April 19, 2020
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, 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. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send 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 any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." St. John 20:19-23
The disciples were practicing their own form of social distancing. They distanced themselves from the Jewish authorities. They hid behind locked doors. They were afraid, not of a virus, but of those who had gotten Jesus crucified. Jesus said that the servant is not above his master. If they had Jesus killed they would do the same to his disciples.
By bearing the death of all sinners, Jesus had defeated death. He had risen from the dead. They should not have been afraid. But they were. He had risen! But it was not enough that Jesus rose from the dead. He had to appear to his disciples and give to them, and through them give to his holy Christian church on earth, the power of the keys. He had promised he would. First, he promised the keys to Peter. Then, he promised the keys to all of the disciples. Jesus keeps his promises. First he rose from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is God’s absolution of the world, but the world does not know it or believe it and so does not have it. Not even Christ’s disciples knew of this absolution. First he rose from the dead. Then he gave the keys to his church.
He rose from the dead. He was dead. His body was dead. The body that died is the body that rose. It’s not as if he died in a body and rose as some sort of spirit creature as the Jehovah’s Witnesses falsely teach. The body that died is the body that rose. The risen Lord Jesus showed the disciples the scars on his hands and his side that he suffered when he was crucified. It was the same body. It was the same Jesus.
It was the same body but it had changed. For thirty three years Jesus Christ humbled himself as he labored under the law to redeem those who were under the law. He hid his glory under humility. In his human nature he shared all of the characteristics and abilities of his divine nature. St. Paul writes, “For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 2:9) During the time of his humiliation, however, he did not, in his human nature, always fully use all of the divine powers his human nature shared. This was evident on the cross. They mocked him, taunted him, and told him to come down from the cross and save himself. He had the power to do so, but it was the Father’s will that he drink the cup of wrath all the way down to its bitter dregs. No one took his life from him. He gave it up of his own free will. He was able to come down from the cross. His love for his Father and his love for us kept him there until our salvation was accomplished. For our salvation, he humbled himself and became a servant, obedient unto the death of the cross.
But he is humbled no more! When he died, his humiliation was over. “It is finished!” he cried from the cross. His obedience was fully rendered before the bar of divine justice. The debt of this world’s sin was fully paid. Satan’s head lay crushed under his feet. His exaltation did not begin when he ascended into heaven. It began as soon as he died. Jesus, in his human nature, now always and fully uses all of his divine powers. He doesn’t let things like locked doors stand in his way. The disciples were huddled in fear behind closed doors. Jesus came and stood in the midst of them.
He spoke to them. He did not chide them for denying him. He said nothing about their cowardice and lack of faith. He said, “Peace be with you.” “Peace” is not just a friendly greeting. This word is a revelation of the Father. It is no mere sentiment or wish. It is a gift. It is a gift given in words. The words are the words of the absolution. After saying “peace” to them, Jesus said:
Where does Jesus get this authority? He won it! He faced the demands of God’s law and fulfilled them all. He obeyed perfectly. The love that God’s law requires of us was the love with which the Lord Jesus had loved. He loved his own. He loved his enemies. His obedience was pure love: love for his Father and love for this fallen world. He offered his perfect love to divine justice on behalf of the human race. Jesus won the authority to forgive sins.
Not only did he love in perfect obedience to God’s law of love, he also suffered the penalty for our failure to do so. He bore the punishment we deserved. He was innocent. He bore the sin of all sinners. He suffered for us. He suffered in our place. He obeyed actively. He loved with the purest love. He obeyed passively. He suffered with perfect patience. His resurrection is God’s absolution of this world of sinners. But the forgiveness of sins was not enough. It had to be given and received through faith. It had to be proclaimed. This is why Jesus came to his disciples on that first Easter evening. He came to give them what he had won by his passion.
Let no Christian question the power of the keys! Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Jesus said, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus gave to his church on earth the keys of the kingdom. The forgiveness of sins unlocks the door into God’s kingdom. On earth it is the kingdom of grace. In heaven it will be the kingdom of glory. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ rules over this kingdom. He rules, not with police, guns, prisons, courts, lawyers, armies, and such, but with the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He will set your hearts at peace. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. He speaks the truth of God’s law and gospel. He speaks infallible words of forgiveness through fallible and sinful men. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit – every Christian – has received from Jesus the authority to forgive and to retain sins. God calls the pastor to do so publicly in the name of the church. But there is no special pastor power that doesn’t belong to the whole church. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said. If you have the Holy Spirit you have the authority to forgive sins.
Jesus said not only that “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” he went on to say, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The forgiveness of sins is the key that frees sinners from their sins. It is the loosing key. It unlocks the door to heaven. The binding key locks the door to heaven. But can the church lock people out of heaven? Yes, she can! Jesus said, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Here is how we confess this biblical truth in the Small Catechism:
We preach the gospel to sinners who are burdened by guilt, who desire the forgiveness of sins, and want to live holy lives. We preach the law to sinners who cling to their sins and refuse to repent. We don’t spy out on fellow Christians to find out what their secret sins are. Pastors must always assume that parishioners are living Christian lives. Who is he to judge? But if a sin is public – if it is obvious and clear – and the sinner refuses to repent of it, it is the pastor’s duty to tell the unrepentant sinner that his sins are retained, they are not forgiven, and they exclude him from the kingdom of God. Not only must the pastor say this, but the church must say this with him.
It is Jesus Christ himself who forgives repentant sinners. It is Jesus Christ himself who withholds forgiveness from unrepentant sinners. Jesus did not bear your sins so that you would have to bear them on your conscience. Have you stolen anything? Cheated on a test? Have you lied about yourself? Have you loved your things more than you love your God? Have you misused his name to make yourself look good? Have you committed adultery? Have you had an abortion or paid for one? Have you lied about your neighbor and sullied his reputation? Have you hated your brother in your heart? Have you despised God’s teaching, preferring your own wisdom to his?
When you hold onto these sins, preferring them to receiving forgiveness, your sins are bound, unforgiven, and you are outside of the church, outside of God’s kingdom. When you confess such sins to God he forgives. He doesn’t forgive in part. He forgives in full. He removes our sins from us as far as the East is from the West. He regards us as saints. When Jesus forgives us through the voice of his servant he also gives us his Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of peace, the Comforter, who enables us to pray.
When we are kept from attending church services we are not shut out from God’s absolution. Every Christian may absolve other Christians in Jesus’ name. Jesus sent the church’s first pastors. He said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Jesus has continued sending pastors to his church for the past two thousand years. When a Christian congregation, in accordance with the Word of God, calls a man to be her pastor and entrusts to him the public exercise of the keys it is Jesus Christ himself who is sending that pastor. The pastor must preach God’s law both publicly and privately. He must absolve both publicly and privately. The law and the gospel aren’t the preacher’s opinions. They are the words of Jesus, the church’s head. He who bore all the sin of all the sinners and rose from the dead free from the sins he bore has all power in heaven and on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to retain the sins of the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.
Jesus has chosen to speak his law and his gospel through the mouths of his preachers, indeed, through the mouths of all his Christians. God’s word, even when spoken by fallible and sinful men, is God’s word.
Rolf D. Preus