On the evening of Easter Day, the disciples were gathered together. They were not meeting to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. They were not rejoicing in Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. This was not a gathering of faith; instead, it was a gathering of unbelief. The disciples, who should have benefited from more than three years of the best theological training in the history of the world, were cowering behind locked doors in fear for their lives. They didn’t believe the testimony of Mary Magdalene who had seen the risen Lord. They didn’t believe Jesus’ own words, that he would be crucified and rise again after three days. What Jesus had said stood in conflict with the reality of death. So, in spite of Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the disciples believed that death, not Jesus, was lord. They were gathered together in fear. That had seen Jesus die, and they trusted that death would have the final word.
The disciples had another reason to be afraid. Jesus had said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). But in the first time of persecution, all the disciples had forsaken Jesus and fled. Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mt 10:33). Yet Peter had denied Jesus with oaths and curses, and Judas had betrayed him. They had shown themselves to be the worst sort of disciples, and if Jesus somehow was not dead, he had a right to be angry with them. You’ve all seen the movies where the guy that was supposed to be in prison for life, has been released, and now he’s looking for vengeance. So, the disciples might have had every reason to fear the Resurrection.
Now, with the doors having been locked where the disciples were on account of fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and says to them, “Peace be to you” (Jn 20:19).
The doors were locked for fear of the Jews, but locked doors don’t discriminate. They keep out all kinds of unwelcome guests – unless that guest happens to be Jesus. In that case, Jesus simply comes uninvited, locks or no locks, and stands in the midst, saying, “Peace be to you.” This is not simply a greeting. These are not empty words. Often, we say to a stranger, “How are you?” but we aren’t really asking. We don’t mean our words. It’s just a greeting. Not so with Jesus. Our resurrected Lord stands before his disciples, the scars of his battle against sin, death, and hell still visible on his hands and side and declares his victory with these words, “Peace be to you.” These are words of absolution. No doubt, the disciples were troubled by specific sins – forsaking and denying their Lord, fearing to suffer for his name, and especially, for their unbelief. All these sins are forgiven in Christ’s words, “Peace be to you.”
But there is more to this peace. The sins that trouble us merely flow from the source of original sin, the sin nature born in every man and woman since Adam. In the garden, all humankind chose to believe the word of Satan over and against the Word of God. We refused to trust in God as our Father, and instead willingly became allies of Satan. As Paul writes, “You were once alienated and hostile in mind” (Col 1:21) and again, “we were enemies [of God]” (Ro 5:10). Eating of the fruit was our declaration of war. Nevertheless, God proclaimed to Satan that he would not allow this new alliance to stand. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Ge 3:15). Through the seed of the woman, who is Christ, God promised to restore proper hatred between man and Satan, to break up our partnership with death. In Isaiah, the Lord God declares, “Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with hell will not stand” (Is 28:18).
The first promise of the Savior was given after God found Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden. It is fitting that when Jesus comes to announce the fulfillment of this prophecy, he would find the disciples, once again, hiding. So he stands before his terrified disciples and proclaims God’s verdict upon all the sons of Adam. “Peace be to you.” Jesus declares that our war against God is now over, our iniquity has been pardoned. The price of our peace, as Isaiah says, has been laid upon him. “Peace be to you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side (Jn 20:20). Here is the proof – the broken body of Jesus, held up in front of the disciples for all to see. The scars in his hands, the gash in his side testified to his words. Peace with God had come at a terrible price. We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (Ro 5:10). It cost Jesus everything – his blood, his life – yet he paid this price gladly. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross willingly, despising its shame (Heb 12:2).
It’s no coincidence that in Jesus’ first encounter with his disciples following his victory upon the cross, he proclaims to them peace and the forgiveness of sin. By the sin of one man, Adam, Satan had brought death into this world. Sin separated us from God. Sin wreaked havoc upon God’s perfect creation. But now, on the first day of the new week, the eighth day of creation, Jesus had fulfilled God’s promise to redeem fallen creation. In the beginning, through the power of his Word, God spoke the universe into being. With his Word he breathed life into Adam, as he also did to the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. And now, in a parallel act of re-creation, Jesus, having conquered the curse of death, breathes life into his disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:22-23). This is why Christ established his church and sent out his apostles. For even as Jesus was sent by the Father, announcing peace with God and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, so also, Jesus sends his disciples “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47). This is the task of the church: To proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection, and in his name to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. Just as sin brought death into the world, so the forgiveness of sins gives life to all believers.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of faithless disciples became a gathering of believers, and the disciples rejoiced that they had seen the Lord (Jn 20:20). Even though their faith had been weak, or non-existent, they had gathered together according to Jesus’ promise, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). And true to his word, he was there among them. Death could not keep him away. The grave was powerless to hold him. Our resurrected Lord stood among his disciples, as he stands among us today, announcing the forgiveness of sins, bestowing the Holy Spirit, and strengthening – or creating – faith. Today our Lord speaks his words of absolution to you: “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” And then he shows us the proof of that peace – his broken body that he holds up before our eyes. Here is peace. Here is forgiveness. Given and shed for you. This truly is the Divine Service, where God comes to us bestowing his gifts, and we rejoice because we have seen the Lord. Amen.