Monday, April 17, 2023

How Dare We?

[Below you'll find live stream video of the Sunday worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You'll also find the prepared message for the services.]

John 20:19-31

When some people attend Lutheran worship services for the first time, they’re horrified when the pastor turns to the congregation and says, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by His authority, I…declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins…”

They’re even more horrified when they hear a pastor during, say, Maundy Thursday worship, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

Who do these pastors think they are, forgiving people their sins?

These folks would be even more horrified to learn that Jesus teaches that it’s both the right and mission of every Christian to declare God’s forgiveness of sin.

It’s possible that, although we should know better, a part of us may recoil at this radical notion.

We may feel like the scribes who heard Jesus tell the paralytic on a mat that his sins were forgiven: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)

Of course, the scribes failed to acknowledge that Jesus is God. But their question still is valid: Who can forgive sins but God alone?

The answer, of course, is no mere human being who isn’t also God.

That’s because our sinful nature and every sin we commit is mainly, an affront to God. That’s not just true when we fail to honor God as God, or honor His name, or regularly worship Him. It’s also true when we dishonor our elders or those in positions of leadership, insult, mistreat, or otherwise assassinate other human beings, misuse the gift of sexual intimacy meant for husband and wife alone, steal, or covet.

It is God we violate when we sin in thought, word, or action. All of our sins, even when they involve hurting or violating others, are against God Himself.

So, who are we Christian saints, who are also sinners, to forgive people for their sins?

Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel lesson, John 20:19-31. It begins: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders…”

One correction of our translation: In the original Greek, John, the writer of our lesson, says the disciples were afraid of the Ἰουδαίων, the Judeans, the Jews.

The disciples were afraid of their fellow Jews, not just the Jewish leaders.

We can understand why.

Disappointed that Jesus hadn’t turned out to be the political king they wanted Him to be, their fellow Jews had called for the Gentile execution of Jesus.

The disciples understandably feared that, as people associated with Jesus, they might be hunted down, turned over to the Romans, and crucified too.

But there was another Jew the disciples were afraid of: Jesus.

If the reports of Jesus’ resurrection given to them by the women that first Easter Sunday morning were true, what might Jesus do to them?

They all had betrayed, denied, and abandoned Jesus, turned away from the One they’d once confessed as Messiah and God the Son. Jesus would have been within His rights to punish them.

And so, here are the disciples, huddled under the condemnation of God’s Law they all felt, locked in a room from which they hoped to keep out both the Jews they feared would kill them and the King of the Jews they feared would damn them.

A locked door though, isn’t much defense against the invasion of the sovereign God of the universe. John says: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” (John 20:19)

Jesus declares to these sinful disciples–and to you and me, who have also sinned against Him, God the Son, Shalom!

Shalom is more than peace.

Shalom is reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of God, oneness with God, and all of God’s creation! Jesus punctures the condemnation and darkness of our sin to give us peace with God.

He can do this because He has taken our sin to Himself and killed it off on the cross. Jesus shows us that what He told Nicodemus is meant for us too: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

In the locked room, Jesus proclaims forgiveness–absolution–to sinners: “Through Me, all your sins are forgiven.”

The disciples who are present at this moment don’t believe at first. It isn’t Jesus’ resurrection they disbelieve. They can see the risen Jesus before them. What they can’t believe is that they are absolved of, forgiven for, their sins.

We know this because the disciples aren’t overjoyed to see the Lord until after He has done something. “He showed them his hands and side.” (John 20:20)

This brings the disciples joy because they now understand why Jesus had suffered and died. The scars caused by nails and spear were put there by their sins–put there by our sins. Jesus carried our sins to the cross, where they were executed.

Our sins are no longer on us, but on Jesus Christ. Unless we insist on holding onto them and refuse Jesus’ hard-won forgiveness for us, our sins can no more condemn us.

God forgives you all your sins, friends, for the sake of Jesus Christ.

It’s here that Jesus again speaks His Word of shalom to the disciples, then tells them that He is sending all who are part of His Church into the world, just as the Father once sent Him. After filling them with new life by breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples–the same Spirit we receive when we are baptized–Jesus tells the disciples: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:23)

Not just to pastors, but to every Christian, then, Jesus gives what we call “the office of the keys.”

We wield the keys to the Kingdom of God, which isn’t unlocked by human good works or our supposed goodness, but because in Jesus, our sins are totally, completely, irrevocably forgiven.

And notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “Declare forgiveness only to the repentant.” Just as Jesus declared His forgiveness to the disciples before they’d uttered a word of repentance, Jesus has already forgiven our sins and the sins of the whole world.

People may not believe they are forgiven and spurn God’s forgiveness.

They may not believe in the Savior Who has won their forgiveness and spurn everlasting life with God.

But Jesus is, as John the Baptist described Jesus, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Jesus has already completed His saving work for us on the cross!

Jesus tells disciples, including we in the twenty-first century, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them their sins, they are not forgiven.”

By the authority given to us by Jesus, our task as the Church is to tell people, in one way or another, “In the name of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven.” We are to deliver God’s peace to others, just as Chrirst has delivered it to us without condition. Jesus didn’t wait to do His saving work for us before we got our acts together or came to Him begging for forgiveness. As the apostle Paul writes: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

The late Lutheran pastor and theologian Jim Nestingen asserted that people we meet every day, whether they’re conscious of it or not, desperately crave the forgiveness and peace with God Jesus has already won for them through His death and resurrection. Nestingen would be on a plane and the person next to him would ask what he did for a living. When Nestingen told them, they might say things like, “I’ve never been very religious,” or, “If I ever went to church, the roof would fall in.” At statements like these, which he rightly saw as confessions of sin, Nestingen would tell them, “In the name of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven.” Jim told those people that Jesus had borne their sins and had sent Jim, just as He sends you every day to the people you know and meet, to bring them the forgiveness and peace of God.

Jim declared God’s peace and forgiveness to hundreds of people in just the same way over the course of his life.

When we declare God’s forgiveness and peace to others, some will come to faith in Christ. Others won’t. Some of them may later. But whatever others’ reactions to the absolution through Christ we declare to people, we will have the joy of doing what Jesus has empowered us to do.

Friends, in the name of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven.

Now, even if it’s a family member you had an argument with on the way to church this morning, turn and say the same thing to the person next to you, “In the name of Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven.” I’ll wait for you.

How dare we do that?

Because having made peace with us through His cross and resurrection, that’s exactly what Jesus has called us to do.