighty power has been made perfect in His weakness.  It is with 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, which is now poured out from His Chalice for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

He comes to you in this way, and He shares Himself with you in this way, in voluntary weakness and humility, so that you, even in great weakness, may receive Him and hold Him and rest yourself in Him without fear.  He knows your hurts, your wounds and scars of heart, mind, body, and soul.  He is your faithful and merciful High Priest, who has suffered and been tempted in every way that you are.  In compassion He has borne your hurts, and He still bears your wounds and scars in His Body.  He is forever the Lamb who has been slain, who died for you, and yet, behold, He lives.

It is remarkable and significant that St. Thomas recognizes Jesus by the marks of His Passion, by His hands and side.   Those wounds identify Him as the Crucified One.  But that is not all.  What St. Thomas recognizes in the wounded Body of Jesus is the Lord, his God.  That is not a case 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 comes down to relieve suffering, to 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 Man of flesh and blood like your own, with evidently open wounds in His hands and feet and side.  That is what God’s Body is like.  For He has made Himself like you.  Not only flesh and blood, but wounded, as you are, by your sins and by your death.  As Thomas was, and as all your neighbors are, some of them in ways you can see, and others in ways that you may never know, or that you will only perceive by listening carefully.

Consider what that means!  In your wounded, weak, and weary neighbors, you are given to see your dear Lord Jesus Christ.  And, yes, you are given to care for His Body by caring for your neighbors.  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 wounded neighbor, to your hurting brother or sister, to your friend or foe in need, than to reach out your hand for the Holy Sacrament.

For all of that, you are not the Savior of His Body.  Neither was St. Thomas, nor were any of the Holy 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 that He received upon His Cross have enabled you to enter into His Body by way of Holy Baptism, even as they now enable you to receive and to rest in His Body here at His Altar.  So it is that you are a member of His Body, the Church.  You belong to Him, and to one another in Him, and He belongs to you.

His Crucifixion embraces the wounded — all of them, everywhere, whatever their own wounds might be.  So His Crucifixion also fully embraces your woundedness, whatever it is.  He stretches forth His arms and He reaches out His hands to gather to Himself all the fractured and fragmented children of men, and by His grace He brings them into the fellowship of His own wounded Body.

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.  So does He remain with you, a merciful and great High Priest, all the while you bear the Cross in this life, even unto death.

Yet, it is this wounded Lord who has been raised from the dead, never to die again.  This Lamb who has been slain is alive forevermore.  In His Body of flesh and blood, the curse of sin has been undone, death has been defeated, and Satan has been crushed along with all of his 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.  You serve and support one another in and with His Love, 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 the Word of Christ, and by the apostolic fellowship of the Lord’s Altar.

Within this Body of Christ you share both His Cross and His Resurrection, and you are preserved by the power of His indestructible Life.  The wounded Body of Christ is risen from the dead, alive and glorified forever, and that is also true of you and your body and life in Him.  For 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 own body of flesh and blood be raised from the dead to life everlasting with the Holy Trinity.

Therefore, 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 in body and soul.  So does He abide with you, and so shall you abide with Him forevermore in the never ending 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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