Absolution: Blasphemy or Authority of God?
|"Jesus Heals the Lame Man" Used with permission of WorldMissionsClipart|
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 9:1-8, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
The house is packed, because Jesus is there. Four men come to the house with their paralyzed friend because they believe the Word they’ve heard about Jesus and His miracles and believe He might help their friend. The Savior, seeing their faith, says to the paralytic: “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.”
“My son, your sins are forgiven”? Now, what kind of a thing is that to say? The teachers of the Law have a word for it: blasphemy. “This man is blaspheming!” they say to themselves. What they mean is: “This mere man is claiming divine authority. We all know that only God can forgive sins.”
Like all effective lies, there is an element of truth here. Only God can forgive sins. The teachers of the Law are sadly mistaken, thinking they’re upholding God’s honor. But their real problem is deeper—unbelief. They’re doing theology by their eyes and not their ears. They see the lowly man named Jesus, and don’t realize this is the Lord God Incarnate. Emmanuel. God with us. The idea that God is present with His people to forgive sins will always be an offense to many.
Of course, the more practical in the crowd might be offended for a different reason. “These men brought a paralytic all this way to Jesus, and ‘all’ Jesus is going to do is forgive the man? What kind of help is that?” While we have no record of such naysayers in the text, we do know what Jesus says next to the scribes: “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
Stop right there for a moment. Which is easier to say? In human terms, it’s a lot easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” How is anyone going to prove you wrong? But if you say, “Rise and walk,” and he doesn’t, it’s blasphemy. On the other hand, if you can make the paralytic walk by speaking, it follows that you can also forgive his sins. And if you can heal him and forgive him… well, that means that you are, in fact, who you say you are. Which is precisely what Jesus says to the paralytic: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rises and goes home.
Now, let’s move to another house, across the street about 7000 miles to the west, and nearly 2000 years later. You come here, in this house, for the same reason that those people went to that house. Jesus, the One to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, promises to be with you always, present here by His means of grace. He’s already gone to the cross. He’s defeated sin, death, and the devil. And He’s come here to share that victory with you.
The people in Capernaum went to that certain house because that’s where Jesus was present. You come here for the same reason. If the Lord promised to be present in lattes or espressos, we’d adjourn to the local coffee shop. If He promised to be present in grain-decorated buildings, we’d make a pilgrimage to Mitchell and the world’s only Corn Palace. But you’ve heard His Word that He is here, and like the Capernaites, you’ve come to the house where He is found.
In the house in Capernaum, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” In this house, you hear very similar words. The pastor stands before you and says, “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 Spirit.”
These words are designed to announce to you a great comfort. However, they’re often met with a couple of unhappy reactions. The first is similar to the teachers of the Law: “Who is the pastor to forgive my sins? Who does he think he is to say, ‘I forgive you’?” You should be aware that many in other church bodies have this reaction. Some even maintain that your pastor’s soul is in jeopardy for saying such a blasphemous thing. So it probably doesn’t hurt for us to answer the question: Who is the pastor to say, “I forgive you?”
The answer begins in John 20, where we hear of the risen Lord: He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jesus said this to His apostles, the men that He was sending to preach the Gospel to all nations. They were not going to go proclaim their word, but His Word. They were not going on their own, but He was sent sending them. When the apostles proclaimed Jesus’ Word, it had the same authority as if Jesus Himself were speaking it.
Like the apostles, the pastor is called as God’s servant in this place. He does not speak to you his words on his authority; he is called to speak God’s Word on His authority. And first and foremost, the Lord declares to you the forgiveness of sins. In the words of absolution, it is true that the pastor says, “I forgive you.” But look at what else he says:
“By virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word.”
“In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.”
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Three times each absolution, the pastor makes it clear that he is simply the mouthpiece. It is not that Tom Christopher or any other man says that he forgives your sins—that won’t do you any good. What matters is the office he holds—the office of pastor, called to tell you what God says. It is not the pastor who commands your sins to flee. It is the command of Christ that the pastor repeats.
Again, you are not forgiven in the name of Tom, but in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With these words, the pastor is saying, “As the one called by you to represent our Lord in this place, I announce to you what Jesus says. And Jesus says, ‘I forgive you all of your sins.’”
This is not an unusual thing. People often speak because of the authority given to them. A purchasing agent for a corporation can say, “I’ll take a million dollars worth of that.” Who is he to say that, to spend a million dollars that aren’t even his? He’s a representative of his company, given the authority to buy things.
A justice of the peace says, “I pronounce you man and wife.” Who is he to do that? He is the representative of the state, and the state authorizes him to perform marriages. In fact, if you look at a marriage license, you’ll find it does not authorize the couple to marry; it authorizes the officiant to perform the marriage.
Or consider the Lord’s Prayer, where you pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You forgive those who trespass against you—but who are you to forgive? You are a Christian, one redeemed by the Lord and given the authority and command to forgive others privately.
No, it’s not the pastor who is forgiving you. He’s simply called by God through the congregation with the authority to repeat what Jesus says: “I, Jesus, forgive you, individual.” This is not blasphemy. This is the Lord’s announcement that you are not left out of salvation. Christ has died for you, personally.
There is another unfortunate reaction to Absolution: indifference. “We’re forgiven? Big deal. We’ve got real problems, and all you’re going to do is tell us that we’re forgiven?” This is one of the greatest attacks upon the Church today. A church that continues to remain faithful to the Lord’s message of sin and grace will be deemed irrelevant by the world. That should come as no surprise. The world rejects the Savior, so, of course it has no use for His salvation.
Still, let’s not stop there, because there’s more to be said. Christians of all ages will come here with all sorts of troubles. Anxiety, depression, ridicule at school, guilt, anger, illness, all sorts of things. When you are the victim, these will dominate your thoughts and it can be easy to miss an important connection. That’s why it’s so important to hear the words of absolution at such times.
The connection is this: Why do we suffer anxiety, depression, ridicule, guilt, anger, illness, etc.? At the root of it all, the reason is sin. If there were no sin, there would be none of these fruits of sin. All of these troubles announce to you the presence of sin in this world and in you. Burdened by these troubles, you come here. And “all” you hear about is forgiveness. But forgiveness of what? Forgiveness of sins! Forgiveness of sinfulness, the root cause of anxiety, depression, disease, and death. If sin is defeated and the root is cut, then a mortal blow is struck to all of these fruits of sin as well.
Are you anxious? The Lord declares, “Anxiety comes because the trials you face seem insurmountable; but I have beaten them. I’ve borne your burdens to the cross and destroyed them. And I share that victory with you, even though you must—for a little while—live in an anxiety-prone world. How? With these words: ‘I forgive you.’ Because you’re forgiven, you may trust that I’m working all things for your good.”
Are you ridiculed by others? The Lord declares, “This is a sinful world where people seek power and they belittle others to exalt themselves. They will especially mock my people for their faith. I have been ridiculed to death, for those who crucified Me mocked Me to the end. And I’ve risen from that cruel death to conquer My enemies. The world, for a time, will call you names. But do not fear: I call you names, too. I call you ‘beloved.’ I call you ‘My child.’ I call you ‘heir of the kingdom of heaven.’ I call you these things—and make you these things—when I call you ‘forgiven,’ when I say to you, ‘I forgive you all of your sins.’”
Do you mourn the death of others—or are you facing death yourself? The risen and ascended Lord proclaims, “Remember the paralytic. First, I forgave his sins. And because I came to redeem him from all the consequences of sin, I healed him of his paralysis. Right now, I declare to you that I forgive you for all of your sins. And because I have come to redeem you from all the curse of sin, I will heal you for eternity. I will raise you from the dead to everlasting life, even as I raise from the dead My people whom you now mourn. This life is yours because, even now, I declare to you, ‘I forgive you all of your sin.’”
Do you see? All that you suffer in this world is a consequence of sin—your sin, the sins of others, and the collateral damage from living in a fallen world. To hear that Jesus forgives you is not irrelevant to your troubles. It is a promise that, while you suffer now for a time, He has redeemed you from sin and will deliver you from all its plagues to everlasting life.
This is what we pastors announce with the words of Holy Absolution publicly in the worship service. And this is what we are called to proclaim to you individually in time of trouble. Should events find you confined to a hospital bed and one of us pastors visits you, we will tell you—in one way or another—that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus.
In part, this is because it is the only message we are given to proclaim. The Lord gives us no words to speak that will immediately heal you. But more importantly, by this message, you are forgiven. And if you are forgiven, you have the Lord’s favor. You have the promise of His healing in His time. You have the guarantee of eternal life. All of this is given you in these little words of Jesus: “I forgive you all of your sins.” With those words, you have a foretaste of glory.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus first forgives the paralytic’s sins. He then heals the man by saying, “Rise, take up your bed and go home.” So it is with you and me and all who believe in Christ our Redeemer. On the Last Day, He will declare: “Rise, get up from your grave, come to the eternal home that I have prepared for you.” This miracle is most certainly promised for you. Why? How do you know it? Because even now, the Lord says to you, “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen