The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity| September 28, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 9:1-8
So he got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”; then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men. St. Matthew 9:1-8
When things go well for you God must be happy with you. When you are suffering pain God must be angry with you. This is what people think because it stands to reason. Unless God is simply unfair and lets bad things happen for no good reason. Or maybe God doesn’t know what’s going on in your life. Or maybe God is powerless to prevent suffering. But then, what kind of a god would that be? If God is unjust is he really God? If he is not almighty and omniscient how can he be God?
Everyone tries to find a theological explanation of human suffering. The connection between sin and sickness is impossible to deny. People can see this connection even when they don’t confess belief in a personal God. The Buddhists see a direct link between doing good and receiving good in return. So do the Hindus. There is a connection between the physical and the spiritual.
We Christians know from God’s word that sickness is the result of sin against God. We know that if there were no sin in the world there would be no sickness either. This is why it appears that when we are sick or suffer any kind of physical ailment God is punishing us for our sins. Either that or God’s asleep at the wheel or maybe not even the Captain of the ship. But to argue that God has no control over human suffering is to argue that God is not really God at all. What kind of a god would it be who could not prevent sickness? Why would God permit those he loves to suffer ongoing pain that has no apparent purpose or end?
This is why people assume that suffering is divine punishment. That’s what Job’s friends thought. They urged Job to confess whatever sin he had committed that had brought him such divine retribution. While Job was at a loss to understand his suffering he was unwilling to say that God was punishing him. Still, he wondered why God would be so unfair. He resisted the blasphemous suggestion of his wife that he curse God and die. He kept his faith. But he was sorely vexed and tried by his suffering.
It is difficult to reconcile our Christian faith in a loving and gracious God and the suffering that Christians must endure in this life. When we face chronic pain and suffering we may begin to wonder if God is really gracious to us. We might even become angry with God and accuse him of doing us wrong. And that’s a sin, is it not? So then does God punish us for that sin? And so we become embittered as our physical suffering escalates the battle with God within our souls.
God comes to declare peace. Watch Jesus and listen to what he says.
The man is paralyzed. He cannot walk. His friends carry him around on a cot. We learn from the parallel accounts in Mark 2 and Luke 5 that his friends were so intent on getting him into the presence of Jesus that they took him on top of the roof of the building where Jesus was and broke a hole in the roof and let him down from above. That’s how much they loved their friend. That’s how much they trusted in Jesus’ willingness and ability to heal their friend. Jesus saw their faith. Then he spoke. “Son, be of good cheer.” What comes next? Healing? Relief from the pain and from the humiliation of being as dependant as a child on his friends? What else could bring him good cheer? His need is perfectly obvious to everyone there.
But Jesus does not heal him. Not yet. Instead, he forgives him. He speaks words that impart to the man the forgiveness of his sins. That is a wonderful thing! God speaks through the voice of a man and by his speaking gives to us sinners the forgiveness of all our sins.
If our sins are forgiven then our sickness cannot be divine punishment. For God can hardly forgive us our sins and then proceed to punish us for them. If our sins are forgiven then God can’t be angry with us. He can’t be unconcerned about us. He can’t be helpless to help us in whatever need we might face in life. If we have the forgiveness of sins we have God himself. He is ours and we are his. No power on earth can come between us and the love of God if we have God’s forgiveness of our sins.
Only God can forgive sins. Jesus is God. He is the Son of God. He is also a man. He calls himself the Son of Man. And when he lays claim to the authority to forgive sins he says, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He forgives sins, not only as true God, but also as the true man. The crowd marvels and glorifies God for giving this authority to men.
Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins on this earth. Here on earth is where Adam fell. Here is where we daily fall with him. Every time we sin we embrace sickness and death and all suffering. Doing bad brings bad. Any heathen can see this. We Christians can see it a bit more clearly. We know God’s commandments. We know our sins. We know that if God did punish us for our sins he would not be doing wrong. Sickness, suffering, pain, and death are not arbitrarily dispensed by a mean god. They are what we have earned.
If God kept a record of our wrongs in order to pay us back here on earth we could expect to find life a miserable existence. This is why we become dejected, angry, and often bitter when we must face sickness. We don’t want to admit that this is precisely what we deserve. We blame God and accuse him of being unmerciful.
But God does not punish his children with sickness. He forgives them. Jesus claimed the authority to forgive. He earned the authority to forgive. This is not a case of God deciding that sin doesn’t call for punishment after all so he’ll just dismiss sinners’ sins. No, this is a case of the Son of Man becoming the substitute for all men, women, and children. God becomes flesh to bear in his holy flesh the sin of all humanity. It is the Son of Man who lays claim to the authority to forgive sins. As the divine man he obeys the law to the letter without failing to meet its full requirements. As the divine man he suffers the punishment of all humanity for our sins against the law. Therefore, the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins here on earth where the sinners need it. And he has given this authority to men.
This authority is exercised by pastors who, in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus, forgive sinners their sins. Jesus gave this authority to the church. Pastors exercise this authority as ministers of Christ and his church. When you come to church and confess your sins in the general confession and you hear the pastor speak words of absolution to you, you should believe that it is Jesus Christ himself who is speaking.
People say that a man cannot forgive sins. They say that the pastor has no authority to forgive anyone his sins. They say that this is between the sinner and God. But if were only between the sinner and God then all sinners would have to suffer a whole lot more than paralysis or sickness or even death. They would have to suffer eternal damnation in hell. But the sins of sinners are not simply between them and God. Jesus has intervened. He has come between the sins of sinners and God. Jesus has obeyed. Jesus has suffered. And so Jesus has earned the right to forgive sins on earth and he has given that right to his church. He healed the paralytic to prove this power. He rose from the dead to prove this power. We don’t need anyone telling us that a man cannot forgive sins. Jesus is a man and Jesus can and does forgive sins. And his ministers speak with his authority.
More than that, every single Christian has the authority to forgive sins. It is true that Jesus established the pastoral office in and for the church and that his ministers forgive sins by his authority. It is also true that Christ gave to his whole church – and that means to every single individual Christian – the authority to forgive sins.
Do you know someone who is suffering from a lingering and painful sickness? Or someone who has faced a loss so deep that it appears as if God just does not care? Do you know someone whose faith is facing severe testing and who may be wondering about God’s love? We who know Christ by faith have Christ’s authority to speak the words that faith needs. Wherever his holy Church is there is the power to forgive sins. The Church doesn’t disappear when the Divine Service is concluded and we go our separate ways. We have the authority to tell sinners that for Jesus’ sake their sins are forgiven. We can point to their suffering and pain and agree that it is the wages of sin. But when Jesus forgives sinners he removes their punishment from them. You don’t have to be a pastor to tell people that.
Some Christians insist that Jesus heals today just as he did years ago. There’s no doubt that Jesus can. But if he chooses not to heal our diseases as we want them healed this does not mean that he does not forgive us our sins. Jesus gave to his church the authority to forgive and it is upon this authority that his church is founded. Those who are suffering the pain of being sinners in a sinful world do not need to wonder if God is punishing them or if God doesn’t know or care or if God is powerless to help them. They can know that God for Christ’s sake forgives them their sins. This knowledge brings peace with God and the confidence that all of our suffering will in the end be for our good. It cheers our souls by removing a burden we cannot bear. And it guarantees us eternal life. Amen