Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2005,
You have come to God's House today dragging with you a heavy burden. The weight that oppresses you is called sin, your misdeeds in thought, word, and deed. You have failed God in many ways every day. Worse yet, the essence of who you are as human beings has become corrupted into an impure and unclean thing. Your souls are stained and rotten with sin. You are all, by nature, displeasing to God, and fully deserving His punishment, both in time and in eternity.
Fortunately, God meets your need in worship. Unclean sinners like you need more in your worship than education or inspiration. If that is all you receive here, then you will be no more than educated and inspired sinners. If you seek togetherness, then you will be sinners who are together. If you seek songs of praise, then you will be sinners who sing. These things are not bad in themselves, but you need more in your worship. You need something from God to solve the problem of your sin. You need forgiveness. You need the Gospel. You need Absolution.
To bring you His Absolution, God sent His Son into human flesh, Jesus Christ. He gave His body into death for your Absolution, and shed His precious blood to remit every one of your sins. He rose again from the tomb Easter morning to justify you.
But Christ does not directly bestow salvation to you. He appoints men to absolve sins in His place and by His command.
In John's Gospel which is today's Gospel, Jesus bestowed the authority to forgive sins upon the Disciples, as Ministers of His Church. On Easter Day, when Jesus appeared behind locked doors, He said to the Disciples, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And He breathed on them, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
So the Church's authority to forgive sins comes from the resurrected Christ. His living Presence in this place, and the Holy Spirit He has given, are necessary because only the Church, Christ's Body, can forgive sins. Outside the Church, there is no forgiveness.
Therefore, St. Paul's has done today in worship what the Church has been doing since the first Easter: Forgiving sins. Speaking the Gospel. Pronouncing Absolution. Opening heaven with the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. In the Divine Service today, I stood up in front of you all and said, "I forgive you all your sins." The authority to forgive is not mine, but was given to me to use publicly by this congregation, who got that authority from Christ Jesus.
The Gospel and forgiveness is found in other places besides the Absolution in the Divine Service. The Scripture lessons are the very Word of God, delivering His Gospel. The Lord's Supper gives the remission of sins. Baptism bestows repentance for forgiveness. The Preaching in the Sermon also is a means by which God pours out His Gospel of Grace.
Yet in the Absolution, the Gospel of forgiveness is found in its most distilled, concentrated, and direct form.You cannot get any simpler Gospel than saying, "I forgive your sins." The Absolution is the essence of the Gospel. The Absolution is the voice of the Gospel. The Absolution is the Gospel.
What sweeter words could there be in the English language than "I forgive your sins"? These are not mere words, but they are the Word of God Almighty Himself. By this Word of Absolution, heaven is opened, salvation from sin, death, and the devil is delivered, and the Blood and Death of Christ cleanses you, merely through the speaking of these words: "I forgive your sins."
So precious, so wonderful is Absolution, that it is astounding and perplexing why so many reject it. So many disbelieve. So many are offended. So many cannot accept that such authority has been given to men.
The Roman Church first rejected Absolution when the pope declared that only he, as the heir of Peter, holds the Keys of the Kingdom. He limited the power of Absolution, but at the same time made Confession a mandatory law to force the people to enumerate each and every one of their sins. Confession became a system of penance, good works to earn heaven, rather than the free outpouring of God's Grace.
Luther rejected the compulsory Roman system of confession, yet he maintained confession itself for the sake of the great treasure of Absolution.
Yet so many other churches that sprang up at the time of the Reformation rejected anything Roman or Popish. They saw the authority of the Keys as an invention of Rome, forgetting that the Keys were bestowed on the whole Church by Christ on Easter Morning. So these other churches declare that no man can forgive sins. Every time they hear an Absolution, they mutter under their breath like the Jews who called Jesus blasphemer for forgiving sins. In the same way, these people deny any power to Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
But after they have denied all the Means of Grace, where can they find certainty of their forgiveness? They search for certainty in emotion, in personal conviction, in good works, or in charismatic gifts. But these supports never last long. Emotions fade. Convictions fail. Works and gifts come and go. And so people go seeking back and forth for some sign or some indication of God's favor in their life, all the while that they push away God's own Sacraments, God's own Absolution, the Strong pillar of God's grace that does not fail or disappoint.
In much the same way, many Lutherans have been taught that Absolution is optional, or worse, that the Absolution is a dusty, archaic relic from the Roman Catholic Church, when in fact, it is the exact opposite. Rome limits forgiveness. Lutherans freely pour it out to all who will hear and believe and be saved.
Still, so many Lutherans are in danger of losing the fifth chief part of the Small Catechism: Confession. This was a firm and unwavering doctrine for Martin Luther, and a great treasure of Christ to His Church.
If we Lutherans only realize how great is the grace and salvation poured out in the simple Word of Absolution, we would yearn and hunger for it. We would beat upon the doors of the Church to hear this Absolution over and over.
But we do not. We have become cold and unresponsive to the Word of Absolution. We have become a people unmoved by this offering of grace from Christ Himself.
After all, how long has private confession been offered in this congregation to any who hunger and thirst for grace? How long have I waited, while few came? How many even now are firmly convinced that they will never go to hear the Absolution offered every Saturday?
Now, I know that Private Confession is strange to most of you. I know that many of you have misconceptions about it. So I will gently encourage you by praising the benefits of Absolution.
Absolution teaches us to hate sin and seek only the Cross for our redemption. Absolution guards us from indifference toward sin. Absolution keeps us from unbelief.
Absolution strengthens our faith and deepens our relationship with Christ. Absolution connects us more to our faith, so that our religion is not simply an abstraction, or a religion which does not touch our hearts. Absolution connects grace to our everyday lives and daily struggles.
Absolution is called a Sacrament by the Reformers because through it we receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. The cleansing benefits of Christ's Holy Cross and precious Blood and innocent Suffering and Death come to us in Absolution.
But you may object, we are already saved. We are already forgiven. Why do we need more?
As long as we are sick, we must take the medicine. As long as we are sinners, we are compelled by our need to listen to the Gospel.
Besides that, we have the command of Christ: Confess your sins to one another.
Besides that, we have the promise of forgiveness. Surely we all, like beggars offered a delicious feast, ought to rush hungrily to the Gospel wherever Christ has offered it. For here is a wonder and glory beyond compare.
Dearly beloved, let us be Lutherans in the true sense of holding to grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone. Grace is offered in the Absolution, and faith eagerly receives that which is offered. Scripture shows the promise of Easter in the words, "Whomever you forgive, they are forgiven." Let us hold firmly to the sweet words of Jesus. Amen.
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