May 1, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained.’”
Jesus’ words are familiar. That is so, because they are read every year on this Second Sunday of Easter. But they are also familiar from another source: they are taught in the Small Catechism when speaking about the Power of the Keys—“the special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” Jesus’ words are read at the ordination and installation of pastors in the Lutheran Church, so that the congregation may hear about what these men are authorized to do.
Jesus’ words speak about His relationship to the Father: “As the Father has sent Me. . . .” The Father had sent His Son to accomplish a particular task. He was sent to bring salvation to the world. This is what you heard of during this past Lenten Season. When speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus said: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” But Jesus’ purpose also includes retaining sins, binding the guilt of those who would not believe in Him and His identity. This is why Jesus spoke about the Pharisees after healing a blind man: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind. . . . If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
This purpose is what Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection. Through His sacrifice, the world’s sin was atoned for. Through His resurrection, new life was given to the world that was bound in futility because of sin. As the Father sent Him, Jesus accomplished the task given. Those who believe in His identity and work receive the benefits: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. But those who will not believe are left in their guilt. So Jesus says in another place in John’s Gospel: “The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on My own authority, but the Father who sent Me has Himself given Me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that His commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told Me.”
This relationship that the Son has with the Father is extended to the apostles. Jesus says: “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” The men in the Upper Room are sent. But they are not sent aimlessly. They are authorized and assigned to do what Jesus, the Son of God, did: to bring forgiveness of sins to the world: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained.” That is their task. They are to testify about what Jesus has accomplished through His death and resurrection. And they are to bring the forgiveness of sins that He has earned to those who need it. In fact, they are to bring to the world what they themselves received, since Jesus absolved the apostles prior to sending them out. The ones who abandoned Jesus in the Garden, who were not found at the cross, who hid behind locked doors out of fear—even Peter who denied Him in the high priest’s courtyard and Thomas who at first refused to believe—are all forgiven. In His greeting, Jesus gives to His apostles what He has earned for them: “Peace be with you!” Then He sends them out to the world to speak that same forgiveness.
The beginnings of that are seen in the record of the apostolic work. You heard the statements of Peter to the Sanhedrin that wanted to prevent their proclamation: “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” Peter’s words express the reality of what Jesus accomplished. There is forgiveness of sins found in what He has done. They will proclaim it regardless of what the people think. For those who receive their message, the apostles will forgive their sins; for those who will not receive it, the apostles will retain their sins.
This is what the Risen Jesus authorized His apostles to do. That same power is handed down to the subsequent generations of the Church, to the ministers who follow in the apostles’ footsteps. They are given the Holy Spirit. They are given the authority to forgive and retain sins. It is not a power found in themselves, just as it wasn’t found in the first apostles. Rather, it is what the Risen Jesus bestows to them through His word, through the Holy Spirit that is given to them. They are commissioned and authorized, sent with a power from Him who has all authority in heaven and earth, who was exalted by the Father as Leader and Savior.
This is why you 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.” It is valid and certain because Jesus has sent them with His authority, just as the Father had sent Him with His authority. Your faith is not in the apostle or the apostles’ successors. Instead, your faith is in the One who has sent them. It is the same way that your belief in Jesus is actually placed in the Father who sent Him to bring salvation to the world.
So why do you believe this? Because you have received the words of those who first saw and heard Jesus. Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Your faith is created by the Holy Spirit who comes through the proclamation of those who have been authorized by Jesus. Their testimony and witness have come to you. This is what John the apostle declares: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” The apostle Peter speaks similarly to his audience: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Through the reception of the apostles’ testimony, the words through which the Holy Spirit works, you have been made Jesus’ disciples. It is what the Father desired to happen for you. It is the outcome that the Father sent His Son to achieve: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Jesus has achieved this for you. You did not see it happen, but you believe that it did. You trust the words of those whom Jesus sent, those who bear His authority. Because of their testimony, you make the confession about Jesus that He is your Lord and your God. And so you have life in His name.
As you live in this life, “grieved by the various trials” that this world brings, knowing what the Lord’s will is but not keeping it fully, you still have access to forgiveness, life, and salvation. That is what Jesus has authorized His apostles and their successors to bring to you. You are tempted to forsake Jesus, to abandon the life of following Him, to not believe that His work was really for you and your sin. Tempted to sin, you fall victim over and over again. But in those times, Jesus’ greeting is spoken to you: “Peace be with you!” He calls you back to Himself, saying: “Be not faithless, but faithful.” Those words that He speaks through His apostles reach your ears, enlivening your hearts and restoring your souls. They are the words of forgiveness. They accomplish what they say.
So now, as you are turned back to faith like Thomas, as you are repentant and contrite for your sins and failures, as you are brought into reconciliation by your Lord and your God, Jesus’ sent ones say to you: “You are forgiven. You are restored. You are blessed.” You believe them and the One who sent them with that message. Jesus does not hold your sins against you. He does not bind them to you. Instead, He reminds you that you are truly freed from your sins because your guilt was bound to Him and fastened to His cross. But now, He lives and has put that guilt behind Him: “God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
The sent ones have made known to you what Jesus has done for your benefit: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him. . . .” Love of Jesus and faith in Him is what the apostles’ proclamation has brought to you. So you are freed. You are absolved. You are reconciled. So again on this day, your Lord and your God, crucified and raised from the dead for your sake, speaks to you His valid and certain words of forgiveness: “Peace be with you!”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.