The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. John 20:19-23
Do You Believe that My Forgiveness is God’s Forgiveness?
Second Sunday of Easter, 15 April 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness? That’s not a question we hear or ponder every day. In fact, my computer told me so. When I ran a grammar check on this sermon, my computer said, “Non-standard question. Consider revising.”
Yes, the computer’s right about the first part. “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” is a non-standard question. But we cannot even consider revising it based on St. John chapter twenty:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld."
This text is the theological basis for confession and absolution, Jesus’ Words of Institution, if you will. That is why men in the office of the Holy Ministry are given to proclaim, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Take note of what we are not given to say. Pastors don’t say, “Now that you’ve confessed your horrible sins, pray to God until you feel forgiven.” That’s what some churches teach. Our feelings have nothing to do with whether we’re forgiven or not. We don’t say, “You have to come to confession. And after you do, you are to work off your sins by doing good works, saying the Our Father, and the Hail Mary.” No. Private Confession is not mandatory. That would be turning the Gospel into Law. We are forgiven, though there is no merit or worthiness in any of us. Our works are but filthy rags. We can’t burn off our own sins in this life or in some imaginary unbiblical waiting room. All of our sins are taken away by Christ, who has called us to proclaim:
“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Those Words are what pastors have been given and called to do. John 20 is the foundation. It is also the fulfillment of earlier words of Jesus. John chapter 20 fulfills Matthew chapter 16:13-19.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
An important word in verse 19 is “will.” I will, in the future, Jesus says, give you these keys. The keys are given in John 20. Like administering Holy Communion and Holy Baptism, the keys remain Jesus’ possession. It is as if He had one of those janitor key chains that pulls out and retracts. On earth, these keys are given to the church, the local congregation. In practice, a congregation entrusts the Office of the Keys to one they have called to the Office of the Holy Ministry. They are not the possession of that one, but given to that one to administer as the servant of the Word and servant to the congregation.
The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
The catechism further explains, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”
Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness? This question has been answered by the Word. The Catechism distills that teaching in this way: Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
God’s Word has power. His Words mean something. Not only that, they do something. They are living and active. They do what they say. Words proclaimed, “Let there be light.” And there was light. Words proclaim, “This is My Body.” And we believe, according to Jesus’ Words, that His Body is there in, with, and under bread. Words proclaim, “I forgive you all your sins.” And they are forgiven before God in heaven.
Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?
If, however, someone does not find himself burdened with these or greater sins, he should not trouble himself or search for or invent other sins, and thereby make confession a torture. Instead, he should mention one or two that he knows: In particular I confess that I have cursed; I have used improper words; I have neglected this or that, etc. Let that be enough. But if you know of none at all (which hardly seems possible), then mention none in particular, but receive the forgiveness upon the general confession which you make to God before the confessor.
In Luther’s example in the Catechism of a brief form of confession, following a person’s individual confession, then the confessor shall say: God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Amen. Furthermore, this question is asked: Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness? Yes, dear confessor, is the answer. Then let him say: Let it be done for you as you believe. And I, by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Go in peace.
[Dr. Luther explains in the Large Catechism that] in addition to the confession that we are discussing here, there are two other kinds, which have an even greater right to be called the common confession of Christians. I refer to the practice of confessing to God alone or to our neighbor alone, asking for forgiveness. These two kinds are included in the Lord’s prayer when we say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” etc. Indeed, the entire Lord’s Prayer is nothing else than such a confession. For what is our prayer but a confession that we neither have nor do what we ought and a plea for grace and a joyful conscience? This kind of confession should and must take place continuously as long as we live. For this is the essence of a genuinely Christian life, to acknowledge that we are sinners and to pray for grace.
Forgiveness is the glue that keeps any relationship together—husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, neighbors, friends, coworkers, among members of a congregation, the relationship between a pastor and a congregation, and among brother pastors in a congregation, circuit, district, or synod.
That means we should always be pursuing reconciliation with one another. If a brother or sister sins against you, first talk to them one-on-one. The goal is to be loving and lead them to be repentant so that reconciliation and forgiveness can transpire. If the brother doesn’t listen to you, take one or two others along. Again, the goal is to gently lead the straying brother back to the fold. Finally, as a last resort, tell it to the church. The goal is to restore the brother to fellowship. But if he still refuses to listen, then treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. That’s excommunication. The goal is not to just rid the church rolls of dead wood. No. Not at all. The goal is to bring the brother or sister to restoration, to reconciliation, to repentance, to confession of sin and Jesus’ forgiveness, to a fuller appreciation of Jesus’ Truth.
Dr. Luther concludes: Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you be a Christian. If I bring you to this point, I have also brought you to confession. For those who really want to be upright Christians and free from their sins, and who want to have a joyful conscience, truly hunger and thirst already. They snatch at the bread just like a hunted deer, burning with heat and thirst, as Psalm 42:1 says, “ As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” That is, as a deer trembles with eagerness for a fresh spring, so I yearn and tremble for God’s Word of absolution and for the sacrament, etc. In this way, you see, confession would be taught properly, and such a desire and love for it would be aroused that people would come running after us to get it, more than we would like. We shall let those people who ignore such a treasure and bar themselves from it continue to torment and torture themselves. As for ourselves, however, let us lift our hands in praise and thanks to God that we have attained to this knowledge and grace.
Let this be our desire as well.
That first Easter evening, in spite of closed doors, Jesus came and stood in the midst of the disciples as they huddled in fear, saying “Peace be with you.” He presents the wounds that turn our fear to gladness, which restore us to the Father. Yet, this peace, this absolution that is anchored in the Resurrection itself, is not only for them. Jesus breathes on His disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19–31) No wonder the traditional response to “The Lord be with you,” is “And with your Spirit.” His breath, His words are Spirit and life. Christ now gives His ministers to speak His forgiving, Spirit-filled words to the penitent in His stead, tying forgiveness to His resurrection.
(LSB 470, new stanza)
¯ “The Father sent Me. I send you.”
He breathed, “Receive the Spirit true.”
“Forgive the ones I give to you.”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.