May 1, 2011
“The Ministry of Peace”
St. John 20:19-23
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
When Jesus showed his disciples the scars on his hands and his side he identified himself. He also reminded them of what he had just done. He had just died. The scars on his hands reminded them of his suffering for them. The scar on his side reminded them that he died for them. He suffered and died.
What does this mean? It means peace. “Peace be with you.” That’s why Jesus suffered and died. The peace he spoke is the peace he established. First, he established peace. Then he spoke it. The angels preached it on Christmas. This promise obligated the newborn King of the Jews to suffer, for it could only be by bearing the anger of God against sinners that peace between God and man could be established. Peace is not just a word with God. What he says he accomplishes. When Jesus appeared to his disciples and spoke words of peace he was speaking what was true. There was no animosity between God and them. God’s anger against sin was stilled. This is what Jesus achieved in his suffering. This is what Jesus conveyed in his speaking.
He suffers and he speaks. He speaks of his suffering. St. Luke records Jesus as saying,
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
First comes the suffering. Then comes the preaching. The deed comes before the word. First Jesus does it. Then we preach about it.
When Jesus sent them out to preach they had something to preach. He first established the peace. Then he gave them the words to say. These words are spirit and life. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them. The words they are sent to speak are the words of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The apostles were the Church’s first pastors. The sending out of the apostles is Christ our Lord establishing the pastoral office in and for the Church. From the time he sent the apostles to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments until now Jesus has not stopped sending men to do what he gave the apostles to do. They were to forgive and to retain sins.
God forgives us our sins through the words that his ministers speak to us. I could call this a Lutheran idea because we Lutherans teach it and most Protestants don’t. But to call it a Lutheran idea might imply that we Lutherans came up with it. We did not. It’s what Jesus said. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That’s what Jesus said. He gave to the apostles the authority to forgive and to retain sins.
In so doing, he gave his Church the authority to forgive and to retain sins. In so doing, he gave his ministers the authority to forgive and to retain sins.
The Church is the believers. The ministers are the preachers. The believers and the preachers go together. The preachers preach for the purpose of people believing and through faith to receive the forgiveness of sins. The preaching is for believing. And the believers count on the preachers to preach to them what Jesus the Savior gives them to preach because no other preaching will lead to faith. Indeed, every other kind of preaching will lead to death.
If God can become a man he can forgive us our sins through words spoken by men. But this is a cause of offense. So it is opposed. Sometimes it is just flatly denied. Folks say that no man can forgive sins and they assume that the mere assertion makes it so. It is self-evident. God is the one who gives the law. It is against God that people commit sins. If they steal or lie or cheat or commit adultery, the victim of their sin has the right to forgive. God has the right to forgive. But a man against whom the sins were not committed? Does he have the right to forgive? Jesus says yes.
Jesus does the deed all alone. That’s the ministry he offered to God when he gave his life a ransom for many. But he doesn’t speak the word alone. He chooses men. He teaches them. He prepares them. He indoctrinates them. He gives them a love for his sheep and a love for the food he has prepared for the sheep to eat. Then he sends them out to forgive sins and to retain sins in his name.
He doesn’t give them an understanding of this man or that woman or the child over there. He doesn’t give them the ability to discern what is in anyone’s heart. Yet he tells them to forgive the sins of those who are sorry for them and to retain the sins of those who refuse to repent. How can his ministers possibly do this when they cannot see into another’s heart to know what is there? Doesn’t forgiving and retaining sins require a certain ability to judge? Otherwise, how can you know whose sins to remit and whose sins to retain?
Even if everyone went to confession to confess privately and to receive personal absolution, the pastor still couldn’t really know who is going home justified and who is not. All he can know is what God’s law demands and what God’s gospel promises. And that’s all he needs to know.
That and the fact that Jesus Christ himself puts the pastor in the pulpit and at the altar to do what he, Jesus, tells him to do. “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Who? The apostles? Yes, but by the time St. John wrote these words he was likely the only one of the original twelve still living. Was he providing us with no more than an historical account? Did he not record these words of Jesus so that pastors will know what Jesus tells them to do and know to do it?
He reveals his wounds. He always reveals his wounds. There is nothing to say until we understand what he has done. His suffering is for us. It is instead of us. And it is effective. He accomplishes peace. It is no mere song or dream or wish. It is the fundamental reality from which we live. God is at peace with us for Christ’s sake. And the minister of Christ is a minister of Christ for the purpose of bringing that peace to sinners. Everything they preach and teach is for the purpose of exposing sin and covering it up again with the blood-bought forgiveness that Jesus has entrusted to his Church.
First comes Jesus' work. It is finished. Then come Jesus’ words. He preaches yet today.
It may seem rather strange for a pastor to preach about what Jesus tells him to do. But every Christian should know what the Lord Jesus tells his ministers to do so that they might have a correct expectation of them. Here in St. John’s Gospel Jesus tells pastors to forgive and retain sins. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells them to teach and to baptize. In St. Marks’ Gospel he tells them to preach. In St. Luke’s Gospel he says that repentance and the remission of sins must be preached in his name. The pastor is under obligation to preach the law and the gospel.
The law condemns us. There is always the temptation to preach the law in such a way as to make it doable. That makes people feel better than to preach it so that it condemns the people who hear it. Our flesh wants to be flattered. We want to think that we are better than others, so we want God’s law to be proclaimed in such a way that we can look at it and then pat ourselves on the back for obeying it.
But the pastor has no right to do that. He must preach the law in its full severity. Those who refuse to repent of their sins must be told that their sins are not forgiven. The fact that Jesus took away all sins on the cross does not mean that impenitent sinners receive the forgiveness of sins. If you have set your heart on doing and continuing to do what God’s law forbids you to do and you refuse to repent, you need to know that your sins are bound. They are not forgiven. They are retained. You should know that to sin against conscience is to play with fire.
On the other hand, if you are sorry for your sins you need to hear from your pastor that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Not because you are sorry, but because Jesus died for you and rose from the dead with forgiveness to give. God forgives those who confess their sins and want to amend their life. But this doesn’t mean that their sorrow over their sins is what makes God forgive them. The cause of forgiveness does not lie in us. It lies in God. He sees the obedience and suffering of his Son and for Jesus’ sake forgives. It’s always because of Jesus’ deeds that the words God speaks to us give us the forgiveness of sins.
You will always need a pastor who preaches Christ crucified for sinners. You will always need to hear the voice of your Savior because without that voice your faith will wither and die. Oh, you don’t need this pastor. But you need a pastor. When Jesus died and rose from the dead he didn’t institute a self-serve Christianity where we would all serve as our own pastors.
No, Jesus established in and for his church the pastoral office because we need to be convicted in our conscience for our sins and we need to receive the comfort of the forgiveness of sins in the gospel. The peace between God and sinners that Jesus established on the cross must be proclaimed, not just once in a while, but again and again and again. You need to hear it. For it is through Jesus’ words that the peace established on Calvary will be established within you. His words will give you peace as they nourish and strengthen you in the true faith. Amen