Two weeks ago we had a very unusual Sunday. In the course of the month leading up to when I was scheduled to be out of town, three different pastors who had committed to cover the services at Good Shepherd had to cancel due to personal or family health issues. With no way to find a pastor to lead the services, I am thankful that our elders stepped up.
It was a very different Sunday because, unlike every other Sunday at Good Shepherd, we did not have the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. It was a different Sunday because we had guest “celebrity preacher” from the sixteenth century, as the elder read one of Martin Luther’s sermons. And it was also a different Sunday because the service did not begin with Confession and Absolution.
Now that fact seems very odd to us because normally, corporate Confession and Absolution begins every service. You will probably be surprised to learn that in most Lutheran churches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was not the case. There was no Confession and Absolution at the start of the service, because those who were going to commune had already gone to private confession during the days leading up to the service.
You can understand why the elder – a layman – didn’t speak the absolution you hear each Sunday because he is not a called and ordained servant of the Word. But you may still have been surprised that there was no Confession and Absolution, because in addition to this form on the left hand side of the page, there is another form, often called the “Declaration of Grace,” on the right side of the page.
In recent history this has commonly been understood to be a form that non-ordained individuals could use. However, the reality is that this is a complete misunderstanding of its history and purpose. This absolution was also something that was only spoken by ordained pastors. The manner in which the The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 was laid out with its “Order of Morning Service – Without Communion” and “The Order of the Holy Communion” – or “page 5” and “page 15” as we knew it - created the misunderstanding. Therefore, we did not use it at the beginning of the service when there was no ordained minister present. And what can I say? That’s happens when your pastor learns things as he researches and writes the chapter that covers every form of confession and absolution in the hymnal for the forthcoming Lutheran Service Book Handbook – which should be out next year.
The Church has always recognized that it is an awesome thing to speak forgiveness from God to others. After all, this is not a matter of one Christian forgiving another Christian. It is instead the declaration that sins against God are forgiven. This is something only God can do. Understandably, we recognize that speaking for God – speaking like God – is not something we as individual human beings take up and do on our own.
That is the basic issue that stands out in our text this morning. In chapters eight and nine of his Gospel, Matthew tells us about the ministry of healing miracles that our Lord carried out. This follows the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five to seven, and so in these five chapters the evangelist shows us that Jesus’ ministry was a powerful one of word and deed.
We learn that Jesus returned to Capernaum, the city that served as his base of operations in the region of Galilee. Again and again, when people heard that Jesus was in the area, the sick came to him, or were brought to him by others. We learn that some people brought a paralytic to him lying on a bed. The family or friends of the man were willing to carry him to Jesus. Of course, this shows their love and concern for this man.
But it also shows something else, and our text states this explicitly with the words: “when Jesus saw their faith.” The paralytic and the men who brought him had faith in Jesus. They believed that he could he help, and their presence showed that were willing to put their faith into action.
What happened next seems rather surprising. We learn that Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic had been brought for healing. Instead, Jesus forgave his sins. This may seem odd to us at first. But it also leads us to ponder more deeply what our real problem is.
God had told Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” After Adam and Eve sinned, God said to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” St. Paul summarized this fact when he told the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.”
Unless Jesus returns first, sin will bring death to every one of us. But it’s not just that eventually we will die. Instead, everyday we are in the process of dying. Getting older does not mean you are getting better. It may seem that way when you are a teenager, but it doesn’t take long to realize that age steals strength, speed, and stamina. The illnesses and serious health concerns that arise during life simply stand out as proof that this is indeed what is happening. It is sin that is the root cause of all of this.
So the real issue is not health and death. You are going to die. What matters is whether that sin which is the source of physical death is going to cause eternal death. Since every sin is a sin against the holy God it brings his eternal judgment. What really matters is whether God has forgiven that sin, so that it no longer cuts us off from God and prevents eternal life with him.
Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” The scribes who were there said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Because they did not have faith in Jesus, it’s not hard to understand why they thought this. All sin is sin against God. Only God can forgive this sin. Yet here was Jesus, talking like had the authority of God.
Our Lord knew their thoughts, and he responded with one my favorite statements because it has two different meanings at the same time. 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’?” On the one hand, “it is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven,” because there is no way to verify whether it has happened. On the other hand, it is harder to say “Your sins are forgiven,” and actually do it, because this is the root cause of every physical problem – it is the cause of the fact that we are always in the process of dying.
Jesus had forgiven the paralytic’s sins. Now he added, “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 man who had been a paralytic did in fact rise and go home. Jesus had healed him, and in doing so demonstrated that he did have authority on earth to forgive sins. Matthew tells us, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”
Our Lord forgives the paralytic and then heals him. In Jesus’ healing ministry we see that he had come to bring God’s kingdom – his reign that frees us from sin and all that it causes. The goal of this ministry was to redeem us from our every sin of thought, word, and deed. Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that he would die. He said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ died on the cross to win forgiveness before God. He received the judgment against sin that we deserved. Though sinless, the wages of sin for him was indeed death.
Yet Jesus’ death was about more than providing forgiveness. Jesus died so that God could raise him from the dead on the third day and begin a bodily life where death is never possible again. The message of the New Testament is that the resurrection of the Last Day began on Easter in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the firstfruits, and on the Last Day when he returns in glory Jesus will raise and transform your bodies so that they can never die again.
In our text, Jesus says to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Our Lord is saying the exact same thing to you this morning. It happened in Holy Absolution when Jesus spoke through is called servant and said, “I forgive you all your sins.” It is happening now as his called servant proclaims the Gospel to you – that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give you forgiveness. It will happen in a few moment as Jesus will give you his true body and blood, given had shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. He will leave no doubt that this forgiveness is for you, because he will place that body and blood into your mouth.
This forgiveness is received by faith – just as faith prompted the paralytic to be brought to Jesus. Faith acts. And as those who have received this forgiveness, it also means that faith acts in sharing this forgiveness with others. Faith which has received forgiveness in Christ now forgives others.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He teaches us to ask for forgiveness, confident that as repentant sinners we will receive it on account of Christ. But Jesus does not leave things there. Instead he adds, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And in case we have missed his point or are tempted to ignore it, in his very first words after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus adds, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Forgiving others is not an “option” in the Christian life. If you want Christ’s forgiveness to remain with you, then it must also be passed on to others who sin against you. Peter once tried to put a cap on this whole forgiveness thing. He asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Seven times! Wow! Talk about graciousness. But Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” And of course Jesus was not providing the answer of four hundred and ninety. Instead of if seven is the number of completeness, then seven times seventy indicates total completeness – completeness that knows no limit.
This forgiveness begins in the setting of your family. Spouses forgive one another, because God in Christ has forgiven them. Siblings – brother and sisters - forgive one another, because God in Christ has forgiven them. Parents and children forgive one another, because God in Christ has forgiven them. This means that we can’t knowingly continue to hold something against them. It means that what has been forgiven is left in the past, and is never brought up again.
It means that we forgive, even when that other person is not sorry and does not ask for forgiveness. After all, that is what God did for us. St. Paul told the Romans, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Shortly thereafter he adds that God did this “while we were enemies” as he reconciled us to himself by the death of his Son.
We do not have the power and strength to do this. It is only the Spirit of Christ who makes it possible. It is only as we continue to confess our sins and receive forgiveness from Christ that we are enabled to live differently. Today Jesus says to you, “Take heart my son. Take heart my daughter. Your sins are forgiven.” Because of our Lord’s death and resurrection you are forgiven. Because you receive the Lord’s forgiveness, you now forgive others.