The events in our Gospel text begin on the evening of Easter day. The women found the tomb empty. They saw the angel who said, “Jesus is not here. He is risen. Go tell the disciples and Peter that he goes before you to Galilee, just as he said” (Mk 16:7). But the women were afraid. They fled from the tomb and didn’t say anything to anyone. And this is where our text begins. Later that evening ten of the disciples were gathered together in a house. But they had not gathered to celebrate. They weren’t rejoicing in the miracle of the Resurrection. Either they hadn’t heard anything at all, since the women said nothing to anyone, or whatever they had heard they did not believe. They were gathered only to commiserate. They were sheltering in place solely out of fear. Had there been a name on the door, it might have read: First Lutheran Church of the Unbelieving Disciples. This was not a “faith group” as we are sometimes called today. It was an anti-faith group, a broken collection of doubters, deserters, and even deniers.
Here was the church on earth, aptly described in Ezekiel’s vision: a hopelessly jumbled collection of very dry and very dead bones. And they were saying to one another, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (Ezekiel 11:37). Dear Christians, apart from faith in the Resurrection, these words would describe us this morning. On this Second Sunday of Easter, look around at holy Church on earth. What do you see? Does she look radiant with beauty, as a bride fitly adorned for her husband? Does our Lord’s Church appear “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (Cant 6:10) Or does she appear to be hopelessly scattered across the surface of the valley of bones?
Like the disciples, we are sheltering in our homes due to fear. Our doors are locked, not to keep out the Jews, but rather the coronavirus. When we are finally able to leave our homes, will things ever go back to the way they were? Will the disarrayed bones of the church on earth ever appear to our eyes as the great and mighty army of believers? Can these bones live? We don’t know the answer to these questions, so we must answer with the prophet, “O Lord God, you know.” They are many things about the future that are not given to us to know, but of this we can be certain: Jesus is the Lord of life and death. He walks through the doors of our houses and the walls of tombs. Locks or no locks he comes among his people today as he did on the day of his Resurrection. Wherever two or three are gathered, Jesus stands in our midst and says, “Peace be to you.”
The Church on earth often appears scattered and broken, a jumbled heap of bleached, dry bones. Even when we can gather under one roof, which we can’t today, the pews are more empty than full. Some pastors call the Sunday after Easter “Oak Sunday” because instead of seeing people, they see mostly the bare oak of empty pews. But lately it seems that every week is Oak Sunday. Our older members remember the days when we needed extra seating in the aisles, when the building could not contain all the faithful. But now, when we look around, it may seem that we are meeting in a boneyard, surrounded by the memories of a glorious past, but without hope for a future.
If the Church seems this way to you today, remember that you are in good company. Such was the state of God’s people before Christ during the time of Ezekiel the prophet, and so it was also on the day of the Resurrection. Hear then the word of the Lord to you, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:5–6). Is your heart filled with fear and doubt? So it was with the disciples. The women fled and told no one. The men dared not even leave their homes. Thomas flat out refused to believe. And yet, suddenly there was Jesus, standing in their midst and saying, “Peace be to you.”
Jesus had often rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith. But on this morning, there was no rebuke, only words of comfort. In the place of fear, Jesus gives his presence. In stead of doubt, he bestows his Holy Spirit, the creator and sustainer of faith. Instead of condemnation, he speaks words of absolution and forgiveness. We all forsook him. He have all at times denied him and still he says, “Peace be to you.” And then because he knows that our hearts are often filled with doubt, Jesus shows the proof that his peace is real. These are no empty words, no hollow promises. The peace that Jesus gives is not like the peace that the world gives. His peace is unshakable and everlasting. His peace does not change with the climate or with our feelings. His peace flows from his wounded hands and side, bought with his own blood, proven by his broken body.
Thomas, bring all your doubts and unbelief, and bring your finger. Place it here. Touch my broken body. Feel it and know that my peace is real. Jesus knows that your faith is often weak. Instead of rebuking or condemning you, he says, “Thomas, come to me. Take. Eat. This is my body. Touch it and know. Taste it and believe that my forgiveness is real. Take. Drink. This is my blood, poured out for you. Here is absolution. Here is peace. Here is forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.”
The church may appear to the doubting eye to be dead or dying. Our bones may be scattered across the desolate valley. “Can these bones live?” All human reason would say, “No.” Church growth experts would say, “No.” We might not even think it possible, but in feeble faith we learn to say, “O Lord God, you know.” And when our Lord stands among us, as he has promised to do, everything changes. At his coming doubt gives way to joyful belief. It doesn’t matter that the church is afraid, scattered, or even a dead pile of bones. Since when has death been a problem for Jesus. He is the Lord of life and death. And he stands among his church today saying, “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:12–14).
When our Lord speaks, how do we respond? In newly kindled faith we cry out with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). What is there to fear when Christ is our Lord? All power in heaven and on earth belongs to him. All things, including death, are subject to his rule, and he is our Lord and our God. What then can harm you? Today, once again, Jesus stands among us and says, “Peace be to you. Your sins are forgiven. I have put my Spirit, my breath, within you, and you shall live. I have spoken and I will do it.” Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!