The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 11, 2009| 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
Some folks have a problem with authority. They won’t submit to it. When they have it they abuse it. Usually, those who are the least willing to submit to legitimate authority are those who abuse authority when they get their hands on it. The words in Proverbs 30, 22 about “a servant when he reigneth” inspired a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled, appropriately, “A Servant When He Reigneth.” Kipling wrote:
He knows no use for power
Except to show his might.
He gives no heed to judgment
Unless it prove him right.
Not everyone is suited for the exercise of authority. Those who wield power should understand what it is all about. Servants take orders. This doesn’t qualify them to give orders.
But there was and is and ever shall be a Servant who reigns with love, justice, compassion, and equity. His rule provides perfect liberty. It sets prisoners free. It lifts the poor out of poverty. It changes sinners into saints. I am talking about the suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ. He called himself the Son of man.
The Son of man is the Son of God. The Son of God is the Son of man. It is the same person. God became a man. If God became a man then whatever he does a man does because he is both God and man.
When we confess that God became a man we are not confessing that the Father became a man. He did not. We are not confessing that the Holy Spirit became a man. He did not. We are confessing that the Son became a man. He who received his divine nature from his Father in eternity received his human nature from his mother in time. The eternal Son of the eternal Father become bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As we confess, “And was made man.”
Why in the world would God do such a thing? Look and see! “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” Who is this forgiving sins? “Why, he’s a man. Look at him! He’s a man. Who is he, a man, claiming power that belongs to God alone? Why, he’s blaspheming! That’s what he’s doing! He is speaking disrespectfully about God by claiming to do what only God can do.” This was the charge that the Bible scholars were making. Oh, they didn’t have the courage to say so out loud. They were only thinking. They weren’t actually saying anything.
But Jesus can read thoughts. Who, but God, can read another’s thoughts? “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” he asks them. Now they are on trial. They who would put Jesus on trial must answer his question. “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?” Well, a mere man can say neither with any effect. Only God can, by a word, enable a paralytic to stand up and walk. Only God can, by a word, forgive a sinner his sins. The power to do the one is the power to do the other. Only God can do either and God can do both.
But wait a minute. If God has become a man it is no longer true that only God can forgive sins. If God has become a man then a man can forgive sins. Jesus said so. He said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” then he healed the man. He did so in full view of the crowd of onlookers who were amazed. They saw with their own eyes his power to forgive. He healed the paralytic and thus proved his power to forgive.
All physical ailments are a result of sin. It’s not that this ailment is caused by that sin. But if there were no sin in this world there would be no sickness or suffering. When Jesus demonstrated his power over physical ailments he demonstrated his power to forgive. The One who can bring life to dead limbs can forgive sins.
Who is this man who forgives sins? He is our God. Who is this God who forgives sins? He is our brother. And he is with us right here and now. The Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins. He has this power right now and right here.
If he didn’t have this power here on earth it wouldn’t do us any good because we are living here on earth. We’re certainly not in heaven yet. If we were we’d be sinless and we wouldn’t need to receive the forgiveness of sins. But we need the forgiveness of sins right here on earth where we live. Here it is that we sin.
Jesus has the authority on earth to forgive sins. Make no mistake. He earned it. He who bore all of our sins on the cross has the power to forgive the sins he bore. He has the power to forgive you your sins.
You know what they are. God knows. Nobody else really does. No one else can see the real sin you do because the real sin lies within you. It is your desire for what is wrong. You disobey God because you don’t love God as much as you love yourself, but God’s law tells you to love God with your whole heart, soul, and strength. Why do people tell lies about their neighbors? Why do they cheat and steal? Why do they break the marriage vow? Why do they break the rules? They think that they are more important than others. They are their own gods. They want to be in charge.
If they really were, all hell would break lose. Indeed, that’s what hell is like. It’s where God chooses not to be and sinners are left to stew in their own juice, so to speak. People bring a little piece of hell to earth whenever they sin against God. They also bring upon their souls an unbearable burden. Sin must be forgiven or it will condemn us to hell. We can’t live before God without forgiveness.
He who later went to the cross to suffer and die for the sin of the world demonstrated his power to forgive sins by healing the paralytic. He forgave him before he healed him. First things first. You need forgiveness more than you need anything else. And you need it here and now.
He depended on his friends to go anywhere at all. There were no wheelchairs in those days. There was no handicap access to buildings, either. St. Luke records in his Gospel how the man’s friends made a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was in order to lower the man down to Jesus from above. This man needed help! He needed healing! And in the judgment of the one who healed him he needed forgiveness first and most.
Jesus alone has the authority to forgive sins on this earth. No one else has won this right. No one else can exercise this right. But here we are faced with a question. If Jesus does indeed have authority on earth to forgive sins, where do we find him doing so?
We notice that the crowd that witnessed Jesus forgiving and healing the paralytic glorified God who, in St. Matthew’s words, “had given such power to men.” To men. That’s men in the plural; not man in the singular. The power that Jesus has to forgive sins here on earth is exercised here on earth by men. St. John writes:
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, 21-22
The Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins. He did not take this power away from the earth when he ascended into heaven. No, it is precisely as he is exalted in heaven far above all earthly powers that he deigns to serve us here on earth by forgiving us our sins. We confess. Jesus forgives. Jesus speaks through the mouths of his ministers and absolves us today just as surely as he absolved that paralytic lying on a mat.
Most Protestants deny this. Jesus claims the power on earth to forgive sins. That is clear from the words of our text. Jesus gave to his Church on earth the power to forgive sins. That is clear from the words Jesus spoke to his disciples as recorded by St. John. If we are to believe the Bible, Jesus has been forgiving sins right here on earth for nearly two thousand years now. He forgives sins through the speaking of his ministers. Yet it is a tragic fact of church life that millions of people who consider themselves Bible believers do not believe what the Bible says on this matter.
They will pit one truth of the Bible against another truth of the Bible and then deny what the Bible says when it doesn’t fit into their system of thought. They say that only Christ has the power to forgive sins. That’s perfectly true. But then they falsely assume that if a minister speaks words that convey Christ’s forgiveness this must mean that Christ himself isn’t doing the forgiving. But he is! He’s also doing the baptizing. He’s also the one who gives us to eat and to drink of his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. The Son of man is doing these things. He is doing these things right here on earth where we need to have these things done.
“Oh, I don’t need to go to church to be forgiven of my sins. I can pray to Jesus when I’m all alone.” Yes, you can. But unless you have some special kind of power most Christians don’t have, you haven’t actually heard Jesus answer your prayer for forgiveness when you pray all alone. Have you?
But when the Church gathers together in the name of Jesus he is here among us as he promised he would be. The minister is just his spokesman. Jesus is the one doing the talking. Jesus is the one who is forgiving us.
This is the main reason why we come to church. We’re like that paralyzed fellow lying on a cot. We can’t make ourselves whole and we can’t make ourselves innocent. Jesus can. Jesus does. He does so among us here and now. He has the power on earth to forgive sins and he exercises that power today. He won’t take that power away from his Church because he loves her. Amen