Quasimodogeniti (2nd Sunday of Easter)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016
“The Joyful Mission”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It is the evening of the first Easter Sunday. St. John pictures the eleven disciples of Jesus sitting inside a house with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.”
Why were the disciples afraid? It’s simple. Outside was death. Jesus had been murdered days before, and Jesus’ disciples were nowhere near as strong as He.
But then, says John, this miserable handful of scared men begins to rejoice. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:19-20)
Our flesh might expect the story to end here, happily ever after, with the disciples basking in the peace of God.
But it is not the end of the story.
Jesus doesn’t stop at proclaiming forgiveness of sins and peace with God to His beleaguered disciples in that room. His reign of salvation and life extends to the ends of the earth, to all people and throughout time. “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 withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)
Jesus empowers and sends the disciples to be the risen Christ, so to speak, to the world. They aren’t Him, but they are given His power and authority, so that when they say, “Peace be with you,” it is the peace of the Lord and conqueror of death.
He’s sending them out of those doors that they have locked to try to keep out death. He’s sending them out into the world that killed Him and which will also kill them. But they are no longer to fear death. They are to reign over it.
He’s sending them out to reign with Him as King.
They will go out into the world and exercise Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and to hold sins unforgiven. They will go out into the world like little Lord Christs, and in His name they will forgive some sinners and they will hold some sinners bound in their sins until the day of judgment.
But why would Jesus give this prerogative of God to eleven men who were unable to stand by Him when He suffered?
That is a good question. But it’s not simply a question about the disciples then; it also concerns us, who have been made Jesus’ disciples by Baptism and catechesis.
All Christians are called to reign as little Lord Christs. Every Christian is called to participate in forgiving and retaining sins—by supporting the Church and the ministry of Word and Sacraments, by proclaiming God’s Word to family and neighbors. Every Christian is called to reign with Christ by serving the world with words and deeds. Finally, every Christian is to share the marks of the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s Kingdom; to endure the cross and suffering for the privilege of proclaiming His forgiveness and judgment.
But the question is how Jesus can give you this royal privilege, the authority to “forgive and retain sins”, also known in the Catechism as the office of the keys. You too have proven untrustworthy. You have been embarrassed of Jesus, have run away to save your skin when you should have willingly endured the cross with your Lord.
This is not the way who believe in risen Lord should act. They should not be afraid, but be joyful. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord; they didn’t remember how they were small in number, how their enemies were great and powerful, how death was waiting for them outside the door. They rejoiced when they saw Jesus, because in Him they had peace with God. It was as if they no longer remembered their weakness, their sins, the hostility of the world, or death.
Yet many baptized Christians act as if all they can see is the church’s weakness, the hostility of the world, the pain of the cross, and the power of death. It’s as if Jesus hasn’t risen, conquered death, loosed us from sins, and as if He isn’t present in our midst in flesh and blood.
In other words, they manifest unbelief.
And as a result, by no means are they willing to go outside the locked room and reign with Jesus.
What is this but to live as if Christ is not risen? Hypocritical Christians don’t recognize this. They don’t realize they are called to reign with Christ; they are content to live what they consider virtuous lives in the flesh. They say, “I do enough. I go to church. I’m as good a Christian as anyone can expect. Surely Jesus doesn’t expect me to put my life, reputation, comfort, or standard of living at risk to be a Christian. After all, we’re supposed to be saved by grace apart from works.”
Real Christians, however, are troubled by this failure to follow Jesus out of hiding and self-protection. They recognize that when Jesus gives us peace with God, it’s not an earthly peace. Peace with God means that God exalts us with Christ. We become “a royal priesthood”, as Lutherans are fond of saying—kings and priests together with Jesus. But as kings with Jesus, we go into the world not to be served, but to serve. We proclaim God’s law and His Gospel, we serve our neighbor in every way. But we also endure hostility from the world and the devil. To receive Christ’s blessing, “Peace be with you” by true faith at the same time means to receive His cross. Christians are troubled to recognize all the ways we try to avoid the cross. They are all manifestations of our unbelief in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the world.
And this is another reason why Jesus gave the office of the Keys to the Church. It isn’t simply so that we may forgive and retain the sins of those outside of the visible boundaries of the Church. Jesus gave this authority also for the sake of those within the visible Church, so that those who are baptized and yet struggle to leave the locked room may be loosed of their sins.
When Jesus rose from the dead and proclaimed, “Peace be with you” to His disciples, He was proclaiming not only that they were forgiven, but that they were new creatures. What they saw themselves to be—men who a few days before had fallen away from Christ, who were weak and unworthy to be His disciples—was not who they were anymore. Jesus forgave them everything, and His forgiveness also meant that the old disciples had died and new men had risen in their place.
And when you are absolved of your sins, Jesus frees you from them as well. Their guilt is taken away. But you are also not the person you were before. You live now by His Spirit. Your sins, inscribed on His flesh with nail and spear, died when He lay in the tomb; now that He is risen, the wounds are memorials before God of your priceless worth to Him. The old you has died, nailed to the cross with the Lord, and you now live in Him who died and has been raised again, in Him over whom sin and death have no dominion (Romans 6).
That is what enables us to go out into the world to reign with Him—this appearance by Jesus declaring that His work for our justification is finished.
Yet in the Church so many people seem to be unaware of the fact that in the Divine Service, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, and in Absolution, Jesus is appearing to us with peace just as in that locked room on the first Easter. This is shown by so many people’s lukewarmness toward His Word and Sacraments. People don’t come to pastors and say, “Show us Jesus.” Generally pastors have to urge people not to despise the Divine Service, Bible Study, and so on. But nowhere is this more evident than in people’s disregard of absolution.
Yes, we’re willing to be absolved in general, as we do in the service. But that’s really not much different than what happens in preaching, except we add a general confession of sins to it. A sainted member of the church once remarked to me that private confession and absolution probably made it seem “more real”. This person never came to private confession but understood that it’s easy to admit in a general way “I’m a sinner” without owning the sins by which we have earned damnation. Similarly, it’s easy to hear “I forgive you all your sins” in the same way—as a general statement about the way God works instead of a personal forgiveness for our personal unfaithfulness. General statements don’t usually provide much comfort.
The reality is that everyone struggles with sin. It’s true that God has already assured us of the forgiveness of sins in the Scripture. Yet it is also true that many people doubt whether that forgiveness applies to them because of the state of their heart. When you reveal your sins in front of the man God has called to speak in His name, and that man forgives your sins with the authority Christ here gives to His Church, it provides comfort and assurance that is greater than your heart.
In private confession and absolution God’s forgiveness spoken in response to the very things that make you feel alienated from God. The absolution says those things are forgiven, and that you are not the person that you see in yourself, who has repeatedly failed Christ and cannot be trusted to reign with Him. You are a new person, raised from the dead to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Private absolution says, “You can speak God’s judgment and grace to the world because you are not the slave of sin you once were. You are released from sin and condemnation; peace be with you.” You are righteous through Christ, and everything He has is yours. You are no longer under the law’s curse; you have been set free from the law, having died to it through the body of Jesus.
Of course, no one is going to force you to confess and receive absolution privately. No one should be forced to receive the gifts of Christ. If our need and the greatness of the gifts don’t compel us to come to hear God’s Word preached, or to baptize our children, or receive the Lord’s Supper, or go to Bible study, or read it at home, or confess and be absolved, external force won’t help. It would be wrong for me, however, not to show you the greatness of Christ’s gifts and remind you of your need.
But mostly I preach this for those who see their need for it and desire the blessing, but who are afraid or ashamed; I preach this to encourage you to come. I cannot invite you as graciously as Jesus invites you; I wish I could. I can tell you that Jesus welcomes sinners and those who are weak in faith. He wants them especially to receive His comfort and pardon. I can tell you that the greater our sins appear to us, the more worthy we are of condemnation, the more graciously Jesus invites us to come to Him. When we come, He will not only forgive us. He will wipe our guilt and shame away entirely. He will make us reign with Him, seat us above the holy angels, make them our servants.
I can tell you that when Jesus showed the disciples His hands and side He didn’t do it simply to show it was Him, nor did He do it to remind them of their sins. It was also an invitation to them to consider how sincerely He loved them and had how completely He had forgiven and put away their sins. The place of the nails and the spear in His body are seals to us that we no longer have anything to fear, but have peace with God that can’t be taken away.
By those same marks Jesus invites and urges us to come to Him so that we may hear Him say, “Peace be with you”. I pray that you will hear His invitation and recognize that when He opens His Word, bestows His Sacraments, and absolves us, He comes into our midst with peace as He came into that locked room. And when He does so He enables us to leave our locked rooms and go forth into the world with His peace to reign with Him.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
19th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 9:1-8
October 4, 2015
Jesus has authority. His Word comes with the authority of God. He can command a paralyzed man to get up and walk, and the paralysis leaves. He can command a dead man to rise, and death lets go. And He has authority to do something greater than healing a paralytic and raising the dead. He has the authority on earth to forgive sins.
The paralyzed man they bring to Jesus is suffering. His mind works, but his body doesn’t. He can’t get up and take a walk to get some relief from his miserable situation. He can’t even get up to relieve himself. He can’t clean himself after he has soiled himself and the bed. He can’t feed himself. In every way he is dependent on others. He’s bound, a prisoner within his own body. He can’t even get up to bring himself to Jesus for healing.
And what does Jesus do for this man? The first thing He does is say, “Be comforted, my son—your sins are forgiven.”
The paralyzed man is a sort of picture of the horrors that sin inflicts on us. We are born trapped by sin. We are unable to get up and move ourselves toward God. We are imprisoned by guilt and chained up within ourselves under God’s anger and judgment.
But the analogy is not exact. The Scripture doesn’t say that human beings are by nature paralyzed by sin. The state of human beings by nature is worse. They are dead. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” says Paul in Ephesians 2. If we were born paralyzed by sin we would be born with spirits that wanted to do the will of God but bodies that were unable. Instead we are born dead. That’s why you don’t see people in our world worrying about whether they are doing God’s will, troubled by their sins, wondering whether they are going to heaven or hell. They don’t want to do God’s will. The thought seldom, if ever, enters their heads. They want to do their own will, and they don’t feel any remorse or fear about it. They are spiritually dead, not spiritually paralyzed.
On the other hand Christians often feel bound, chained, paralyzed by their sins. In Psalm 40 David says, “I delight to do your will, O my God,” (v. 8), but in the same Psalm he laments, “Evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me.” (v.12) St. Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing..For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:18-19, 22-23) These great saints both found themselves to be like the paralyzed man. On the one hand, they desired to do the will of God. On the other they experienced the ongoing bondage of sin.
Maybe you experience this same bondage, this same paralysis. You want to be free from sin because you know that “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23) but you find that sin is at work in you despite your desire to be free of it. Maybe you are tempted to fall into misuse of God’s name, anger and wrath, sexual immorality, stealing, slander, greed and covetousness, or other obvious sins. Maybe you struggle with doubt, unbelief; you doubt the goodness of God, you become weary in prayer because you doubt whether God is listening. You wonder whether God really is with you and you wish He would just do a few miracles today to show Himself. Maybe at times you struggle with doubt about the truth of the Scriptures or even whether God exists at all. That unbelief of the heart is truly sin before God just as surely as if we committed murder or bowed down to a false god. And so as Christians we experience the dreadful bondage of sin. Scripture says, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) And yet we feel like this is exactly what we do!
So Jesus’ Word in the Gospel today is full of good news for Christians who feel the power of sin at work in them. He says, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Matt. 9:6) He doesn’t just have authority to release a man from paralysis or even to force open the jaws of death and let a man go. Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. The word for “forgive” in the language of the New Testament also means “loose, let go, release.” Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins—to loose us and let us go free from them.
How does Jesus loose us from our sins if we still experience them? He does not cut our sins away the way a doctor cuts off a cancerous tumor. The cancer of sin has spread too far in us to be able to cut it out. It has infected our whole nature, so that sin can’t be removed from us without our dying and being resurrected and re-created. We sing in a Lenten hymn:
There was no spot in me by sin untainted
Sick with sin’s poison, all my heart had fainted
My heavy guilt to hell had well-nigh brought me
Such woe it wrought me. (LSB 439 st. 6)
So how does Jesus loose or release us from sin? Answer: He forgives them. He pronounces all our sins cancelled and removed from the sight of God. He frees us from sin by forgiving or absolving us. Though we still experience and feel sin raging within us, Jesus’ word declares that sin is not counted to us.
Think of what happens in the general confession and absolution. We confess that we are sinners—that is, that we cannot free ourselves from our sin and that we deserve God’s wrath and punishment. “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean…We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.” Then comes the absolution: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Through the minister Jesus pronounces our sins let go, released, not counted to us by God.
Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins. He has that authority first of all because He is God, the One whom we have offended by our sins. But He has come to earth and become a human being, one of us. He did that so that He could be bound by our sins. Our sins bound Him and brought Him in chains before the chief priest and Pilate. Our sins bound Him with nails to the wood of the cross. He came so that He could die in our sins. And as He hung on the cross He died under the wrath of God that was poured out on our sin. Then on the third day He who had borne all our sins was released from sin and death. He became bound by our sins, died for our sins, and rose again for our righteousness.
Jesus applies this to us. When we were dead in our sins they brought us to Jesus and He gave us life. For most of us that happened first in Holy Baptism. Others were not baptized as infants but first came to life when they heard the good news that their sins were forgiven on account of Jesus’ death on the cross. But though we came to life through faith in Jesus, our old nature remained with us. It had to, and still has to, be put to death daily. In Holy Absolution Jesus pronounces our sins forgiven, therefore not counted to us. We are set free as we reach forward to put on the glorious image of Christ risen from the dead. We are set free from condemnation and a bad conscience caused by the old Adam who still fights to have the upper hand within us.
This is why Luther retained private confession and absolution and praised it so highly. Christians want to be free of their sins. Someone who doesn’t care about whether they sin or about doing God’s will is not a Christian. But Christians feel the burden of their sinful flesh. Sometimes it causes us to fall into sin. Other times it harasses us with ongoing unbelief and weak faith, sluggishness in prayer, doubts about God’s goodness. We struggle with an embattled conscience. Sometimes we wonder whether we are truly in God’s grace or whether we are kidding ourselves.
Beloved brothers, we never have to wrestle with our conscience or our sins alone, because “The son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” And He has given this authority to His Church, so that when we receive absolution or forgiveness from the pastor, the Small Catechism says that we should receive it “as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing, that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” Luther says, “He who feels his misery and need will develop such a desire for confession that he will run toward it with joy…Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, and comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need.” (Tappert, Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession, 27-28).
Forgiveness brings with it not only freedom from sin’s guilt and condemnation, but also from its domination. Because we are forgiven by God we are also not totally paralyzed by sin. Because even though we have sin in our flesh, we also receive the Holy Spirit with God’s forgiveness, who begins to lead us in the new life of freedom. Our lives begin to be shaped by the Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. We will hear about those things in the next two weeks.
Soli Deo Gloria
It can be found in Der Lutheraner volume 3, p. 44. And you can get an English translation of the book here.
Margaretta: I would like to come to the confessional.
Parson: That’s good, why do you want to?
M. So that I confess my sins.
Pn: So, even you have sins?
M: We are all sinners and fall short of the glory we should have before God.
Pn: Do you also know your sins?
M: Some we know and some we don’t.
Pn.: But one must still know those that are known, else, there wouldn’t be known sins, so do you know them?
M.: I’ve never done anything wrong, and no one can say I have.
A little before I was born a practice that had been common in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod passed into oblivion. It was called “announcement for communion.” People used to go talk to the pastor before they went to the Lord’s Supper. I’ve never really been too sure what went on in these talks. From asking older people in the church I’ve gathered that over time it became little more than a ritual of going to church and signing your name in a book as intending to commune. Later people began to phone in their announcements.
But it always struck me as interesting that there was this practice in the Lutheran Church that bore some resemblance to confession prior to communion and that it only recently died out. Yet you never hear anyone talk about it or suggest resurrecting it. I’ve written another post touching on the subject (here), but that was two years ago and I can’t remember what I said.
I’ve been flipping around in a fantastic book I bought recently–a translation of C. F. W. Walther’s early volumes of Der Lutheraner, the newspaper he started before the Missouri Synod was even founded. (Thanks to Pr. Joel Baseley for his work in translating it; you can find the book here.) I stumbled upon a sample dialogue between a pastor and would-be communicants at announcement for communion, authored by no less than Wilhelm Loehe. I reprint part of it here for your edification and perhaps to entice you to buy a copy of the book.
A note: the confession referred to in what follows seems to have been a corporate service of confession and absolution rather than private confession and absolution. Although in the first century and a half or so after the reformation it was normal for Lutherans to go to private confession before communion, by the time this was published (December 1846) private confession and absolution was seldom used.
Announcement for Confession
A sketch as to its nature. by W. Loehe
Balthisar: Good day, Parson.
Parson: Good day, Balthisar, what do you want?
B. I want to announce for Confession this Saturday and the Lord’s Supper Sunday.
Pn. So why do you want the Lord’s Supper now?
B. Why? I think it is now the time to have the Lord’s Supper again.
Pn. Why now? Is it because you do that every year at Advent?
B. Yes, in my family we’ve always thought we should observe that, so if it’s Pentecost or Christmas day or in Advent we go to the Lord’s Supper. So I do that, too.
Pn. So you are going because of that custom?
B. Sure, why not? I don’t agree with the tradition many hold, who go but once a year.
(Seckendorf Hymnbook) (Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz)
Good Jesus, by Your grace I have prepared and fit myself to come to private confession [zum Beichtstuhl] for the forgiveness of my sins. But I remember that You earnestly commanded: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, then leave your gift there before the altar, and first go and reconcile yourself with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Unfortunately, now I have fallen into misunderstanding and disagreement with my neighbor. Therefore grant me your grace and govern me, so that my heart lets itself be found willing to be reconciled.
I recognize the hardness of my heart and confess that it is difficult to force flesh and blood and to let go of all anger and vengefulness. But I hope, yes, I pray, that You, Lord, would take from my flesh the heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh—that is, a heart rich in love and willing to be reconciled—and that you would make me a person who loves his enemy, blesses those who curse him, does good to those who hate him, and prays for those who insult and persecute him.
Ah! Let me think on the judgment and strict accounting that I will have to give [one day], that I may let go of hostility (which seeks only death and destruction), and be reconciled with my adversaries while I am still on the way with them, according to Your command, and never again let the sun go down on my anger.
And as I pardon and forgive all those who have offended me, so also let me find those whom I have grieved and angered to be submissive to Your word, so that they for Your sake also forgive and pardon me for all the ways I have offended them.
Oh Jesus, forgive all our sins and govern our hearts, that we may live peaceably as Christians with one another, and praise Your name together here in time until there in eternity we laud You forever. Amen.
No way. Sorry.
I’ve been with you guys for 3 years now, so I know how you operate.
You’re on fire for Jesus until it might cost you something. Then it’s, “No, I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
You’re all about Jesus as long as you think you stand to gain something.
So you tell me you saw Him. You say you know it wasn’t a hallucination because He showed you the holes in His hands and the slit in His side. You tell me He sent you, He breathed on you, gave you the Spirit.
No way. I’ll believe you when I put my finger through the holes where the nails were and reach my hand into the gash in his side.
Poor Thomas. This wasn’t just about the facts—whether or not Jesus rose from the dead.
This was about jealousy. He rose from the dead, and all the disciples got to see Him except Judas and Thomas.
Poor Thomas could see all the reasons why Jesus shouldn’t send these ten disciples to be His messengers.
He could see their sins, but couldn’t hear the joyful message—“We have seen the Lord!”
If Thomas could have heard that, then he could have heard the grave that was so much bigger than who got to see Jesus and who gets authority and who gets to be first.
Christ is risen! That means—you’re free.
Whether you saw Him or didn’t. It doesn’t matter if you are the one who saw Him or who gets to be in charge. You’re free! Death and hell no longer hold you!
Thomas didn’t hear that. Didn’t see Jesus sending the others with this key of freedom for Thomas. He just saw theses sinners trying to exalt themselves over him again.
Poor Thomas! Look what he almost missed!
Poor us! Look what we are missing!
What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. But before the pastor we should confess only those sins that we know and feel in our hearts.
If you get away from God, you’ll have freedom. Absolute freedom. You won’t have to worry about doing what He says and you won’t have to worry about dying.
Get away from God or get rid of Him; then you’ll be free. Unlimited freedom.
But really, chains.
Adam hides. That’s his freedom.
Peter hides and he won’t come back because he’s trying to escape chains and death. But he gets a different kind of chain. He has to keep lying and stay away from God in order to maintain his freedom.
Jesus doesn’t look like He’s free to us, but He is.
He confesses the true God. He confesses Himself.
He knows full well what this means; the people will want to kill Him.
He also knows that it is the Father’s will.
It seems to us that denying His Father (and Himself) would make Him free and that doing the Father’s will has made Him a slave.
Sin is a chain.
It gets you away from God. It cuts you off.
But to turn back to God is to turn back to punishment; the wages of sin is death.
To confess your sins to God is not like a get out of jail free card. Confessing your sins does not earn you freedom. Confessing your sins is like turning yourself in to the police.
It is to agree with God’s law that you deserve death.
It doesn’t make you not a sinner anymore. It’s like if Jeffrey Dahmer turns himself in to the police or pleads guilty. He isn’t now good and fit for life in normal society. He’s still worthy of punishment. He still would do unspeakable things if you let him out on the street again.
It’s not confessing that makes us free from the chains of sin.
It’s Jesus receiving our penalty of death and hell for us.
Then rising from the dead with our new life.