Fathers' Day in April
You've heard of "Christmas in July." Why not "Fathers' Day in April"? No, not fathers of our families but fathers of our Church. No, not just of our Lutheran Church but of the Holy Christian Church. No, not 16th, 19th, or even 20th century fathers but fathers from the 4th to the 8th century.
These ancient fathers of the Church dealt openly and honestly with the doubt and unbelief of the apostles in our text. We hear in our text "they still did not believe." It's true; Luke goes on to say that it was "because of joy and amazement," so you can take the edge off the unbelief by saying things like they thought it too good to be true; they couldn't believe their eyes they were so amazed. But that doesn't deal with Mark 16:14 saying that their fear was from a hardness of heart or Matthew 28:17 telling us some 40 days later they were plagued by doubt.
Our Church fathers don't try to tiptoe around this doubting and disbelieving. Chrysostom who lived 344-407 references the disciples doubting after Easter and says, "Even up to the last day, they [the Evangelists] were determined not to conceal even their own shortcomings" (Matthew Homily, 90.2).
These revelations by the first eyewitnesses should comfort you. Picture this. Jesus stands before you with nail holes in His hands and feet which He shows you. He invites you to physically touch and handle Him. Then He asks for food and eats it in your presence. If the apostles who had the risen Jesus standing before their very eyes nail holes and all with their minds opened to understand the Scriptures had to struggle with unbelief and doubt, why would we think 2,000 years later we wouldn't have those struggles? If their battle against unbelief, misbelief, or doubt was not quickly or easily won, why should we expect ours will be?
Even though touching, showing, and eating hadn't driven doubt completely from their minds as we see it still there 40 days later, we learn from our Church fathers the truth that Jesus doesn't put out dimly burning wicks; He doesn't give up on doubting Thomases, but seeks them out still today personally in His Word and Sacraments.
The ancient fathers of the Church dealt openly with the doubts and disbelief of the first eyewitnesses and regarded it as positive and helpful that they recorded them for posterity. St. Augustine who lived 354-430 said that the first eyewitnesses too were expected by Jesus to believe things that they could not see even as we are today.
When Jesus speaks about repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached in His name to all nations, He is referring to a world-wide Church coming into being. These apostles, who moments before had been huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jews can't possibly imagine it let alone see it. We don't have to imagine it at all; we see it.
We have physical, visible, touchable evidence of a world-wide Church. We have evidence that would stand up in any court of law, evidence that even the new atheists or old pagans don't deny, evidence that this Church has existed for 2,000 years. We have the remains of 1st century house churches; we have graves and ancient texts. We have references to the Church in official Roman writings. We don't have to take on faith that there has been since the 1st century a Christian Church on earth. The apostles did.
The apostles had to take on faith that the Body of Christ, which is the Church existed world-wide. They, however, didn't have to take on faith the fact that the Head, Christ Himself, existed and was present. They could see and touch Him, and you get from the Epistle reading that this is exactly what they did. John wrote, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the Word."
The disciples saw the Head and believed the Body (the Church) existed. We see the Body and believe the Head (Jesus) exists. Augustine says that the apostles saw in part and believed in part. So do we. Augustine says it this way, "He showed Himself to the disciples and promised them the Church. He showed us the Church and ordered us to believe about Himself" (Sermons, 291.1). The disciples were asked to believe something about the whole world for the rest of time based on the Person of Jesus standing before them. We are asked to believe something about that one Person testified to us by something 2,000 years old and world-wide. Who has the longer leap of faith?
But faith is no leap. It's not like a conclusion people "jump to." Faith is a gift, faith is a miracle; faith is something only God can create in us, and whether it believes in the Church one can't see or the Jesus one can't see, it is a miracle. The ancient Church before us saw Christ standing and heard Him speaking in their midst no less than those did on Easter Sunday. One Church father, the Venerable Bede who lived circa 672-735, tells us this.
Jesus in Matthew 18:20 promised, "For where two or three come together in My name, there am I with them." The words translated here "with them" are the same Greek words translated "among them" in our text. In both cases it's the same 3 Greek words "in their midst." Bede says Christ standing in their midst and speaking here in the upper room is what Christ promised in Matthew 18 to all the faithful (Homilies on the Gospels, 11.9).
I think Lutheran popular piety has done a better job confessing this wonderful truth compared to other denominations. How many homes have I been in over the years that had the plague which reads, "Christ is the Head of this house/ The Unseen Guest at every meal/ The Silent Listener to every conversation." And though I haven't seen it, I've heard of Lutherans putting an extra pacesetting on the table as a sign that their prayer "Come Lord Jesus be our Guest," was truly answered. And why not? The Christian family with its 2 or 3 or more members is a mini-church and where 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, He promises to be there.
On the first Easter, they were gathered in His name speaking of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and how she thought He was the gardener. How they must have laughed at that. The Emmaus couple spoke of how Jesus joined them on their forlorn journey home and spoke God's Word so that their heart burned and how He was made known to them in the breaking of bread. How their words must of kindled other hearts. And Peter spoke of how Jesus had made a special point of appearing personally to him, and since private confession and absolution is confidential, we get no more details than that. How Peter's words must have touched their common guilt and need for forgiveness. Then we read, "While they were still talking [about such things]Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them."
Do you think that it is any different with us in every Divine Service, every Bible class, every meeting? We speak of how Jesus appeared to us in Baptism invoking the Triune God and signing the cross over our physical bodies and we're back to that moment. We speak the Absolution based on Jesus' Word of promise that "Whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven" and you can't separate the Word made flesh from the Words of His we speak. And we take Bread and Wine and do what He told us to do to bring Him back to us. In all these instances, we believe what our Church father Bede said: Jesus is once more in the midst of us speaking no less than He was on that first Easter Sunday.
Bede made just as much out of what Jesus says in our midst as he did out of the fact that He stands here. Jesus appears speaking peace. From the angels at Christmas proclaiming "peace on earth" to the beginning of His Passion where Jesus says, "Peace I leave to you. My peace I give to you" who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do have been about peace between you and God.
God the Son become incarnate and atoned for our sins, Bede says, and now I quote directly, "to lead us, who had incurred God's anger by sinning back to God's peace by His act of reconciliation." It's not for nothing that Jesus is called the "Prince of Peace." Then Bede quotes Ephesians 2, "'He brought the Good News of peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near'" (Ibid. 2.9).
Now put together all that our Church fathers have said to us on this "Fathers' Day in April." Our struggle with doubts and downright unbelief was not only our Church fathers' struggle but the struggle of the first eyewitnesses. Our fathers in the Church took comfort from the fact that the first eyewitnesses didn't try to sugarcoat this, and they thought it not strange that both the apostolic Church and the Church of the Last Days saw in part and believed in part.
This you will recall has been true since the Fall. Adam and Eve could see children being born from them but not the Promised Seed. Abraham could see the land promised to him but had to believe it was his. I could go on and on. God's people are always shown something visible and asked to believe something unseen. We are shown Water and asked to believe it rebirths to everlasting life. We are shown a pastor and asked to believe he absolves our sins. We are shown Bread and Wine and asked to believe it is the same Body and Blood Jesus gave and shed on the cross.
But the real take away from this "Fathers' Day in April" is that from the first Easter on Jesus has stood in the midst of His people when they were talking about Him, and He doesn't stand there mute but talks of peace. Huge sigh here. In Jesus' name you can be at peace with God because He is at peace with you. In fact, the whole wide world can be at peace with God because Jesus by living a perfect life and dying a sinful death put God at peace with all nations.
From the 1st century to the 4th to the 8th to the 20th our Church fathers have been doing in April what we are doing right here in the 21st. They have gathered in Jesus' name assured that He was in their midst to speak peace into their ears in the forgiveness of their sins. They listened and they celebrated, and so can we and our children after us and theirs after them. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday of Easter (20150419); Luke 24:36-49