THE FORGIVING OF SINS
Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You that when You rose from the dead You did not forget Your Church, but instead You provided the gifts that Your Church needs – the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins – not forgetting even Thomas, but giving him the worthiness to forgive others as he was forgiven and restored by You. Amen.
In the name of Jesus, dear fellow redeemed: Grace to you and peace, from God our Father, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Here we see the risen Lord Jesus with His Church on earth. It didn’t look like much at this point: 10 frightened disciples in hiding, and one who is somewhere out there, refusing to be with them. And yet Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against it. His Church would never perish.
But at this very moment, Jesus establishes His Church. He commissions them as His apostles – “As the Father sent Me, I also send you” – and He gives them the Holy Spirit for the work they’ll do as apostles and pastors – “He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And then He did this: He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
These are “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:18). In the catechism it’s called the Office of the Keys. This is picture language for the forgiveness of sins: The key that opens the door to heaven is the word of forgiveness, and the key that locks the door to heaven is to declare a person unforgiven.
In the catechism, Luther says it’s the “special authority” which Christ gave to “His Church on earth.” He gave this not to pastors but to His Church. This is what He sent His Church to do: to forgive sins.
At this point, the last thing on the disciples’ minds was the forgiving of other people’s sins. Being forgiven for their own sins, that was on their minds. They all had forsaken Jesus. Peter had his three denials of Christ on his mind. They were burdened with guilt, feeling hopeless because of Jesus’ death. Thomas was walking around out there with a death wish.
But when Jesus appeared to them, what did He say? “Peace be with you.” He made peace with God for them by the blood of the cross. His resurrection proves that God accepted His death as full payment for everyone’s sins.
Did they find peace by their own wrestling or struggling or remorse or sincerity or making promises and vows? No – the crucified and risen Savior spoke peace to them and it was so. He spoke it into being. This is how it begins: with Jesus speaking the word of forgiveness and peace. “In this Church He daily and richly forgives all believers all their sins.”
So the Church is given the authority and task of forgiving sins. But the way the Church carries it out, is by calling pastors to do this for their benefit and on their behalf. This sometimes disturbs people. They think since it’s God’s forgiveness, a man can’t forgive sins. But Christ says differently.
When Jesus says to the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” He’s saying that when the forgiveness is faithfully spoken to repentant sinners, those sins “are thereby forgiven before God in heaven,” as the catechism says. So Jesus commands that God’s forgiveness be spoken to people by the pastor, and this is how God in heaven forgives!
The pastor doesn’t do this on his own authority. You might wonder how a pastor, who’s a sinner can stand in front of people and do this. I do too! No pastor is worthy to do it. But we have a good example today: Thomas.
Wasn’t Thomas unworthy to forgive people’s sins? He says: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” He isn’t just doubting Thomas, he’s unbelieving Thomas! But when Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, He’s restoring Thomas through the forgiveness He won for him.
So Thomas is not unworthy to speak the Lord’s words. Jesus removed his sins. Jesus gave him all the worthiness he needs. This is what he does for all people, and this is what He does for pastors who must speak His words.
As Jesus sent the apostles forward, it’s clear: their essence as His Church was to be the actual forgiving of sins. It’s what He sends His Church to do.
Do people know that’s who we are? Do they know the church is about forgiving sins? We can make church about everything but forgiving of sins.
It’s also because people decide they don’t need this so much; they’re at church for other things. Or they don’t think they need the church, and part of this is because their sins don’t bother them.
Even we who are in the church can lose the urgency for this forgiveness. We hear “forgiveness of sins” so much, it can lose its meaning for us. It can happen that a person doesn’t actually participatein the forgiveness of sins. For example, as a pastor I’m used to giving it out, but do I receive it? Or in church you might say the words of confession without thinking of the sins you’re guilty of, and when you hear the familiar words of the absolution your mind wanders. Or we keep our sins all very general and unspecific and end up missing the comfort and peace for our conscience that we need.
But this is why it’s so significant that instituting the Office of the Keys was really the first thing Jesus did following His resurrection. It shows that when Jesus rose from the dead, He was thinking of each and every person’s need to be forgiven, and to be comforted by this forgiveness. The actual forgiving of sins, is why Jesus has a Church on earth.
What the church really is supposed to be, is: a community defined by the forgiving of sins. Can you imagine anything more needed in this era of judging, dividing and accusing, what some call “cancel culture” but is really refusing to forgive? The world is a community of non-forgiveness. The Church is to be a forgiving community.
Because I have a divine call issued by the church in this place, I forgive sins not only on the authority of the risen Christ, but also on behalf of the church, this forgiving community. Not only does God command it, but you want me to forgive sins in the name of Christ. It’s why you called me, to forgive sins. This forgiving community empowers me to act on its behalf. When the pastor forgives, he does so also in the name of the church.
Notice I keep calling us a forgiving community. Never mind if we are not personally great at it. Because of the Word acting on us, this is what we are. In all the means of grace, what’s the chief benefit? – Being forgiven of your sins. What happened in Baptism? Your sins were washed away, forgiven. Forgiving happens right away in the service, confessing sins, and hearing the absolution. Forgiving happens in the sermon. Forgiving happens in the Lord’s Supper “given and shed for you”– for what? _- “forgiveness of sins.” And it makes your forgiven self stronger: stronger in faith – that you believe it more firmly – and stronger in love – to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
It is possible that people misuse this wonderful forgiveness from God. The forgiveness in church is spoken to all; we don’t single anyone out. But if someone is hearing the forgiveness, and not repenting, or planning to continue in sin, or not believing God’s truth, then they aren’t actually forgiven. They are actually unrepentant, their hearts are hardened to the Word, and forgiving doesn’t actually happen for them in heaven until they repent. Personal spiritual care is what’s needed to break through this.
That too is what you see in Thomas’ case: personal spiritual care from Jesus. He’s such a comfort for us! Thomas was resisting, he wasn’t believing, even hardened in it. Jesus came back a week later just for Thomas. Jesus’ word and His wounds were enough. And the result? Thomas ended up stronger in faith, confessing: “Jesus, my Lord and my God!” and he ended up stronger in love, going all the way to India, suffering death for preaching Jesus to them, even praying forgiveness for those who put him to death.
See how we most look like Jesus’ Church – as the forgiving is being done to us and our violent, raging, rebellious hearts are softened. We’re part of His forgiving community, a communion of saints we can’t count. Amen!