God Has a Franchise on Earth
How great it was when a McDonald's opened in the township were I lived as a kid, Then followed Burger King and Wendy's in 2-4 year increments. I didn't know it was the beginning of suburbanization and homogenization. It was amazing that these chains that once were only available when travelling were now in walking distance. Who wouldn't want for God to open a franchise on earth to forgive sins, to free conscience from what they are afraid of, to relieve the heavy weight of guilt?
Plenty of people that's who. When Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, some leaders in the Old Testament church thought, "He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone" (Lk. 5:21). Even though on Easter evening Jesus breathed His Holy Spirit on His disciples enabling them to pass on the lifegiving, sin-forgiving Spirit with their words, it has always been resisted. Rufinus, early 300's A.D. said, "The pagans are wont to say in derision of us, that we deceive ourselves in thinking that crimes which have been committed in deed can be washed out by words" (Expos. Apostles' Cr, 40). Calvin so hated the idea that God had a franchise on earth to forgive sins he wanted to destroy it and throw it out of the church. I quote him: "There is nothing strange if we condemn that auricular [audible] confession of theirs as so unhealthy and harmful to the Churchthat we want to destroy it. [B]ecause it is of neither use nor fruit and has given cause for so many wickednesses, sacrileges, and errors, who would not claim that it should be completely thrown out" (Inst., III, IV, 19)?
Don't think we have much more regard for the franchise, the office which dispenses what Christ won for the world in 30 A.D. to sinners today. Lutheran Pastor Claus Harms said in 1811, "'The forgiveness of sins cost at least money in the 16th century; in the nineteenth it is entirely free, for each one administers it to himself'" (95 Theses, 21, in Crisis Am. Luth. Theo, 119). It's no better today. A 1988 article in our seminary's theological journal lamented: "In wide areas, both among pastors and laity, Private Confession has completely disappeared. Psychiatrist and psychoanalysts have taken the place that once belonged to the pastor" (Harjunpaa, T, "The Pastor's Communion, CTQ, 52: 2-3, 162). So, we either do DIY absolving or go to experts on the mind for problems of the soul.
God has a franchise on earth that people oppose, but nevertheless He has kept it open. We confess, "The keys are an office and power given by Christ to the Church for binding and loosing sin" (SC, VII, 1). And in the Apology we confess "The power of the keys administers and offers the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel" (AP, XII, 39). God by the office of the keys, the pastoral office, keeps open a franchise of forgiveness on earth, not a police office. We confess that we retain private confession for the sake of forgiving sins not for investigating them (AP, VI, 8). The office of the ministry is not a police office neither is it the office of a personal trainer. God doesn't keep this office on earth to whip you into better spiritual shape. No, it's more a clinic for the sick then a gym for getting fitter. Luther advised, "If there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God's Words that through a man God looses and absolves him from sins" (LC, Brief Exhortation, 14).
Your core problem is not your weight, your skin, your mind, your body, it's your sin and sinfulness. Shakespeare said, "You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty if you deny your griefs to your friend" (Hamlet, 3, 2). Denying your sins to God is even worse. Look in the Passion Reading: can't you see Jesus is not surprised to find church people are sinners? Jesus tells them they will all fall way that very night. Peter denies that, but do note: "All the other disciples said the same." So, not only don't they believe Jesus' words about their sins, they make a promise they will later break. Jesus isn't surprised to find sinners having sins neither are confessional Lutheran pastors. As a doctor expects sick people in his office, so a pastor expects sinners in God's franchise.
Let's review the passages where Christ establishes His franchise on earth: Matthew 18:18, "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Luke 10:16, "He who listens to you listens to Me." John 20:23, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." And don't forgot the promise is that what is forgiven on earth by God's franchise is forgiven in heaven. Hear Luther: "He does not say: what I bind and loose in heaven, you shall also bind and loose on earth, as the teachers of the faulty keys so foolishly say. How could we find out what God binds and looses in heaven? Never. Neither does Christ say, you should know what I bind and loose in heaven. Who would and could know that?" But don't think there are two actions first on earth then in heaven. No, it's one single action, Jesus' and the absolver. It's one key, Christ and ours (LW, 40, 364).
Lots of franchised business are a rags to riches story. Read the story of how Wendy's started or Jersey Mike's or Domino's. In the matter of God's franchise it's Christ's rags to our riches. See the holy Son of God so pressed by the weight of your sins, that blood is pressed from His pores. Sweating blood is a physical phenomenon seen when a person is under extreme duress. Men before a firing squad have sweat blood. But it's not just blood and sweat it's tears. It's "loud cries and tears" according to Hebrews 5. And 3 sinners like me slept through it. Didn't they notice the blood on Jesus brow the first time He woke them? Didn't they hear His loud cries and sobs? Did they think Jesus was being melodramatic?
How about you? What do you think about the cost Jesus paid to open this franchise of forgiveness here for you? I couldn't send your sins away from you if Jesus hadn't carried them away. I couldn't separate your sins from your conscience, your heart, your thoughts if Jesus hadn't bought and paid for them, owned them. Ever deal with a business owner who built his business from scratch? He is very protective of what he has bought, paid, sweated and suffered for. Jesus bought and paid for your sins. He wants them from you, and no you can't have them back.
This franchise is for you. Actually, it's open to the public. It's not like Sam's or Costco. And it's open 24/7. That's the standard now for everything from gyms, to groceries, to fast-food. That's always been the Church's standard, but Lutherans don't set a fix time to use the franchise, particularly privately. Every pastor that I've known who has tried has ended up with the hint or tint of legalism; people felt compelled to confess which Luther believed turned the blessing of Private Confession into a curse. Here's what our Confessions say about it: "But with respect to the time, certainly most men in our churches use the Sacraments, absolution and the Lord's Supper, frequently in a year. But a fixed time is not proscribed, because all our not ready in a like manner at the same time" (AP, XI, 60, 62).
We see in the Passion what guilt does to the Body and Blood of Jesus. It does that either to Jesus or to you. Novelist Graham Greene has a character say that he would not mind if another man beat him unconscious because "We have so few ways in which to assuage our guilt" (Quiet American, 184). God's franchise is the only way, and you can and should be the face of it. Luther said, "'To whom will you complain about your maladies except to God? But where can you find Him except in your brother.' By means of the word from the brother, by means of his hand laid upon you, Christ Himself absolves us" (Peters, Bpt. & LS, 38). In another place Luther said that God wants to forgive sins in no other way than "'by giving the power to do it to men'" (Law & Gospel, 183). In speaking forgiveness, you are God's mouthpiece.
The question isn't whether a lay person has the right to forgive sins; of course, he does. The issue is experience. A 5th century church father said, "'[F]or many have found final despair instead of comfort by confessing to men whom they saw to be aged, but who in fact were inexperienced'" (Church From Age to Age, 238). Sydney Carton didn't find final despair but he found despair when he confessed to the man he had sinned against and that man said, "I forgot it long ago." Carton replies, "I have by no means forgotten it, and a light answer does not help me to forget it" (Tale of Two Cities, 203).
You won't find final despair or light answers in the franchise opened here. Here, in Luther's words, is what I will do: I will "reconcile your soul to God, remove from you God's wrath and displeasure, put you in His grace, and give you the inheritance of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven" (LW, 5, 140). You will not hear me absolve you in the optative mood, "May you be forgiven", "but for the sake of certainty" you will hear the indicative mood, "I forgive you" (Chemnitz, Loci II, 509). Third Century church father Origen said that, "the eternal God Himself is mounted on this word issuing from the mouth of man" (In the Name of Jesus, 275). Luther said that in the Absolution the pastor tears to pieces the work of the Devil (LW, 58, 87). A 19th century German Lutheran pastor, Wilhelm Lohe, said absolution reaches all the way to Judgment Day. Whatever is absolved will not appear again for the purposes of judgment (Precht, Lutheran Worship Hist & Prac., 349). That's because in the words of another 19th century Lutheran pastor: "When a preacher absolves a person who has confessed his sin to him, he takes that sin of the other person upon his conscience" (Walther in Harrison, Law & Gospel, 121).
So do you know what the question is? Do you believe this? Do you believe that God has opened a franchise on earth to do what only God dare do? You see when Christ says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven," He doesn't institute the authority of the one who speaks those words but the one who believes them (Luther, in Harrison Church & Office, 248). "Therefore," says Luther, "it is not as necessary to ask when a person is absolved, Are you sorry?' as it is to ask, Do you believe that you can be absolved by me'" (LW, 31, 195). That's why both in the rite of Private Confession and the Confessional Service the pastor asks, "Do you believe my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?" If you believe God has opened a franchise on earth, the answer is Yes!' Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Midweek II (20190313); Confession II, Passion Reading 2