Sermon: How Can Pastors Forgive Sins?

Text: John 20:19-31
Second Sunday of Easter, Series C
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Imagine that you have applied for a job at a pharmaceutical company. You’ve already been interviewed, but now management wants to have a meeting with you. Now, imagine that instead of offering you the job you applied for, management offered you the one above it—a senior position in the whole company. You would be running an entire department. A huge budget. Lots of benefits. You would be overseeing much of the company’s operations. You may think that you’re simply not up to it. ‘I couldn’t possibly do that!’ You may say. ‘Well,’ says the owner, ‘we think you can. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of responsibility. But we think you’re right for the job, and we’re going to change some things around, so you get the right assistance. You’ll have everything you need to succeed.’  An unexpected job offer!

The Denial of Forgiveness

The Risen Lord has given the eleven a similarly unexpected job offer in our Gospel reading. ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them’ How do you think they felt about that? Did they think they were up to the job? Of course not! But it gets worse. ‘if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ Withholding forgiveness from another person is downright terrifying. But Jesus thinks the apostles are capable.

But really? Are we really to believe that a motley crew of peasants and fishermen – “average Joes” can forgive sins? The apostles may have responded to him, saying, ‘But we thought only God could forgive sins!’ And they’d be right. God is going to forgive sins—through them. And that is the part that many Christians today just can’t swallow. No human is qualified for that job. We see that clearly in many reactions to the declaration of holy absolution. When many Christians hear that phrase, “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you….,” they say, “nope! That’s just not possible. He’s not God. How dare he presume to speak for God. I don’t need a man to come between God and me!” Have you heard that? Have you thought that?

But this isn’t simply about questioning that humans can forgive sins on behalf of God. No, it is calling Jesus a liar! Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” The Risen Christ was given all authority in heaven and on earth. He’s the one who said that his ministers have the authorization to forgive sins in his place and stead. If we say that pastors can’t do it, we’re saying that Jesus isn’t telling the truth!

Our lack of faith doesn’t just involve a rejection of Christ’s absolution. It also consists of a rejection of the Gospel itself. If your pastor cannot forgive sins, then how can water? The comfort and hope that lies in baptism is that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”  Or how about bread and wine? The comfort of Holy Communion is that “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words” “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Gospel is the proclamation that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. If we remove God’s forgiveness from the mouth of our ministers, then we’ve denied ourselves the comfort, hope and purpose of the Gospel. We rob ourselves of what our beloved Saviour greatly desires – to give his precious people: the forgiveness of their many sins and a new relationship with Him. This is why a pastor asks during private confession and absolution, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” And the response is, “Yes, dear pastor.”

 A Christian always confesses to God and can always confess to God directly, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and our personal prayers. That is your privilege as a baptized child of God. People sometimes use this privilege as a dodge and an excuse. “I can confess directly to God; therefore, I don’t need to confess before another.” That isn’t humility because it isn’t listening to what Jesus said. Even though we may confess to God directly, He always deals with us through the external Word, the Word outside of ourselves – through Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preached Word. The person who boasts confidently, “I can confess my sins to God directly, and therefore don’t need the church,” misses the point. It’s not our confession but God’s forgiveness that matters. And God always deals with us through the incarnation of Jesus, through earthy, creaturely means such as water, bread, wine, and words. In this case, sound waves emanate from mouths and go into our ear.

The Means of Forgiveness

Now imagine that pharmaceutical company again. That company exists to give you a new medicine that will be of indispensable l benefit. But the medicine does not do anybody any good if it just sits in the warehouse and never is delivered to you so that you may benefit from it! The point of Jesus authorizing his ministers to forgive in his stead is not to set them apart from ordinary people, a sort of holier-than-thou club. Your pastors will be the first to admit that they are sinners too! These workers are appointed and called to serve God’s people. This “company” is nothing other than the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, which has an indispensable medicine for your soul: nothing other than the forgiveness of sins.  Through pastors, the salvation Jesus accomplished in Israel two thousand years ago goes out to the world and down to you today. The point is that the forgiveness that Jesus won for you does not stay locked up somewhere in some heavenly warehouse. And Christ’s ministers are not there to serve themselves. No, Jesus cares for you so much that he ensures that you have pastors who deliver forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation right to you personally. Pastors are there for you.

Yet it’s not always easy. Jesus says his ministers are sometimes required to ‘withhold forgiveness.’ Withholding forgiveness means warning the world that sin is a severe and deadly disease and that to remain in it will bring death. They are to rebuke and warn—not because they don’t like people or seek power or prestige for themselves, but because this is God’s message to a confused and still rebellious world. 

And what is the source of this forgiveness which God’s ministers are to proclaim to his precious people? Jesus repeats it twice. “Peace be with you.” This is not an ordinary greeting. It is the same thing as holy absolution. Peace comes from the forgiveness of sins. And the risen Lord shows them the cost at which that forgiveness comes. He shows them his hands and his side — hands, still bearing the scars of the nails that held him to the cross; his side, still bearing the scar of the piercing spear that made sure he was dead. Even in his resurrection, Christ still bears the marks of his crucifixion. This is how he wants to be identified. This is how he wants to be known. He is always the one who was crucified for our transgressions, the Lamb who was slain, by whose blood we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. It is peace between God and mankind through the work of Christ, a peace that calms troubled consciences. Those are not the marks of his anger but his wondrous love for us, his little sheep! With the peace that Jesus gives them, his ministers are enabled to perform the extraordinary task of forgiving the sins of his cherished people.  Pastors are to pronounce the message of forgiveness to all who believe in Jesus. Through Word, water, bread, and wine, this forgiveness is delivered to you. They provide you with the much-needed refreshment of sins forgiven and peace with God. As one long-ago pastor once said, Jesus truly is the medicine of immortality.

Your pastor is like that person from the introduction. It’s like I was offered the position in the company above the one he applied for. He has the awe-inspiring job of pronouncing sinners forgiven on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ. We receive forgiveness from our pastors as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it, our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. After all, God offers this grace through means.  Since we are a physical people, our resurrected Lord gives it through physical ways: water, bread, wine and, believe it or not, through pastors. And we all recognize that this is truly a daunting task that they have. So we see the need to help and support them by praying for them and giving our time and money to our local parish, the seminary, and Synod. But we also need to support the Holy Ministry in Stratford. By your prayers, physical, and monetary support, you are helping to bring the forgiveness that Christ won upon the cross to those Canadians who genuinely need it.

Only God can forgive sins. And God does it through His Son, who became man and continues to forgive through those he authorized with His Word and Spirit. Your heavenly Father loves you. That’s why He ensures the very forgiveness that Christ’s blood won for you continues to be easily accessible to you, by grace alone, through Christ who “is risen indeed. Alleluia”.

May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.



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