Forgiveness Here on Earth
The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity| October 14, 2012| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. 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
Years ago I visited with a pastor who had assumed the vacancy of a Lutheran congregation in Minnesota whose pastor had just taken a call elsewhere. It was a mission church. The pastor who had just left was very concerned about doing everything he could do to make the little church grow. He didn’t want to do anything to offend the sensibilities of the religious seekers in the community. This became obvious during the first service at which the vacancy pastor officiated. After the congregation confessed their sins against God, the pastor, according to the rubrics of the Divine Service, spoke the familiar words:
Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto 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 Ghost.
Immediately after he spoke these words, an entire family stood up and walked out of the church. After the service was over, the vacancy pastor went up to one of the elders of the congregation and asked what happened. “Oh,” he said, “They don’t believe you can do that.” “Do what?” the pastor asked. “They don’t think you can forgive them their sins.” The pastor was puzzled and asked the elder, “What did they do when your previous pastor absolved the congregation?” “He never did,” the elder replied.
The pastor didn’t want to offend people so he took the absolution out of the service. People are offended by the claim that a mere man can forgive them their sins. The prevailing opinion throughout American Protestantism is that a man cannot forgive sins committed against God. The best he can do is to tell people that God forgives sins. He cannot say, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” and assure the people that his forgiveness is God’s. Most Protestants find this claim to be offensive.
That is a tragedy. The authority of Jesus Christ to forgive sins here on earth is a treasure he has entrusted to his Church. It is a priceless treasure. It is a treasure worth defending. Shame on that Lutheran pastor who would deprive his congregation of the absolution to avoid offending those who don’t believe in it! Unbelief on our part cannot undo God’s faithfulness. As the Bible says, “Let God be true but every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4) God claims the authority to forgive sinners their sins through words spoken by men.
Jesus proved it. Jesus is the Son of God, eternally begotten of his Father. Jesus is the Son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary. In the Gospels Jesus identifies himself as both the Son of God and the Son of Man. In our Gospel for today where he claims the authority to forgive sins here on earth he calls himself the Son of Man. The Son of Man forgives sinners their sins.
Those scribes or Bible scholars who judged Jesus as a blasphemer for claiming the power to forgive sins would not have dreamed of denying to God the power to forgive sins. They were Bible believing, church going men. They believed in the forgiveness of sins. But they also knew that all sin is committed against God and God is the only one with the authority to forgive. Only God in heaven can forgive sins.
That’s true. Only God in heaven can forgive sins. But forgiveness doesn’t do us much good if it’s up in heaven, does it? We live here on earth. Here is where the sin is. Here is where we sin and are sinned against. Here is where we suffer the effects of sin. If forgiveness is up in heaven and not here on earth then we sinners who need forgiveness will have to figure out a way to heaven to get the forgiveness we need. But it is precisely sin that keeps us from being able to do so. So we’re stuck here on earth.
When Isaac lay on his bed dying, too weak to get up, and practically blind, he sent his firstborn son Esau out to hunt for some game and prepare a meal. Then Isaac would bless Esau. But God had promised the blessing would to go Esau’s younger brother, Jacob. So Rebecca told Jacob to impersonate Esau to trick the feeble and dying Isaac into giving the blessing to him. That’s what Jacob did. When Esau found out about it he vowed to kill him. So Jacob left home.
During his travels he stopped at a place to rest. He had a dream. He saw a ladder joining heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending on it. God was at the top of the latter and Jacob was at the bottom. The latter symbolized that God in heaven would join the human race. God would become a man, a Descendent of Jacob. Heaven would join earth. The forgiveness of sins that only God in heaven can give would be won here on earth and given here on earth.
Jesus claimed the authority on earth to forgive sins. By healing the man who was paralyzed he showed his power to forgive sins. All physical ailments are a result of sin. It’s not that this malady is a punishment from God for that sin, as if either the paralytic or his parents had done something in particular that caused his paralysis. Rather, it is that everything in our bodies and minds and souls that doesn’t work the way it should work doesn’t work because of the sin that affects us all. By healing disease Jesus showed his power to forgive sinners their sins.
The paralytic didn’t have to walk up to Jesus to get the forgiveness he needed. Jesus went to where he was. The paralytic couldn’t go to Jesus. Jesus went to him. This is how forgiveness works. The sin that we commit in thought, word, and deed keeps us away from God. God becomes our brother. He descends Jacob’s ladder. Here on earth he claims the right to forgive sins. Here on earth he wins the right to forgive sins. For our God and brother goes to where all sin of all sinners is punished. Jacob’s sin against Esau, your sin against your brother and sister, your neighbor’s sin against you – all the sins you never heard of were heaped up into one big heap and placed on Jesus Christ who suffered the full punishment they deserved. Heaven came down to earth to remove the sin from earth that kept us out of heaven.
And God speaks the words that give the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you” that man’s sins were forgiven him. On what authority? On the authority of Jesus, the Son of Man. The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Jesus said so. He healed the man to prove it. He died on the cross and rose from the dead to secure it. He speaks and it is done.
When Jesus had died and risen from the dead he appeared to his disciples and gave to them and to his Church the authority to forgive sins. The authority he claimed he earned. The authority he earned he gave. Christians can speak words that convey God’s forgiveness. Sinful human beings forgive sinful human beings by God’s authority. Since they have God’s authority to do so it is God who is doing so.
The pastor forgives sins in Jesus’ name because God called him to do so as his minister. But it is not only the pastor who has this authority. Christ gave it to the Church and the Church is made up of all Christians. All Christians may and should forgive in Jesus’ name. Forgiveness isn’t stuck up in heaven. It is here on earth.
Nobody but Jesus has this authority. This means that only his Church can exercise it because he gave this authority to forgive to his Church and to his Church alone. The governments of this world don’t have the authority to forgive anyone his sins. The state can prosecute, incarcerate, and even put to death, but it cannot forgive. It can fail to punish or commute a sentence, and they call it a pardon when the governor of the state sets a prisoner free, but no governor has the power to take the sin off that person’s soul and set him free before God. Only Christ can do so and Christ does so only within his Church on earth. This is why the Church is the ark of salvation outside of which no one can be saved.
Everyone needs the forgiveness that Christ alone can give. Nowadays forgiveness of sin has given way to denial of sin even among those who call themselves Christians. Abortion, fornication, sodomy, gluttony, drunkenness, fits of rage, selfish ambition, and other sins emanating from the deceitful lusts of our fallen nature are defended, excused, defined away, or considered human rights that cannot be denied. So instead of seeking forgiveness for sin and the power of the Holy Spirit that comes from forgiveness, people remain trapped in their sin. It hurts them. It embitters them. It destroys them. It needs to be forgiven if they are to be able to arise and walk. But empowerment is the slogan these days, and repentance is out of style. That’s an irony for you! Empowerment is exactly the opposite of what it claims to be. The only way to empower people is to forgive them their sins.
Everyone needs the forgiveness that Christ alone can give. Everyone needs to hear the words of Christ’s absolution. Everyone needs to believe these words for they give what they say. That’s what brings us Christians together Sunday after Sunday as we listen to the voice of Jesus forgiving us all our sins. In faith, we invoke the presence of the Triune God. Jesus joins us and speaks the words we need to hear. From those words we have the forgiveness we need to live useful lives here on earth.
We need forgiveness here on earth where live. We need to receive it. We need to give it. We cannot give what we don’t have. What we have we can give away and we don’t lose it by giving it away. God forgives us because he loves us. Talk of love without forgiveness is hollow. God puts his own authority behind the words he speaks and gives that authority to us.
“Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.” He proved it. The crowd marveled that God had given such power to men. Not just to preachers in the Church, either, but to Christians out in the world. You can forgive those who do you wrong. You don’t have to wait until they walk up to you and ask you for it. Maybe they can’t walk. They can’t ask. They’re as trapped in their sins as that paralytic was trapped in his paralysis. Your forgiveness can be the voice of God. Christians give as they receive. Forgiving those who do us wrong is a mark of being a Christian.
The Son of Man will have power here on earth to forgive sins until the end of time. Here is where we need it. Here is where he gives it. His words of forgiveness give us what they say. They define who we are. They empower us to forgive. Amen