Peace Be With You! (4/8/18)

Text: John 20:19-31

Theme: Peace Be With You!

I think that almost everyone assembled here this morning could come up with a working definition for the word, “persecution.” We know what persecution is, but how many of us know how persecution feels? To the point that our freedoms are taken away. To the point that we find ourselves in real danger. To the point that we lie awake at night knowing that our enemies could break down the door at any moment and carry us away.

The vast majority of American Christians have never faced that kind of persecution. Coming to church this morning didn’t put us in any great danger. We don’t have to keep an eye on the exits to plot out our escape routes today. Physical persecution isn’t a part of our for-the-most-part comfortable, uneventful lives.

The disciples, on the other hand, knew what persecution felt like by personal experience. On Easter Sunday, on a day that should have been a day of open celebration, the disciples were huddled together behind locked doors. Why? Only two days earlier, the authorities had put Jesus to death, but they weren’t finished. Their Lord was gone, and his followers feared that they would be next.

Imagine the joy that filled their hearts when Jesus himself appeared in that locked room. The same eyes that had witnessed his suffering, the same eyes that shed tears of sorrow now saw Jesus alive. They touched him with their hands. They listened to his comforting words. To hearts that were caught somewhere in between doubt and despair, the risen Lord brought a message of peace.

We may not face the same level of adversity today, but our lives are not trouble free either. We are free to worship God wherever and whenever we choose, but followers of Jesus still face persecution in more subtle forms. When we are discouraged, when we feel like we are fighting a losing battle, when we feel like we are all alone, our risen Savior comes to us too, and he proclaims a message of peace:

Peace Be With You!

I. Doubt destroys our peace
II. Jesus destroys our doubts

If you had to choose a single word to describe the mood of the disciples on Easter Sunday evening, that word might be confused. That day there had been a number of Jesus’ sightings. Mary Magdalene claimed that she had seen Jesus outside the empty tomb. Peter and John raced to the grave only to find it empty. Two other disciples hurried back from Emmaus with the report that Jesus had appeared to them too.

Could it be? How could it be? The disciples wanted to believe these reports, but they sounded too good to be true. Even when Jesus himself appeared to them that night, they doubted that he was the Lord. Luke’s account tells us that the disciples were frightened because they thought Jesus was a ghost.

Jesus was finally able to convince his disciples that he was no ghost, but one of them was absent. When Thomas returned, the others declared, “We have seen the Lord! (25),” but Thomas remained skeptical. Try to imagine the conversation. The other disciples: “Thomas, we saw him with our own eyes. You have to believe us. Jesus is alive!” Thomas: “Sure he is. You might think you saw him, but I didn’t see anything. Maybe you guys are beginning to crack under the pressure, but not me.”

Thomas doubted that such a miracle was possible. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive unless he had proof. And he demanded not just one, but two specific forms. First, he needed to see Jesus face-to-face. And just to make sure that what he was seeing was real, he insisted that he be able to feel the wound marks in Jesus’ hands and side.

Doubt is a slippery sin, and it is not usually an “end” sin. In other words, doubt is rarely the last sin a person commits. Doubt wears down the foundations of our faith. Doubt causes us to question what we believe. The sin of doubt often leads to other sins and, if it is allowed to grow out of control, doubt will destroy faith.

Satan can sniff out our doubts with the skill of a bloodhound. He senses when we are weak. He strikes when we are the most vulnerable. When the peace of God is what we need most, Satan tries to sow seeds of doubt. He may approach when you are going through a difficult time in your life. He may try to gain a foothold when you are struggling with a certain Bible truth.

Luther once compared the doubting Christian to a man on the street who holds out an offering plate seeking donations, but then refuses to hold the basket in one place. If he keeps moving the basket all over the place, back and forth and up and down, what will he have in the end? Probably nothing. Completing the comparison, Luther observed: “So it is with a wavering, unbelieving heart. God would like to give what we need. But there we stand, like a foolish beggar, holding out our hat for gifts but not holding it still.”

The sinful nature in us wants to believe that evidence is what we need. If we have tangible proof, then we will believe. Then we will be able to trust God’s promises. God, however, doesn’t work that way. If God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to, or if he doesn’t send down lightning bolts from the heavens or give us some other sign, that doesn’t mean God is ignoring us. But if we demand answers and don’t get the answers we are looking for, then it is easy for doubt to take over. And when our hearts are filled with doubts, there is no place for peace.

When we are weak, when we are vulnerable, when our doubts threaten to lead us to despair, Jesus comes to us and repeats those beautiful words, “Peace be with you.” Doubts threaten to destroy our peace, but Jesus has destroyed all our doubts.

A message of peace was definitely what the disciples needed to hear. In addition to fearing for their lives, they must have been dealing with terrible feelings of guilt. They had all deserted Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And where were most of them during Jesus’ trial? Probably hiding somewhere, maybe in the same locked room. None of them stood up for Jesus. Not one of them spoke up in Jesus’ defense. The forty eight hours after the crucifixion must have felt like an eternity. They had nothing but time to think, time to ponder questions like: “What have we done?” and “What do we do now?”

And then Jesus appeared. The living Lord stood among them with a real glorified body, and he greeted his disciples. Not with a tongue lashing. Not to express his deep disappointment. He said: “Peace be with you!” The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom,” a common word of greeting. But Jesus was not just wishing peace upon them. He was reminding them that he had established peace for them. The terrible events of Holy Week were all part of God’s plan. Jesus willingly humbled himself. Jesus suffered and died to take away their sins and the sins of the whole world, to give them the peace of forgiveness, to give them eternal peace with God.

Jesus sealed our redemption on Good Friday. Just before he died on the cross, the Lord declared, “It is finished,” but he wasn’t. On Easter Sunday he gave us proof of his victory. He rose from the dead to remove all doubt. And Jesus appeared to the disciples one week later to take care of some unfinished business.

This time Thomas was with the disciples. The Lord opened with the same familiar greeting, but you get the feeling that that Jesus was looking right at Thomas this time when he said: “Peace be with you” (26)! When Thomas reluctantly came forward, Jesus invited him to get the proof he thought he needed. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (27).

In a way, you have to feel for Thomas. There were moments when every one of the disciples doubted that Jesus was alive, but Thomas has been singled out as the disciple who lacked faith. Even today, if you don’t believe something that is generally held to be true, you are quickly labeled a “doubting Thomas.”

Thomas wasn’t perfect, but who is? He demonstrated a lack of faith, but who hasn’t? And when Jesus appeared to Thomas and destroyed his doubts, Thomas responded with a beautiful confession of faith, “My Lord and my God” (28). According to Christian tradition, Thomas eventually carried the gospel all the way to India. Thomas was a sinner. Thomas made mistakes. But to only call him “doubting” Thomas is unfair. He is also Thomas, the apostle. He is Thomas, the missionary. And we should always remember him as Thomas, the redeemed child of God.

The Lord told him: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (29). We count ourselves among the blessed ones Jesus is talking about. None of us has seen Jesus. We didn’t witnesses any of his many miracles. And yet we believe. We believe that Jesus died for us, and we confess with confidence that he has risen and that he will come again.

There is no such thing as a perfect faith. There are times in our lives when we are slow to trust, when we question, when we doubt. Satan’s goal is to wear us down, to rob us of the peace that Christ has won for us. But Jesus has removed those doubts once and for all. He destroyed our doubts and fears when he died on the cross, and our risen Savior has given us peace. Peace is knowing that our sins are forgiven. Peace is knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Peace is knowing that death is only a gate that leads to eternal life.

The third time is the charm. I don’t know where that saying comes from, but it has special meaning for disciples of Jesus. Once to Thomas and the other disciples a week after his resurrection, twice to the disciples who were in hiding on Easter Sunday evening, and three times in our sermon text from John 20, Jesus repeats those simple, powerful words to encourage his followers today: “Peace be with you.” Amen.

Pastor Pagels