Words that Work Forgiveness

by The Rev. Mark T. Buetow

St. John 20:19-31

Sometimes words are just information. For example: I could tell you I had Steak 'n Shake for lunch last week. Or that Washington crossed the Delaware on a cold, winter night. Or that Perry County had almost 7 inches of rain over a week ago. Those are just facts. Take them or leave them. Maybe they're true. Maybe they're not. But sometimes words are more than facts. Words do things. They announce and declare and accomplish. For example, when the boss says, "You're fired," your job is over. Or when a jury says to someone on trial, "Not guilty," that person is set free. Or when the government says, "We've found an error on your return and now you owe more money," then you suddenly have a new debt. Sometimes words are information. Sometimes words actually do or give or accomplish something.

Most often, I think, the words of Jesus and about Jesus are thrown into the first category. We can say that Jesus was born, that He lived and preached and taught and did miracles. That He died on the cross and that He rose and ascended into heaven. But we live as if all those words are just information. Just facts. They sound nice. They tell a nice story. But they don't do anything. The Christian faith is all about learning the facts and accepting this information as true. But, brothers and sisters in Christ, the Christian faith ISN'T just information. It isn't just cold, hard facts for you to take or leave. No, true Christian preaching does something. It gives something. It bestows something. It delivers gifts! This is why Jesus appears to His disciples on the evening of Easter and declares to them, "As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven. If you retain them, they are retained." With these words, Jesus establishes the Office of the Holy Ministry for the comfort and forgiveness of sinners and the judgment and call to repentance of the the self-righteous.

We heard Jesus' words from the cross: "It is finished!" The work of salvation is complete. The water and blood have flowed from Jesus' side and the sins of the world have been wiped out. The Lamb has been sacrificed. Redemption has been achieved. The price of sins has been paid. The punishment for our iniquities and transgressions has fallen upon Jesus. By His stripes we are healed. By His death our sins are wiped out. By His resurrection we have victory over sin and death. But Jesus' salvation wouldn't do us any good and we wouldn't know anything about it if our Lord had not sent His apostles into the world preaching the Gospel and forgiving sins. If you look at all the other religions of the world, they all teach you some path, some way of life, some rules for making yourself religious. Only in the faith of Christ, only in the Christian church is salvation something that is given out to us from outside ourselves. We don't have to find it or achieve it. It is given to us. Delivered to us. Given as a gift to us. In the Holy Ministry, the Lord sets apart men to go into the world and to preach that He has died for your sins and risen to life again in victory. These men are given the job of working as Christ's ambassadors and spokesmen, preaching about what He has done, baptizing, absolving and administering Jesus' body and blood.

It is in this way, and in this way only, through the word preached and the sacraments, that Jesus comes to us and actually does something with His words: calls us to be sorry for our sins, brings us to repentance and faith in His forgiveness. This is why Jesus sent those disciples out as the first Christian pastors: to forgive the sins of those who repent and to bind the sins of those who refuse to repent. That way, those who are troubled by their sins will have no doubt that their sins don't stand against them. And those who are not troubled by their sins will have a witness on the Last Day that they were indeed sinners!

And this is why YOU have a pastor. And this is your pastor's job: to forgive sins and to bind sins. To comfort troubled sinners and to call hard-hearted sinners to repentance. We need to learn what this is all about, brothers and sisters. We need to learn why the Lord gives us pastors and what to expect from our pastors and how they are to carry out the work Christ has given them to do.

"Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven." Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is true good news! When you have sins which weigh you down and trouble you, which seem to loom larger than you and block out the light of your heavenly Father's face, then run to your pastor. His job is to forgive your sins! If this seems too much or too great a thing for a human being to do, then just listen to Jesus' words again: "If you forgiven anyone his sins, they are forgiven." Does this mean that if you want forgiveness, you should talk to your pastor? That's exactly what it means! Your pastor is not given to you just to give you some information about Jesus, as if he's nothing more than a salesman to show you the best religion for your money. He's not here to be your life coach or insurance salesman. My job isn't arguing politics or even recommending a good TV to buy. The pastors Christ calls to serve His church are to be concerned with one thing: the forgiveness of sins.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord has sent His preachers into His church to bring the comfort of the forgiveness of sins. It's that simple. If you have sins that trouble you, if you are aware that all you have deserved is eternal death and damnation for your sins, then hear what your pastor has for you: your baptism! The absolution both public and especially private, where you can give voice to the sins which trouble and bother you and have them swept away by Christ's word of forgiveness. The supper which your pastor gives you, to forgive your sins and by which Christ strengthens you in the faith. If you have sins, if you know you're a sinner, if your sins trouble you—then you've come to the right place. Here there is limitless forgiveness for you. I'll tell you about your baptism. I'll remind you what the Scriptures teach about Jesus death and resurrection for you. I'll absolve you of your sins. I'll feed you with Jesus' body and blood. That's what it means when Jesus says to His ministers, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven." Forgiven, as the catechism reminds us, in heaven as on earth, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

But hear also these words of Jesus. These are the harder words to hear. "If you retain their sins, they are retained." The ministers of Christ also have this responsibility: to call sinners to repentance and, when they do not want to repent, but live in their sins, hang on to their sins, not give up their sins, in those cases to bind their sins. What does that mean to "bind" or "retain?" It means to speak in Christ's place to declare that sins are not forgiven. And if such impenitence continues, a person might die in their sins and be eternally condemned. What does this look like? It's when the pastor comes to you and calls you to repent of what you're doing. To call you away from sins which, if you keep doing them, will drive you away from Christ. Sometimes a pastor has to do this, just as parents come to their children and warn them their behavior has consequences. Just as a boss might come and warn you that if you don't do your job you'll be fired. So a pastor, when he finds out that someone is living in sin, has to go to them and warn them that their sins can be eternally fateful.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: I will try to be as plain as possible. If I discover that you are living in some sin, then my call is to come and warn you away from that sin. To call you to repentance. To tell you to stop doing that sin. If you want to hang on to that sin, then I have no choice but to declare to you that you won't be forgiven as long as you persist in this sin. It means I won't be able to give you the sacrament or tell you that your sins are forgiven. How awful! I never want to do that! And I never want you not to care if I do! It is one thing to fall into those sins that we do every day, even our habitual ones, for which we desire to be free and forgiven. It is quite another thing to be told that you are sinning and not care. To keep on doing it no matter what the Word of God says. So there is our repentance: to hear what the word of God says about our sins, to believe it and tremble at our sins and flee to Christ's Word and holy gifts which make certain our sins are forgiven.

When our Lord tells St. Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," He is speaking about us. We can't see Jesus with our eyes as Thomas did. Yet He is not far away or gone. He is in His church through the ministry of the Gospel and the Sacraments. To those whose sins aren't a big deal, that's no big deal. But to you, whose sins ARE a big deal, a terrible curse, a frightening burden, this is nothing but Good News. For the Lord has not left you to work things out on your own or to get rid of your sins yourself. He hasn't just sent some information to you to think about. No, He sends you the Holy Ministry, with words that actually do something: Words that make you God's child. Words that forgive your sins. Words that give you the Savior's body and blood. Words that save you. Spoken to you for your comfort and salvation. These are the words that can make dry bones come to life because they deliver Jesus who was dead and is now alive. Amen.

The Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, IL, and the Internet Services Executive for Higher Things. He edits the Daily Reflections. He is married and father of three.

Created: March 31st, 2008