Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.
First-year seminarians are often asked a lot of questions about what they believe in their beginning theology classes. It makes sense. Professors want to know just how off-base some of the beliefs might be which their students hold so that they can deliver helpful correctives to false ideas or nip some would-be heretics in the bud before they take their own theories to a more dangerous conclusion. The seminary is kind of like the army— a group of people show up from different backgrounds and life-experiences and are re-formed over four years into an effective preaching-and-teaching force who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, preach well, and faithfully shepherd God’s church, among other things. So asking questions of first-years is a great way for the professors there to weed out would-be pastors’ misconceptions and pet heresies while focusing them on what they should know.
So it generally comes as a shock to many seminarians when one of the first questions they are asked by their systematic theology professor is, “Who is your God?” It’s a big question, and a scary one. Initially, you feel pretty sure of yourself and your beliefs. “I know who my God is!” But then, doubt sets in. That confident attitude you had suddenly starts giving way to unsurety; the sense of security you had five minutes ago starts to slip away. “Who is my God?” “Who do I really say God is?” “Who do I really think God is?” You think it’s the Triune God, but is that who you’re really worshipping? Is this a trick question? Is there some hidden idol in my life I’ve been worshipping all along? The faithful young seminarian is suddenly subject to an existential crisis.
You might say that this is a question that is tacitly posed to the disciples when Jesus died on the cross. “Who is your God?” Is he this carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth with whom you have traveled for three years, or is it someone else? John tells us in John 20:9 that on Easter morning, none of the disciples truly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection, and when they found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think of it. Who was their God? Where had Jesus gone? Did the Romans steal him? Did they spend three years roaming Judaea with him for nothing?
But then, he appeared to them, and he showed him his wounds and let them touch him. He was real! But John doesn’t tell us what they said when they saw him, merely that they were glad. We don’t necessarily know what they were thinking when Jesus appeared in the room in their midst. But we do know what Thomas, that apostle called Didymus, “The Twin,” thought when he saw Jesus risen from the grave. John recorded his confession. “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas is, as a member of the apostles, kind of an odd duck because we remember him by calling him “Doubting Thomas.” He’s the only member of the Twelve who’s given a negative epithet (apart from Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treachery). We could just as easily call Peter “Denying Peter” because he denied his being one of Jesus’ followers, or we could call Mark “Streaking Mark” because he ran away naked from Gethsemane after his tunic was pulled off by an attacker. But we don’t. Only Thomas is remembered for his apparent skepticism at hearing the report of Jesus’ resurrection.
Except Thomas wasn’t the lone doubter. All of the apostles doubted that Jesus had come back from the grave— they disbelieved the testimony of the women at the tomb; they thought the women were speaking nonsense—, and Jesus gave them the same proof that he gave Thomas. Thomas just happened to not be there. But only Thomas is recorded by John to have stated, upon seeing these proofs that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord is a big and important thing. It’s big and important because it means a number of things for the one who confesses it.
To say “Jesus is Lord” is radical. It’s life changing. And it means that the person making such a confession believes certain things about Jesus. It means that one believes that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is identified with the God of the Old Testament as well as the New. It means that when we read the explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and we say “We should fear, love, and trust God that we may do X,” we’re talking about Jesus there just as much as we are talking about God the Father. It also means that we really believe what we say about Jesus in the Creed, saying with Luther:
“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
Concordia Triglotta—English: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, electronic ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 545.
This is how we relate to Jesus if we say that “Jesus is Lord.” When you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are saying that you believe what he says and what he has done, and that you are with him in all things. Dr. Joel Okamoto at Concordia Seminary says this about the act of confessing one’s faith:
“When one confesses, one declares a commitment. The act of confession is like “stepping forward” or “standing up and being counted.” You step forward for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to the person. If he goes down, you go down. You stand up for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to that person. If she goes on, you go on. Similarly, you confess your faith in someone, and by that act you commit yourself to believing in him. If he comes through, you come through. It is striking that simply by the act of confession—by saying certain words—you do something. Those who utter the sentence: “I confess that Jesus is Lord” have confessed. Those people have by their confession committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Confessors commit themselves to Jesus Christ, putting themselves under his disposal, and positioning themselves in a certain way against everybody else.”
Okamoto, Joel P., “Making Sense of Confessionalism Today,” Concordia Journal Winter, 2015: 40
We live in a world that does not confess Jesus as Lord, nor do we live in a world that really has a single understanding of who God is. In our modern world, especially here in the west, the word “God” has become a placeholder. It can mean whatever we want it to mean. Think about the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. Ignoring the fact that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War years to indicate that we, unlike the Soviets, acknowledged a deity, who is the “God” meant in “under God”? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The God Jesus called God? We don’t know— the pledge is vague. Maybe it’s Ba’al or Ishtar or Woden or Zeus. It could be Allah, or Krishna. It could be a bunch of them all together, seeing as some see all deities as reflections or manifestations of a single, divine reality. My point being that in the modern world, “God” can be anything. “God” could be your smartphone. I know I pay obeisance to mine far too often. That owl on Duolingo is really demanding.
But in this day and age, when the normal operating procedure for most people is to live as nihilists, “God” can even be yourself. Why not, if the idea of God has been made devoid of all meaning and we operate as if God doesn’t really affect our lives? And when “God” becomes a placeholder, it really means that you are placing yourself in the place of God. It means that you become the one who chooses what or whom is worthy to be called God. It makes God subject to your will and your understanding. But when you do that, you break the first of all the commandments of God by making yourself God, and in that, you stand condemned. For when you break that first commandment, you break them all.
And this is a universal problem for us. According to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, a god is anything we put our trust in for our safety and salvation. We’re sinful human beings, and the first sin our first parents, Adam and Eve, ever committed was, indeed, to place themselves above God by trusting their own judgment over his and making God subject to their own reason. We make our own gods every day. We put our trust in governments to care for us and do what we think is best for us. We tie the fate of our nation and indeed our own lives to various politicians’ campaigns. Or we make a god of science and technology— “this new energy technology will save the planet and save all of our lives!” Sometimes we make gods of our possessions— our vehicles, our weapons, our food, our money. Think of all the time we spend counting our money, tallying our expenses. But all these things ultimately will fail us. They won’t deliver us from our sins. They won’t save us from death and hell. There is no constancy in them.
This is why Thomas’ confession is so important for us to hear. When Thomas calls Jesus his Lord and his God, he is siding with Jesus, making his identity with him, and trusting in him above all others. Thomas subordinates himself to Christ— his will, his desires, his hopes— they are all subject to Christ and what he has done. And Thomas trusts that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead; that he has died for the sins of all mankind and risen again to demonstrate to his disciples and all people that he has been victorious over the powers of death and hell and had freed all people from bondage to these terrible entities. Thomas and all the disciples received proof of this, in the flesh. They saw Jesus, risen from the dead, standing physically among them, and they believed. Jesus had done just what he said he would do, and they could put their faith in him. All of their misconceptions about Jesus were now disproven. Like Thomas, they could see Jesus and say with Thomas that he truly was not just their lord and master, but their God. They could see that he is the one who gives them real peace, who gives them the Holy Spirit to be their guide and helper, who forgives their sins, and who chooses them to be his ambassadors to the world. And so, Thomas’ confession becomes the first great confession of the church. Jesus is Lord and God. He is not subject to the world. The world is subject to him.
And Thomas’ statement of faith in Christ as his Lord and God is a testimony for us. Thomas tells us who Jesus is. We can make Thomas’ confession our own because Jesus’ promises for us are trustworthy and true. His death and resurrection are for us just as much as they are for his first disciples. But how do we who live so many centuries removed from this know that Jesus is Lord? Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen him in the flesh and who yet believe are blessed and happy. John then writes to us directly–“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” We are those who Jesus calls blessed–we are those for whom John has written his Gospel. We haven’t seen Jesus bodily like Thomas and the other apostles had, but we do have their testimony, and we have Jesus’ promises to us recorded in God’s word. Not only that, but we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus sent to us, and we have the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in which we encounter and receive Christ in his body and blood. And when we trust in these things, that Jesus died for us on Calvary and rose again for us on the third day, we can say with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God,” and receive his peace, his forgiveness, and his sending. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can trust confidently that he has saved us from the power of death and sin. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can confidently tell others about what he has done and share the good news of our salvation in him with them. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can have peace with God, and live as his redeemed and beloved children. When we believe that Jesus is Lord and God, we can “be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”
And if you are struggling in your sins, or find yourself looking to inconstant, earthly things for your salvation, Christ’s forgivness and peace is for you, too. Though Jesus did many things after his resurrection, the testimony you have heard this morning is for you so that you might come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is your Savior and God. He desires that you have his peace, dwell with the Holy Spirit, be his ambassador to an unbelieving world, and live a life of forgiveness in him. So have faith in him— he will bless and forgive you, “that you have life in his name.” This is most certainly true. Amen.