Sunday, October 2, 2016
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity - Mt 9:1-8
“Almighty God the Father has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
You hear these words of Holy Absolution spoken at the beginning of every Divine Service. If they weren’t part of the service I would probably hear complaints. In fact when I first arrived at Good Shepherd ten years ago, I did. The previous hymnal that we were using at that time, Lutheran Worship, was laid out with the assumption that when there was a baptism this would take the place of the beginning of the service that included the confession and absolution.
The first time I had a baptism here at Good Shepherd, that is how the service was done. Soon after the service I received complaints because there had been no confession and absolution. I explained that this was simply the way the hymnal laid things out when there was a baptism. But this answer did not satisfy those who raised the complaint.
It will be important for James Peterson and Josh Schiff to learn that part of the art of pastoral practice is learning to determine which are the hills that are worth dying on. There are times when the subject and circumstances necessitate that a pastor take a very strong and firm stand even if some people don’t like. But quite often there is no key biblical truth at stake. The pastor may have a preference about how something is done, but if congregation members want something different there is just no sense in making an issue about it. Holy Absolution is Gospel and if people didn’t want to be without that form of the Gospel in the service, I certainly wasn’t going to deny it to them. And you’ll notice today as we had the baptism of Sophia Trinity Toler that ten years later we are still doing Confession and Absolution at the start of the service before the baptism.
We hear these words every week, and certainly cherish them. At the same time, because we hear them so often it’s inevitable that we become used to them. But to someone from outside the Lutheran Church or the broader catholic tradition, these words are often surprising – and even offensive. After all, they are truly dramatic in their claim.
The pastor is not speaking in general about the forgiveness that is available in Jesus Christ to every repentant sinner. He is not saying that you have done something against him, and so now he forgives you. Instead, the pastor addresses all the sins you confess and then says, “I forgive you all your sins.” In a very direct and unambiguous way he says what only God can say, because after all, your sin has been committed against God and only God can forgive sin in this way.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we see the reason that the pastor can speak this way in Holy Absolution. It is Jesus and his ministry that has provided this Gospel gift. Yet we see in our text that the remarkable way Jesus does his Gospel work has always caused offense.
In the Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that Jesus returned to Capernaum – that city on the Sea of Galilee that served as the base of operations for his ministry in the north of Palestine. We learn that some people brought a man lying on a bed who was a paralytic.
It’s not hard to understand why they did this. In this portion of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus performs a whole series of miracles as he heals and casts out demons. Jesus is well known for doing this and people flock to him seeking help for themselves, and for friends and family.
They brought the man to Jesus and we learn that Jesus saw their faith. Certainly they didn’t understand everything about who Jesus was and what he had come to do – even the apostles didn’t have that yet. But they believed that Jesus was the One in whom God’s kingdom – his reign had arrived. They believed that he was the One in whom God’s saving work was present.
Jesus saw the faith of the paralytic and those bringing him, and so he said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Your sins are forgiven…. We are not told how the paralytic and his friends responded to this. But we do know how we respond. After all, we come to God all the time in prayer asking for relief and healing from physical ailments. We come asking God for help with mental illness. We come in prayer on behalf of others who desperately need help with these things. Often Jesus doesn’t provide the answer we want to hear. Instead he keeps saying: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven. “Take heart, my daughter; your sins are forgiven.” And so we are not pleased. We become upset because God is ignoring us. He is not listening to us. He is not giving us what we think we really need.
We learn in our text that there was someone there who was upset – and it was wasn’t the paralytic or his friends. Instead our text says, “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’” These experts in the Torah heard Jesus’ statement, and they immediately concluded that Jesus was saying something that infringed on God’s rights. That’s why they said Jesus was blaspheming. Clearly, they perceived that Jesus was claiming he could pronounce forgiveness – a forgiveness that counted before God.
Our Lord knew their thoughts. He knew the accusation they were raising against him. And so he asked, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
Jesus said their thoughts were evil. They were a rejection of God and what he was doing. And then Jesus asked a question – one of my favorite questions that our Lord directed to his opponents. It is a question that cuts both ways depending on how you think about it. On the one hand, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” It’s easier because no one can check what has actually happened. We don’t come equipped with a “sin meter” that you can examine to verify if the forgiveness spoken has worked. On the other hand, either the paralytic gets up and walks when you have said “Rise and walk,” or he doesn’t. That one is very clear.
However it is the other way of thinking about the question that brings us to the deepest significance of Jesus. It is in fact easier to say, “Rise and walk” than it is to say “Your sins are forgiven.” The reason is that sin is the root cause of all that is wrong in the world. Every physical ailment finds its source in the sin that since the Fall has warped and twisted our bodies and our souls – all that we are.
This was the problem that Jesus had entered into the world to address. God the Father had sent him to offer himself as the sacrifice for sin – the once and for all sacrifice that allows us to stand before God because our sin have been forgiven. They are no longer counted against us. Because of Jesus we are saints – forgiven sinners whom God will reckon as righteous and holy on the Last Day because of Jesus.
But that is not all Jesus did. Jesus died as the sacrifice for your sin. But then he did something no sacrifice had ever done before. He rose from the dead. As true God and true man he emerged from the tomb with a transformed humanity that can never die again. He began the absolute and complete renewal of humanity and creation itself that on the Last Day will undo everything that the sin and the Fall have caused.
Jesus’ ministry of miracles and healing demonstrated that he was in the process of bringing this answer to sin. He had come to remove the root cause. He had also come to fix everything that sin had done. Jesus was the presence of God’s kingdom – his rein – that was overcoming Satan, sin and death in every possible way.
And so we find in our text that immediately after asking his question Jesus said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— and he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” The man was healed. He 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 had the authority to forgive sins then. And as the crucified and risen Lord who has defeated Satan, sin and death he has that authority now. Jesus won forgiveness. It is his to give out. And he wants to give it to every repentant sinner. He wants to give it out, and he leaves no doubt about how he does this.
Our Lord does it through his Means of Grace. He does it through his Word, through Holy Baptism and through the Sacrament of the Altar. But our Gospel lesson focuses our attention today on how he does this through Holy Absolution. In chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel we Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” And after his resurrection we find that Jesus says in John chapter 20, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Our Lord has given Holy Absolution to his Church. And he has not left to chance how it is administered. He instituted his Office of the Holy Ministry as the means by which he speaks this forgiveness. Pastors are called and placed into the Office of the Ministry in a congregation through the work of the Holy Spirit. They now speak this word of absolution.
But they do not speak on their own authority. It is not really they who speak. Instead, it is Jesus. It is Jesus’ forgiveness. It is Jesus’ Office of the Ministry. It is Jesus’ absolution. That’s what it means when the pastor says, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority.”
Jesus leaves no doubt. He says to you, “I forgive you all your sins.” And like the crowd in our text we glorify God, because if the Lord who died on the cross and rose from the dead to win forgiveness says it, this is most certainly true.