Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I beg your indulgence this morning, and perhaps your forgiveness. You see, in my own weakness, I just couldn’t face another sermon about “doubting Thomas” today. Please don’t get the wrong idea. I firmly believe that John’s account of the evening visits of Jesus to the disciples is both completely true and theologically important. It provides us with a reliable eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus, and it further testifies to His divine nature, as He is able to appear in the midst of His followers even through locked doors, and to know of Thomas’ doubts when He returns again a week later.
What’s more, the text from John 20 also helps establish the Church’s mission to seek the lost, as Jesus tells His disciples,“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” It provides the basis and authority for Confession and Absolution, when the Lord gives the Church His Holy Spirit and His words,“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Even so, poor Thomas needs a break, I think. We beat him up every year, and then we try to pick him up and dust him off and say,“There, there, Thomas. It’s OK. We’re no better. We’d like to have proof of all this, too. We doubt God’s promises and the word of others lots of times, also. We only believe by the grace of God and the power of His Word, too.”
But for all our feigned magnanimity, we don’t really do anything positive for Thomas. God did everything Thomas needed, and everythingyouneeded, even using the record of Thomas and his temporary apostasy to help bolster your faith.
Let’s instead today look at our lesson from the book of Acts of the Apostles—or as I sometimes fondly call it, the Gospel according to Sts. Peter and Paul. Yes, yes—I know that it was written by St. Luke, but it is primarily Peter and Paul who convey the message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone throughout this book.
Before we enter the 5thchapter of Acts, a lot has happened since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Out of those meeting the necessary qualifications to be apostles, Matthias was chosen to replace the betrayer, Judas. The miraculous events of Pentecost, with wind and fire and the preaching of the Gospel in recognizable languages, led many to faith in Jesus. The believers gathered together in study, worship, prayer, and to receive the Lord’s Supper.
These early Christians also shared the blessings of their financial resources with one another. A beggar had been healed, giving Peter the opportunity to give another great sermon about Jesus. Peter and John were arrested, and bold witness about the person, life, and work of Jesus had been given to the people and to the Jewish ruling council. Despite many threats and obstacles, the Spirit led the apostles to continue proclaiming God’s Word.
As chapter 5 begins, we have the unfortunate incident with Ananias and Sapphira. Having been blessed with income intended for the support of their fellow believers, this couple held some of it back for themselves. Perhaps they were afraid to fully surrender God’s blessings back to Him. For their deception and their lack of faith, they are struck down by death. They are gone, but the work of the Church continues.
Which leads us to the circumstances of our lesson today: Immediately before our text, Luke records the fact that Peter and the other apostles were healing many people, and leading many more to faith in Christ. The high priest and many of the Sadducees were outraged with jealousy, and had the apostles arrested. Specific names are not given, so we might conclude that this time it wasn’t just Peter and John who were locked up.
In a miracle that is symbolic of the freedom from sin’s oppression that Jesus has given us, one of God’s angels comes in the darkness of night and opens the doors of the jail. Rather than skulking off in fear to avoid further danger, they are instructed to return to the temple and continue preaching, which they did.
The Sadducees had planned to bring the apostles from jail to face the entire ruling council, but instead they are discovered to be teaching the people in the temple courts. Once more they are gathered by the Sanhedrin’s soldiers, but a bit more carefully and respectfully this time, for fear of the people. Behind closed doors, however, nothing much changes. No doubt a prototype of politicians the world over, the high priest attempts to use his position of authority to intimidate and to deflect accountability:“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Now, the smart aleck in me wishes that Peter and the apostles had replied,“So, what?” “You betcha, dude!”and,“No kidding, genius.” But the apostles don’t say that, because they are being led by the Holy Spirit, not by my dark side. Instead, they confront the Sanhedrin with a far more powerful reply:“We must obey God rather than men!” Then they recount the facts that, despite the sinful execution these fearful men had foisted upon Jesus, God had resurrected Jesus, and the apostles had witnessed this and His ascension. Now they were proclaiming that—in Jesus—repentance and the forgiveness of sins were given. They also rightly claimed that the Holy Spirit testified to the same things, and was given to those of true faith.
The reaction of the Sanhedrin was predictable, for the apostles’ words—while polite—were a ringing condemnation of all they were and all they had done. Their authority to speak for God had been called into question, and even their authority over the apostles had been rejected. They were accused of the murder of Jesus and complete ignorance of the Messiah, to whom the Scriptures they so carefully studied gave clear witness. Then, to top it all off, these uneducated men claimed to have been given special revelation and special gifts by God!
St. Luke uses the word “furious” to describe their emotions, but that is probably insufficient. Yes, there was fury, and yes, they wanted to put the apostles to death—partly because it would rid them of having to be confronted daily by the apostles’ preaching, which made clear the all-too-true accusations that they—the spiritual leaders of Israel—had blown it. “Murderous rage” might be a better description.
What might have happened if these leaders had impulsively acted on their instincts? Would the soldiers obey them? Would the apostles fight back, perhaps even injuring or killing some of the Sanhedrin? When word of the killings reached the people—many of whom now fully believed the apostles’ accounts of Jesus and had seen the miraculous powers they’d been given—would there be an uprising, far worse than any the city had seen before? No good could come of it. Cooler heads were needed.
In steps Gamaliel. Not a Sadducee, the high priest’s party, but a Pharisee. A scholar who knew God’s Word well—so well, in fact, that a certain other Pharisee, known then as Saul but later as Paul—would be one of his prize pupils. The wisdom shown by Gamaliel that day could only have come from God. Perhaps, like Caiaphas’ earlier prophecy that it would be better that one man die for the people, Gamaliel’s speech was inspired prophesy, too.
First, he calms the scene down by having the objects of the anger removed from the room. Then he offers a history lesson, speaking in the manner of a learned teacher, which of course he was. Gamaliel reminds the assembly that in the past several decades, there had been many so-called messiahs who claimed to have been sent to rescue Israel. Some of these had recruited and rallied large groups of followers, and posed a threat to the position of the Sanhedrin and the authority of Rome. Each of these imposters had, in turn, been struck down. Their followers had scattered, and their movement soon ceased to exist.
Gamaliel’s advice, then? Not so much,“Don’t worry; be happy!” Rather, he suggests a non-confrontational approach. Let the apostles of this Jesus fellow have their day. Let them smoke out those who are disloyal to the Jewish leadership. If they’re frauds, it’ll become apparent, and when the Romans have finally had enough of their shenanigans, they’ll act to crush the movement, and it will die just like its leader already has.
If, on the other hand, God is behind their miracles and their message, who are we to interfere? All we’ll get for our trouble is problems with the people, and a fight with Yahweh. Gamaliel made good sense, so it’s easy to see why he had the respect of his peers and the people. Even so, the Sanhedrin wasn’t going to let the apostles walk off as if their actions didn’t have consequences. They wanted to demonstrate their authority and have the satisfaction of seeing it exercised. And so, the apostles were beaten before being released, and warned to keep quiet about Jesus. A little bit of parting intimidation, no doubt.
Yes, the disciples had run off in Gethsemane, and Peter had even lied about knowing Jesus. Yet after fearing Him who could make wind and waves obey; after fearing a man walking across the water to them; after asking to be excused from Jesus’ presence after He had told them where and when and how to catch fish—and after see Him heal diseases and raise several people from the dead, Himself included—the apostles aren’t going to be easily cowed.
Instead, they rejoice in their suffering, knowing that by it, they were more tightly bound to Jesus. He had experienced far worse, they knew, and by His suffering, He had blessed them and changed their entire outlook on life and reality. Now it was their sacred duty and mission to change the outlook for others who were still suffering under the burden of their sins. And so they did, and so they have.
Remember what the apostles had told the Sanhedrin about Jesus’ Messiahship: That God had exalted Him to His right handthat He might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. Jesus wasn’t a threat to the Sanhedrin, nor were the apostles, in terms of their earthly position. No, the threat of Jesus’ Messiahship was to each and every member of the council individually, as sinners confronting the reality of their inability to truly keep God’s commandments; to truly love the Lord with all their heart and mind and soul and strength.
That’s not a threat we like to consider, or a reality we like to confront, either. We like our positions on the Sanhedrin; the ruling council of our own lives: Calling the shots, deciding what is right and true, throwing our ideas and our weight around. But when we have to face the harsh words of God’s Law, we deny and deflect; we hide or lash out.
Do you like hearing those words? Words that question? Words that accuse?”What is this you have done?”God asked Adam and Eve in the garden.“You are the man!”Nathan shouted at David when the king accused a made-up individual of being sinful and unclean. And finally,“this Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree.” None of these seems to be pleasant—and they aren’t. Yet each of these is necessary for us to hear, so that we are accused, crushed, and prepared for what follows: The sweet, loving, infinitely beautiful words of the Gospel that this Jesus whom you hung on the cross also killed your sins there, and in raising Him to life once more, God accepted that sacrifice and given you a place at His table, too.
Gamaliel may not have realized what sort of impact his guidance to let the apostles go that day would have on the future development and growth of the faith which saves, or on the eventual discrediting of Judaism as being the faith of the one, true God. Yet his words were influential to sway those who would have sought to destroy the fledgling Church, and are very important to history and to us. We, too, can say with confidence:“If that purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop it.”
Two thousand years later, we see, know, and trust that it is indeed of God and not men. For all the intimidation, and floggings, and worse, the Christian Church survives. It remains your lifeboat in this world—the place where God lifts you from the shipwreck of your life, and carries you through the baptismal waters that are often rough with the minor trials and trivial sufferings of we whose lives are connected with Christ’s suffering and death.
Rejoice that you, too, have been found worthy of suffering and disgrace for the Name of Jesus—not worthy in yourself, but made worthy through the repentance, forgiveness, and faith given you in His name. And day after day, in temple courts and from house to house, join the apostles—yes, Thomas included; a doubter no more. Join them in their never-ending teaching and proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ. In His holy name (+), Amen.