Quasimodogeniti Sunday| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 3, 2005| St. John 20:19-31
The topic this morning is the Word of God. What is it? When we speak of the Word of God we are speaking of three things: the incarnate Word, the spoken Word, and the written Word. Jesus is the incarnate Word. The gospel that we hear when we go to church is the spoken Word. The Bible is the written Word. The incarnate Word, the spoken Word, and the written Word go together. The know God’s word is not like any other knowledge. Other knowledge you can live without. The knowledge of God’s word is life. It is to know that our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life through faith in Christ the Savior.
Jesus is the incarnate Word. That is, He is the Word become flesh. Incarnate means become flesh, that is, to become a man. The Father did not become a man. The Holy Spirit did not become a man. The Son – also known as the Word – became flesh. He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. He became flesh in order to bring forgiveness of sins and eternal life to us sinners.
This is what St. John writes about the incarnate Word in the prologue of his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)
Jesus is the Word become flesh and He claims the authority to speak words that give out the forgiveness of sins. He made this claim even before He suffered and died on the cross. Jesus forgave the sins of many people before He died and rose from the dead but it was in dying for our sins that Jesus won the authority to forgive sins. Jesus promised that He would give the keys of the kingdom to Peter. He said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom.” “I will give you,” Jesus said. Then, after He died on the cross and rose from the dead, He actually gave the keys to His church. He breathed on His disciples and said, “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.”
This authority to forgive sins and to retain sins is the power of the keys. When your sins are forgiven the door to heaven is unlocked and wide open for you. When your sins are retained the door to heaven is closed and locked. If your sins are forgiven you can go to heaven. If your sins are retained you cannot go to heaven. The power of the keys is a greater power than that belonging to any government or army in this world. The governments of this world can use the power of the sword and the gun to get people to do certain things. But the power of the sword cannot change people. It cannot make people want to do certain things. And it cannot enable the people to do what they cannot do. When people resist the power of the sword the sword can be used to kill them, but the sword cannot make anyone alive.
The power of the keys is different. The forgiveness of sins brings life with it. When Jesus forgives you He simultaneously gives you eternal life and fills you with the Holy Spirit. He brings you out of death to life. He changes you from a dying soul to a living soul. He reverses your future from a future of death and judgment to a future of blessing and eternal life.
The church has received the authority to forgive and to retain sins. Jesus gave her this authority. The ministers of the word and sacraments – usually called the pastors – publicly exercise the keys that belong to the church. The keys always belong to the whole church. We confess this truth in one of the lesser known of the Lutheran Confessions called the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. This is what we confess:
Hence, wherever there is a true church, the right to elect and ordain ministers necessarily exists. Just as in a case of necessity even a layman absolves, and becomes the minister and pastor of another; as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after Baptism then absolved the baptizer. (par 67)
God sends pastors to preach the law and the gospel, baptize, absolve, administer the Lord’s Supper, and feed the flock with God’s holy word. But every Christian has the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the ministry through which Christ gives His church the Holy Spirit belongs to every baptized child of God. When the pastor preaches sermons, confronts the erring and the impenitent with God’s law, absolves the penitent, and carries out the work of the ministry of the word, He is acting as your servant. He has nothing to give or to say that didn’t belong to the church as the church before it belonged to him as a minister of the church. When Jesus breathed on the Apostles, gave them the Holy Spirit, and told them to forgive and to retain sins, He was breathing on the entire church. He was giving the entire church the Holy Spirit. So when the pastors forgive the sins of the penitent, they are carrying out, not a personal pastor power, but an official church power.
The pastors act in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ only as they act by virtue of their office. It is not the person but the office. Pastors forgive or retain sins as representatives of Christ and as ministers of the church. Jesus forgives and retains sins through those who act in His name. He calls ministers through His church. When pastors tell impenitent sinners that their sins are retained, they must be able to prove that they are rightly using this binding key. No pastor has the right to excommunicate the openly unrepentant sinner unless he can prove to the whole church that that sinner is openly unrepentant. And it must be God’s Word, not the pastor’s opinion, which settles the matter.
We need preachers because Jesus, the incarnate Word, comes to us through the spoken word. St. Paul writes:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:14-15, 17)
When Jesus breathed on His disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit and commanded them to forgive and to retain sins He was establishing the pastoral office. He was also giving to His entire church on earth the Holy Spirit and the command to forgive and retain sins in His name. That Jesus has the authority to give this power to His church is seen in His wounds. Look at His hands and His feet! Look at His side! See what Thomas demanded to see and what Jesus showed him. There is the proof that when Jesus gives us the authority to forgive sins we most certainly have that authority. Jesus displayed the body that bore the sin of the world on the cross. He showed them then and there the bodily proof of His resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is God’s absolution of this whole world of sinners. When the crucified and risen Lord Jesus gives His church the authority to forgive and to retain sins, He is giving us an authority He purchased by His blood. For this is He who came by water, and not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Holy Spirit Himself bears witness to this truth.
The reason God appoints preachers to preach the gospel is because God wants His people to hear it and to hear it regularly. People say that they don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. But going to church doesn’t mean going into a building with pews and an altar and a pulpit. Church is simply where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered by Christ’s authority. Church is where the incarnate Word comes to us through the spoken Word as He Himself has promised to do. You may not need this or that church or this or that preacher but you need the spoken Word. My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.
And we need the written Word. We need the Holy Scriptures. St. John writes,
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31)
St. John wrote his Gospel so that you would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you would have life in His name. He wrote it to be read. You can read it when you are all alone. You can listen to it being read to you. You can listen to a sermon that teaches it. You can read a book or a devotion that is drawn from it. But you can’t do without it. The Bible is necessary for the church and for all Christians.
We may not divide the spoken Word from the written Word. They always go together. The preachers may not say God said it unless the Bible says it. Church teaching must be Bible teaching. We need both the spoken Word that the preachers preach and the written Word that the Holy Spirit inspired to be written. Christ the incarnate Word comes to us both in the oral word that is preached and in the written Word that was written by the prophets and the apostles.
The central truth of the Holy Scriptures is the doctrine that God rescues sinners from their sins and gives them eternal life freely, for Christ’s sake, who took away our sins on the cross. Jesus died on the cross for us. He rose from the dead. He appeared to His disciples. He spoke words of peace to them. He showed them His wounds by which He took away the world’s sin. He repeated His words of peace. He said that even as the Father had sent Him, He was sending them. He breathed on them the Holy Spirit. Then He authorized them to forgive the sins of penitent sinners and to retain the sins of the impenitent sinners as long as they did not repent. The spoken Word is spoken and the written Word is written that we may believe in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and that believing we may have life in His name.