John 20: 19-31

When considering the infamous account of “doubting Thomas”, we often skip over the beginning, and focus on questions of why Thomas demanded to see our Lord himself, and refused to accept anything else. To be sure, that is important for us to consider. But it’s far too easy to skip over what Jesus was there to instruct his disciples about!

We know the disciples were hiding in fear, likely in fear that Jewish leaders would be after them. Everyone by then knew the tomb was empty, but unbelievers would only be able to draw one conclusion – that someone had stolen the body away to fake the resurrection! 

So they were hiding in fear, perhaps being afraid of the Jewish leaders, but perhaps also because even if they believed Jesus rose, they were afraid of their God, that they had abandoned him at his death! Hiding from God in fear …does that sound familiar? 

Adam and Eve couldn’t hide from God back in Genesis, and neither could these disciples hide from Jesus. Only, when Jesus came through their locked door and appeared, he did not come to preach condemnation for their sin. He said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  

To Adam, God preached the curse of sin, and the hope of redemption. But now, our God speaks “peace” to us when we are afraid. For any sin that makes us want to hide from our Lord, no matter if we feel we have done so wrongly as to betray our God, Jesus shows us his wounds, to remind us that his wounds have paid the debt of our sin. Jesus brings peace to us sinners.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” This is the part we often neglect from this story. It’s not just that Jesus has died and risen from the dead, though no doubt that is the focus of our faith. But even so, properly speaking, there is more work to be done for God’s Kingdom. The Father sent me, Jesus said, but now it is time for me to send you. You, my chosen apostles, whom I have been teaching and training. You have a purpose. 

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

We call this the Office of the Keys when we teach it to our children from the Catechism. Christ has granted the keys of forgiveness to the church, to unlock the sins of the repentant, but to lock up and withhold forgiveness from those who are unrepentant, who refuse to acknowledge, or who are even proud of their sins. 

This isn’t a very popular teaching, especially among protestant Christians, our evangelical or non-denominational brethren in Christ. This teaching is associated with those Catholics! It’s understandable. No doubt at times this teaching has been corrupted and abused by the church, to take advantage of sinners and tell them they are not good enough to be forgiven. Truly Truly, as our Lord says, it would be better for a millstone to be tied around the neck of any pastor or teacher, including myself(!), than to let us allow a broken and repentant sinner to believe they cannot be forgiven.

The Office of the Keys is a teaching that has been abused, and yet it is a teaching our Lord gives us plainly here in John 19.  “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

To teach this when I first arrived here at Concordia, Sarah gave a beautiful illustration for our children. She held out a key chain, and showed them that just as you might have a key for your car, or for your house or office door, so also as the new pastor here, the congregation had granted me the key to publically forgive sins, according to this teaching. That’s how we begin every Divine Service, with corporate confession, and me granting corporate absolution. “In the stead, and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That command comes from here. You as a congregation have called me to do this publically here on your behalf. It is not a key that I own, no more so than my office door key, but it is a key that Christ granted to the church, and that you in turn as a specific congregation have granted to me. 

Jesus granted this to his disciples because that was the next step of salvation. We focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and rightly so. But Jesus tells us it is also necessary that he leave and ascend to the right hand of the Father, to sit in the place of authority over all creation. It’s part of what proves his title as the Christ, the King of Kings! If all he did was die and rise again, well what makes him better than Lazarus?! But seated with the Father now, we know that Jesus will never die again, and because of the forgiveness he now grants his people, he promises the same for us as well!

So Jesus prepares the church for when he leaves. He sends the Holy Spirit, and he grants to these men, whom he will soon send out in the world, even to the gentiles, – he gives them his teaching and authority, even the authority to forgive sins! 

Jesus groomed his apostles for this mission. They had been with him since the beginning of his ministry, they heard all his teaching, witnessed his miracles, and could share with eyewitness testimony how he had fulfilled what all the Old Testament prophets had foretold. It’s not just that Jesus is the son of God who just happened to appear, but he is the Son of God who had been promised to all of the world ever since the fall of man. It is through this eyewitness testimony that all of our New Testament books, every single Gospel or epistle, is attached to one of these disciples or  to St. Paul, whom Jesus appeared to later. Andeven St. Paul defers to the 12 disciples in that they witnessed more of our Lord’s ministry.

But at this moment, when Jesus is granting the keys of forgiveness to the church, there was one problem. I just emphasized the importance of eyewitness testimony to the church, how it’s what God used to write our New Testament, but there was one set of eyes missing to behold our risen Lord, and receive this mission. Thomas.

This is a serious matter that Thomas was not with them, for whatever reason he wasn’t there. He cannot act properly as an apostle and eye witness of our Lord if he cannot even verify the truth that Jesus bodily rose. 

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”  No doubt there was some sinful unbelief in Thomas’ heart, as well all have at times, and it’s true he could have believed even apart from seeing, but there is an importance for him as an apostle to witness the risen Lord as well. 

So Jesus comes again, the same way, through a locked door, with the same words: Peace be with you. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

That’s tangible proof of a bodily resurrection. So Thomas cannot help but exclaim: My Lord and my God!” If he was doubting Thomas before, we should only know him as Believing Thomas now.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

We are those who are blessed because we have not seen and yet believe. But our God worked through true and verifiable eyewitness testimony to write the Holy New Testament that the Holy Spirit works through for us to believe now. We are not like Mormons or Muslims, who each have only one prophet who claims that God gave them a private and special revelation. 

For us, our God worked through many, many saints throughout the Old Testament and New Testament to bear witness about him, who were willing even to die painfully to confess this faith. The word martyr, which we associate with dying for the faith, means more basically to witness about the faith. These disciples, whom Jesus appeared to, received no earthly glory for this eyewitness testimony they shared. Rather, most, if not all, were put to death for this faith and for their witness.

And yet, through this, even though we do not see, we can believe, and we can be forgiven our sins. Thanks be to God. 

John, the disciples who wrote this Gospel, tells us that Jesus did many other incredible things, but that these words were recorded for us to believe and have life in his name. Not to be forgotten among these teachings of Jesus is the Keys of forgiveness Jesus granted to his church. 

Let us boldly continue this practice of the keys of forgiveness, both to encourage broken sinners to be released from their sins, but also to withhold forgiveness from those who do not repent, praying that this binding of sins would not serve as eternal judgement, but instead would cause them to ponder the severity of their sins, that it would soften their hearts, and that they would then repent and receive this free forgiveness we are offered. 

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.