John 20:19-31: Forgive and Retain Sins

Locked doors—the disciples hide behind them in fear.  They fear arrest and execution, for that happened to Jesus.  Why should events be different for them?  His body was missing, and His tomb was empty.  Who took the body?  Where was He buried now?

Peter and John went to the tomb and entered it.  The bodiless burial linens confronted their eyes.  A risen Jesus spoke to Mary from Magdala.  So, why did they hide?  The news of the empty tomb came to them!  If Jesus rose from death, what do they need to fear?  He conquered death, and the grave stands open and empty.  Death’s venomous stinger is devoid of its eternal poison.

Why did fear still control them?  They didn’t believe.  They wavered.  The news of a risen, living Jesus seemed too unbelievable to be true.  Jesus even prepared them.  He told them three times that He would die and rise.  Even though Mary spoke of seeing a risen-from-death Jesus, and Peter and John walked into an empty, open tomb, they didn’t believe.  Dead men don’t rise from death.

But defying their worldview, Jesus appears before them.  No knocking on the door, He just shows up, God with flesh, blood, and bone.  He shows up when and where He pleases; and He is pleased to appear before His disciples in that little room, on the first day of the week.

Jesus busts open a Divine Service: “Peace be with you,” which He also speaks to us in the Liturgy.  He shows them His hands and side, the marks of His death.  He is the crucified and risen One, the Lamb slain for the sins of the world.  His wounds prove it.

The disciples’ frightened hearts now delight in seeing their Lord.  Who wouldn’t be joyous?  He rose from death, as He said.  His words have weight, the weight of the One, who conquers death and the grave.  We best listen to Him.

“Peace be with you.”  Those words come from Jesus once more.  Isn’t once enough?  Not with Jesus.  He always wants to give you more!

The disciples won’t be hiding behind locked doors for long: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  Jesus is the Father’s Sent One, the Father’s Apostle, who now turns His disciples into His Apostles, the first pastors of the New-Covenant Church.  They are now “sent ones,” sent to speak by our Lord’s command and by His authority.

Jesus breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  In so doing, Jesus guarantees that His voice will still go out to His people in His Church until He reappears in glory.  Jesus didn’t send out a few men for it only to stop with them.  No, He was creating an Office: The Office of the Holy Ministry.

It starts with Jesus, who gives the deposit of the Faith to His Apostles (Jude 1:3).  They, in turn, ordain others.  Later, when Paul writes His Pastoral Epistles, he commands Pastors Timothy and Titus to ordain and appoint other men as pastors.

For now, those men in the locked room receive the words and breath of the risen Jesus.  His breath becomes their breath; His words, their words; His Spirit, their Spirit.  He is the Lord of life; and they are His pastors, whom He sends to speak His words.

Our Lord’s mandate is forgiveness.  He died and rose from the dead for that reason.  Jesus tells His first pastors to speak His forgiveness so His life-giving words would enter the ears of others—and they would believe.

Jesus announced to those Apostles, those first pastors, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”  He also told them, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Now, if a person releasing your sins is hard to believe, a pastor binding them is even tougher to take in.  “Who is this pastor to get between Jesus and me.  I don’t like that!”

Even so, the real Jesus commands his pastors—not only to forgive sins—but also to retain them, when needed.  Such a thankless task.  For as soon as he does so, calling someone to repent from his walking away from God, the person storms off in anger.  He goes to another church, and the cycle of unrepentance continues.

The Small Catechism teaches us:

When the called ministers of Christ use the keys according to His divine command—by absolving those who repent of their sins and are willing to change, or by excluding those who are openly unrepentant from the Christian congregation—it is just as valid and certain in heaven as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

Sometimes, visitors come and take offense when the pastor proclaims: “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  “Only God can forgive sins,” they assert!  They are correct—but have an incomplete understanding of the Faith.  For how does God choose to give His forgiveness to you?  Jesus tells us.

Speaking to the first pastors in His New-Covenant Church, Jesus means what He says and says what He means. “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you retain them, they are retained.”

Can the news of forgiveness be that good?  Does Jesus deliver His cross-won forgiveness into your ears?  Yes!  Is this what drives our Lord’s Church and ministry?  Yes!  Quick, find the pastor, demand him to forgive your sins in Jesus’ name.  Drag him by the scruff of his neck to listen to your confession, so he can speak God’s forgiveness into your ears.  Drop what you’re doing and run to confession.  Pastor, drop what you’re doing and speak God’s forgiveness to His repentant people.

Sinners need absolution.  So, why isn’t my week full of people running to me to confess their sins so they can receive our Lord’s forgiveness?  We don’t believe it.  Sin doesn’t bother us as it should.  We let the awkwardness of having to voice our sins to another keep us from confessing and hearing God’s forgiveness.

Thomas was away that Sunday.  Look what happens when you miss church!  You don’t receive the gifts Jesus wants to give you—no words, no wounds, no peace, only fear.  The others went and told him, but he didn’t believe them either.  Thomas wants hard evidence, evidence he can touch—Jesus’ hands and side.

A week later they are again behind locked doors.  Getting used to our freedom in Christ is not easy.  Our sinful nature doesn’t want to believe.  Prison, even if self-imposed, often seems safer.  So, be patient with the Apostles.  Give them 50 days, a Pentecost, and a risen Jesus will rise from their lips, without fear and foreboding.

Thomas is now with the Apostles.  Jesus appears again: “Peace be with you.”  Again, the hands and the side.  “Put your finger here.  Examine my hands.  Extend your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).  Jesus responded to Thomas’ demand!  You wanted proof, Thomas?  I give you such evidence!

Thomas brings veracity to John’s Gospel account.  For if you wanted to invent history about a resurrected Jesus, would you write about His closest disciples doubting His Word, questioning the good news, demanding proof?  No; after Thomas found out, he would cry out, “Alleluia!  Our Lord is alive!”

Events of that day, however, were different.  Thomas didn’t believe, even when others whom he trusted told him.  Thomas refused to believe—until his eyes took in and his hands went to touch the risen Lord.  After that, our Lord said to him: “Do not continue in unbelief, but believe.”

Jesus’ words are important, for Thomas needs those faith-creating words, with Jesus’ breath.  Believe, Thomas—and he does.  He believes and confesses, “My Lord and my God.”  A non-existent faith springs back, alive!

Your eyes didn’t see a resurrected, from-the-grave Jesus.  Your hands did not touch Him, but you can still listen to Him through His proclaimed Word and the living breath of His Spirit.  You can eat His body, hidden in the bread; you can drink His blood, hidden in the wine.  “Blessed are you.”  “Blessed are those who do not see me, but still believe” (John 20:29).

Thomas and the Apostles are eyewitnesses, testifying to Jesus’ resurrection.  You receive their words of witness and, later, confess what your ears received.  You are confessing the Word of Jesus, the Word, who is Jesus, who is living and active.  He is the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord, who breathes forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Every week, Jesus comes to us, as we gather here on the first day of the week.  Jesus comes to us in His Word, in the bread and wine of His Supper, through His pastors whom Jesus still gives to baptize, preach, teach, and yes, speak His forgiveness.  “Peace be with you.”  Your sins are forgiven, proclaimed with the breath and words of the crucified-and-risen Jesus.  “Do not continue in unbelief, but believe.”

The crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus is with you.  His real and living peace comes to you still: “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last, the Living One.  I was dead, but look, now I am alive—forever and always—and I hold the keys of death, of Hades!” (Revelation 1:18).  He’s unlocked the prison, and the doors are wide open.  He forgives your sins and defeats your death.  “Peace be with you.”  Amen.