The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. He commands the most formidable military forces and his decisions on foreign policy have repercussions around the world. He is the most powerful figure in the nation with largest economy, and his policies directly impact that economy.
Yet, for as powerful as the President is, the actual description of the powers of the President in the Constitution are quite brief and ambiguous. The President has the rights to nominate ambassadors and other officers of the United States. He can require their opinions in writing, veto legislation, negotiate treaties and he is the commander in chief.
Of course, the federal government has grown tremendously since the end of the eighteenth century, and in turn, so has the power and authority of the President. Many of these powers have been defined over time, and to this day they continue to involve controversy.
The President can appoint and remove officers in the executive branch of the government. However, when Franklin D. Roosevelt removed a member of the Federal Trade Commission, the Supreme Court ruled in 1935 that because this was an independent regulatory commission, the act was invalid. Although Congress has the authority to declare war, the President as the commander in chief has often sent U.S. forces into combat in various situations without a declaration of war. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was passed in order to limit this authority since it forces the President to notify Congress within forty eight hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids those forces from remaining for more than sixty days without authorization from Congress.
In recent times, Presidential executive orders have become the subject of controversy. These executive order have the full force of law since they are made to implement Acts of Congress. However, there are those who argue that Presidential executive orders are used to carry out the desires of a President which go beyond the authority designated in a particular law.
Our Gospel lesson this morning also deals with the issue of authority. In question is whether Jesus has the authority to forgive sin. Jesus declares that he does. And in order to prove the point he heals a man. In our text this morning we hear the good news that Jesus has authority over Satan, sin and death. He has come to cure all of the ways that sin has harmed God’s creation.
Our text is located in a part of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is performing a series of powerful deeds. He has healed a leper, a Centurion’s servant and Peter’s mother-in-law. Just before our text, he has stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee and cast out demons from two possessed men on the other side of the sea. Now he has returned to Capernaum, the city in Galilee that served as Jesus’ base of operations during his ministry in that region.
We learn in our text that some people brought a paralytic to Jesus, lying on a bed or mattress. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Jesus saw the faith of those who brought the man – and we should probably assume of the man himself. We don’t know how much they understood about Jesus. But we know for sure that they had faith that he had the authority – he had the power – to help the man.
Jesus did help the man – though we may wonder if initially it was in the way they expected. He said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” The form of the Greek verb indicates that Jesus wasn’t assuring him of some state of forgiveness that continued to be true. Instead, he was saying forgiveness was present in that very moment – that Jesus was in fact giving it to the man then and there.
The scribes were present when this happened. Their private opinion was that Jesus had blasphemed by saying this. They charged that he had taken upon himself a prerogative that belonged only to God, and that in doing so he had sinned against God.
The scribes must have been in for a shock when Jesus directly answered their thoughts. He said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
I love this statement by our Lord because it so cleverly works in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, it is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” than to say “Rise and walk” because no one can tell whether sins have actually been forgiven. However, everyone can perceive whether a paralyzed man suddenly is able to get up and walk. Yet on a deeper level, it is far easier to say “Rise and walk” than to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” This is because sin is the root cause of the paralysis. The paralysis is in fact only a symptom of the real problem – the sinful, fallen character of our life and world.
This is the real problem that the Son of God entered into the world in order to address. We learn this at the very beginning of the Gospel when the angel appears to Joseph and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus came to save people from their sins. Yet Matthew’s Gospel clearly indicates that this salvation from sin is not merely a spiritual thing. In the previous chapter we are told, “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” The statement from Isaiah is found in chapter 53 – a classic passage that describes Christ’s suffering and death for the forgiveness of our sins. Yet Matthew tells us this particular verse applies to Jesus’ healing ministry. He tells us that Jesus came into our world and lived our bodily existence in order to provide the answer to all of the ways that sin has harmed us – in body and soul.
Our text raises the question of whether we perceive that sin is the underlying problem of all that is wrong for us. Do we recognize the link between the physical problems of this world and our fallen, sinful condition? Do we understand that sin is the root cause of these problems?
And moving in a slightly different direction, do we recognize that sin – our own sin – is the cause of the personal problems in our life? Do we acknowledge how our own sin has harmed the relationship with our husband or wife, son of daughter, father or mother, brother or sister? Do we admit that the sinful motivations of our decisions has caused us to live in ways that are contrary to God’s will, and that we have suffered the consequences of this?
Where we are ready to confess this, our text offers good news! We learn that Jesus went on to say, “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” and then he said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” The paralytic rose and went home. And when the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
Jesus demonstrates that he has the authority to forgive sins by healing the man. In doing so he was simply continuing the theme that runs through all of his actions in chapters eight and nine. Jesus has just shown that he has authority over the disorder sin has caused in nature, by stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee. He has just shown that he has authority over the demons who promote sin, by casting them out of two men. And now Jesus shows that he has authority to forgive sin by healing the man.
We live today knowing that Jesus has done even more than that in order to show that he has the authority to forgive sin. He went to the cross in order take our sin and receive God’s wrath. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Yet Jesus did more than just die for us. As we see in our text today, he didn’t come only to give us a spiritual rescue. He came to provide a bodily one as well. In his resurrection on the third day, Jesus Christ defeated death. He defeated all of the ways that sin has corrupted human existence. And because he did this, through baptism you know that you will experience it too. You have shared in his death, and therefore when our Lord returns in glory on the Last Day you will also share in his resurrection. Your body will be transformed to be like Jesus’ resurrected body – a body never again susceptible to sin and death.
That is our future – a future which, by the way, could happen this afternoon. We don’t know when exactly it will happen. What we do know is that until it happens we will continue to encounter sin as we deal with one another. We will be harmed by sin and we will harm others by our own sin.
And so it is important that we listen to the words at the end of our text, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Our Lord has done this uniquely in his gifts of Holy Absolution and the Office of the Holy Ministry. You just heard this at the beginning of the service as the pastor spoke the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all yours sins.”
Yet this is true in another way as well. By forgiving you, Jesus has given you the authority to forgive others. He has given you the authority to assure them of their forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has also given you the authority – and the expectation – that you will forgive those who wrong you.
Because Jesus has forgiven you when you did not deserve it in any way, now you share this by forgiving others. Will this at times seem unfair? Yes, and that’s exactly the point. It is the unmerited, undeserved forgiveness from God in Christ that authorizes and enables us to forgive others who don’t deserve it. That is to say, we live by grace – both in relation to God and in relation to one another.
We can do this because the One who backs us up is the One who has the authority over Satan, sin and death because of his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Jesus gives us a forgiveness that carries through the present and into eternity. And he tells us to share that forgiveness with others in our daily lives.