April 19, 2020
When Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.”, he communicated to them what his dying on the cross and his rising from the dead had accomplished. Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished peace between God and sinful man. St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 4 that Jesus Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He continues on in chapter 5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have peace with God, because Jesus shed his blood in order to appease God’s wrath against our sins. St. Paul continues, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:9-11)
Jesus stands before his disciples with pierced hands and pierced feet. He has the mark of the spear in his side. Yet, he is alive! They saw him dead; now he is alive! What does this mean? Peace with God! That’s what it means! God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus died bearing the sins of all people. If God raised Jesus from the dead, that means that the sins of all people have been forgiven. Jesus goes to his disciples to relay to them the meaning of his resurrection from the dead. Peace between God and all people.
And because Jesus has accomplished every work that needs to be done in order to reconcile sinners to righteous God, there remains no work for us, only to believe. “We hold that one is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) And, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.” (Galatians 2:16) This means that salvation belongs to anyone who believes! Again, St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 1, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” This is exactly what Jesus taught Nicodemus back in John chapter 3, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It is through faith that we receive peace with God, forgiveness of all our sins, and yes, indeed, eternal salvation! This is why St. John wrote in our Epistle lesson for today, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Our Faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God gives us the victory that Jesus won in his death and resurrection; victory over sin, death, and hell itself.
Yet, “how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-15, 17)
Faith needs words. It needs a message to believe in. This is why Jesus sent his apostles, saying to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus gave his disciples this command, so that people would believe through their words that their sins are indeed forgiven. It is Jesus’ fervent desire that you believe the words spoken by his ministers. In fact, when Jesus was in anguish in the garden on the night in which he was betrayed, he prayed for you and me and all people, who would believe this wonderful message through the words of his apostles. He prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” (John 17:17-20)
When Jesus gives his ministers the command and authority to forgive sins, he does not give them a special character, whereby they forgive sins by their own special power or merit. Rather, he is commanding his ministers to give to his Church what he has earned for her. Ministers work not with their own property, but with the property of Christ. The power to forgive sins always comes from Christ, yet Jesus has given his ministers the authority to wield this power. St. Paul again writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
St. Paul calls himself a minister of reconciliation. He is an ambassador of Christ. This means that he represents not himself, but someone else. This is how all pastors are. And Paul implores sinners on behalf of Christ to be reconciled with God, not by trying to earn their salvation, but by believing in the peace and forgiveness that Christ has won for them. This is the mission of every minister of Christ.
Many people get offended that pastors will forgive the sins of others. “How can a sinner forgive another person’s sins? How dare he!” Yet, their quarrel is not with the sinner standing in the stead and by the command of Christ, but with Christ himself, who sent out men to do this job. Jesus spoke in John chapter 13, “Truly, truly, I say to you whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” Pastors forgive sins on behalf of and by the command of Christ.
This special authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent is called the Office of the Keys. It is called the Office of the Keys, because Jesus said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What Jesus meant by this, is that by forgiving the sins of others, the gates of heaven are opened to them as if by a key. And when the sins of a person are not forgiven, but bound, then the gates of heaven are closed and locked to that person as if by a key. What is spoken on earth is true in heaven.
This is why we learn in our Small Catechism, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.”
Now, it is the ministers of the word, who exercise the public office of the keys, but the office of the keys does not belong to the ministers. It belongs to the Church. Jesus said in another place, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:18-20) Where two or three are gathered, there the Office of the Keys is valid. That is because, wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there the Church is gathered. The Office of the Keys belongs to the Church. The Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake belongs to the Church, because it belongs to each and every believer in Christ, who make up the Church. When one Christians declares the forgiveness of sins from Christ to another Christian, it is valid in heaven.
Yet, the Church by the command of Christ continues to call ministers to carry out this office. And Jesus continues through the Church to send his ministers to speak in his name. Pastors, who are called by the church today have the same authority to forgive sins as the apostles, who were sent by Jesus on that first Easter evening.
Yet, Jesus also gives his Church the authority to withhold forgiveness. If a man telling someone that his sins are forgiven gets people upset, you can imagine how upset people get when a minister tells someone that his sins are not forgiven. How can this be? Why does Christ give this authority to his Church? How can someone’s sins not be forgiven, if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and rises to say, “Peace.”?
Because, you can only receive forgiveness through faith. True saving faith cannot abide with continued impenitent sin. When a sinner refuses to repent, he may say he has faith, but he doesn’t. Faith always includes repenting from sin. Holy Scripture states in Hebrews 10, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” This is why St. Paul ordered the church in Corinth to deliver a man, who was practicing sexual immorality, over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his soul might be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:5)
Jesus commands that his church refuse to forgive the sins of unrepentant sinners, so that they see the seriousness of their sins and repent, so that they can receive the forgiveness of sins through faith.. This also warns other Christians to flee from such sins. Yes, we Christians are sinners and we sin every day. But Christians repent of their sins. When a sin is no longer a struggle, but what we continue to do without repenting, then it is no longer a sin of weakness, but a ruling sin. Faith is then dead. This is why Jesus gives the authority and the command to withhold forgiveness from those, who need to repent. When the minister of Christ withholds forgiveness from a sinner, it is Jesus himself withholding forgiveness, so that that person will repent of his sins and receive forgiveness.
God’s desire is for all to repent and believe in the Gospel. This is the mission of the Church. At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” (Mark 1:15) And when Jesus sent out his disciples, he commanded that they do the same thing, “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations.” (Luke 24:47) And through this proclamation of the Gospel, Jesus continues his ministry among us even today (Mark 16:20).
This Sunday is called Quasimodogeniti, from the Latin translation of the first line in our Introit, “Like newborn babies.” It comes from 1 Peter chapter 2, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” We are spiritual babies. We need that spiritual milk that gives us peace with God and sustains our faith. This milk comes to us through the ministry of the Gospel, which includes the Office of the Keys. This ministry belongs to the Church. That is why St. Paul calls the Church our mother. Christ Jesus continues his ministry among us through his Church!
Like newborn babies, we need this spiritual milk every day. Faith is not simply believing some tidbit you heard long ago. Faith is continually consuming God’s grace. We need God’s peace every day. We need to be reconciled with God every day. The disciples locked their doors for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and took away their fear by declaring God’s peace to them. The danger from the Jews remained (Jesus later told Peter the manner in which he would die for his sake!), but their fear did not remain. God’s peace took away their fear. Our doors are locked for fear of a virus. With the advancements of medicines and God willing a vaccine, the danger for of this virus will decrease. But it will likely not go away for a very long time. And other dangers will always remain. But our fear should not. We have peace with God. God knows how he will resolve this current crisis. But he has already revealed to us a much greater need. His peace.