The Rev. Maurice Frontz
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Easter 2 Year B
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2, John 20:19-31
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Jesus says to the apostles,
‘If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them.
If you retain the sins of any,
they are retained.’
This seems to give a lot of power to the apostles.
If this power were used capriciously,
at the whim of the apostles,
if they could simply use this word at their own will
or for their own personal gain,
then it is a terrible thing that Jesus is doing.
But what is Jesus really doing?
Remember the man who was paralyzed,
whose friends couldn’t bring him to Jesus
because there was a big crowd around Jesus’ house,
and so they lowered him through the roof of the house
to where Jesus was?
When Jesus saw their faith (and those words their faith themselves are very interesting)
he said to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
asked the scribes and Pharisees,
and to show that he had authority to do the greater thing, forgive sins in God’s name,
he healed the paralyzed man so that he walks away,
From years of hearing that God forgives sins,
we think the physical healing is more impressive,
but actually it is the lesser act of power.
The lesser thing, healing a body,
testifies to the greater thing,
which is that Jesus heals the relationship between God and a human being,
by speaking God’s word of acceptance.
But now Christ has died, and Christ is risen.
He will no longer walk amongst us in body,
but his living presence must be discerned by faith,
must be clung to in faith.
How then will he forgive sins, as he did for the paralyzed man and so many others?
By putting his Word of forgiveness in the mouth of the apostles,
he ensures that his work of forgiveness and acceptance
will continue on earth.
So the apostles do not forgive sins on their own.
It is not their word that they speak,
but Jesus’ word.
They forgive sins by the command of Jesus
and the authority of Jesus.
Why is it important that the apostles themselves are to forgive sins?
Shouldn’t we be able to confess our sins before God alone,
and believe in our forgiveness without another person?
This is indeed true, that we are able to do this.
Each time we pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’
we both confess that we have trespasses to be forgiven,
and can be certain that God forgives them,
for Jesus would not teach us to pray for something
that his Father does not delight to give.
when Jesus spoke these words to the apostles,
no written Lord’s Prayer for us to memorize,
no New Testament to tell us of Christ’s forgiveness of sins,
no liturgy where we could make a corporate confession
and receive a corporate word of forgiveness.
It was all up to the apostles to spread the word.
And the word was spread,
so that people were forgiven and believed in Christ
and the good news was proclaimed
and eventually written down.
But I can think of a few reasons
that it remains important that we hear another person
proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to us.
Firstly, in the book of James it says this:
‘Confess your sins to one another,
and pray for one another,
so that you may be healed.’
The written Word itself testifies that the spoken Word
both of confession to another person
and absolution from that other person
is still salutary.
It can be much more a sign of humility
to confess out loud that we are sinners,
and to confess out loud before another human being that we have sinned,
rather than just to keep it quiet.
And it can be much more liberating to hear another human being
say that God forgives our sins
than if we simply say it to ourselves.
There is another reason.
Some people are so afflicted by the knowledge of their sin
that on their own they cannot believe in their forgiveness.
Even those who know their Bible well
sometimes cannot make that leap.
Maybe none of us are in that situation.
But for those that are,
it is important for us to hear and trust the Word
that God indeed does forgive not only sin in general,
but our sin as well.
When the pastor or any Christian forgives us,
we are called to put our trust not that we have been good,
but that God has been good.
And that word that is spoken aloud
may have the power to break down barriers
that in themselves good thoughts alone cannot break down.
Why is it important that the pastor does it?
Luther said that any Christian can speak the forgiveness to another Christian,
but that so everything was done in order,
the pastor of the church was ordinarily the one who spoke the words.
The pastor speaks for the Church,
and the Church speaks for Christ.
But it’s never a matter of a special power of the pastor,
but simply the word of Christ given to the Church that does it.
On our own we all too easily forget
that God is not only a friendly God,
but a just God.
This is why God gives the apostles authority not simply to forgive,
but to retain sins.
We see this in the apostle John’s letter,
words that we say often
‘If we say that we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
But if we confess our sins,
God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
To those who say they have no sin,
or perhaps even no sin to speak of,
the word must be that we are in debt to a just God.
But to those who confess their sin,
that same just God justifies,
accepts, is friendly towards them,
welcoming them back into fellowship,
always calling them back to God’s justice.
Remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee who fasted twice a week and tithed believed that he was just,
the tax collector acknowledged that he was not just, but that God was just.
To one was shown God’s friendliness,
to the other it was not.
We must hear that we are the ones in need of the just God’s mercy,
and often simply our own thoughts deceive us,
that we are righteous.
Sometimes we even believe that because we are not like that condemned Pharisee,
that we don’t fast and we don’t give,
that this makes us worthy in God’s sight!
There is a story of a dying Lutheran pastor
who as point of pride said that he lived so much by faith
that he had never done a good work in his life.
Perhaps this was a long sermon, a boring sermon,
a didactic sermon,
a lecture full of declarative sentences.
So I’ll end with a word directly to you.
Because Jesus is living,
he can still forgive sins.
He reaches out in friendliness to you,
to accept you, warts and all.
to lead you into the path of justice.
He has given the Word of forgiveness to his Church,
to the people he has sent to be his hands and feet,
and yes, his ears and mouth in the world.
You can trust this word,
that the just God justifies unjust people,
that the just God justifies unjust you.
And if that’s boring,
then I don’t know what to do for you,
for it’s exciting news,
the kingdom’s ours forever.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!