Everyday Can't Be Easter - Or Can It?
Sundays before Easter have special names. This Sunday after Easter has the Latin name Quasi Modo Geniti from the first words of the Introit, "Like newborn babies." It's also called "Low Sunday" because the normal Sunday service contrasts with the ceremony of Easter. And there is a contrast, isn't there? But everyday can't be Easter, and for that reason we have this text.
Just what is happening in this text? Some would say that the Jesus who successfully kept the Law in place of sinners, who died on the cross to pay for the sins of all, now raised from the grave is giving believers the power to forgive sins. That sounds right, but on closer examination something is wrong. There's not much believing going on in this text.
It's Easter evening. This is after Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to Peter, and to the Emmaus disciples, after Peter and John had seen the empty grave cloths, after several people had seen and spoken with angels. Yet, what do we read? "The disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews." Cowering behind locked doors isn't normally a sign of faith.
Even a week later after Jesus had appeared to them all as plainly as you see me, there isn't much believing going on. How can I say that? For one the doors are still locked. I know it doesn't say "for fear of the Jews," but they were locked to ward off something. Two, not one of the disciples has gone to Galilee as Jesus told them Easter morning. Three, even when they will go to Galilee weeks later, there won't be much believing going on. Matthew 28 says, "Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted."
If this text is about Jesus giving the power to forgive sins to believers, He's not giving it to very many. Let's be honest. He isn't giving it to anyone at all. They are all caught up in their doubts, their fears, their sins, their unbelief. So the view that Jesus is giving the power to forgive sins to believers doesn't fit.
How about the view that Jesus is giving the power to forgive sins to the apostles personally? That's flawed too because then the only ones with the power to forgive sins would be those who had been ordained by apostles. This is called "apostolic succession." It works like this: Jesus gave the power to the apostles, the apostles gave it to other men who gave it to others, and so it passed all the way down to our time. The problem is for you to get forgiveness you would have to be sure the person speaking it to you was indeed in that apostolic line. Just as in the first view you would have to make sure the person speaking forgiveness really believed so in this view you would have to make sure he was ordained in the apostolic line.
Rather than giving the power to forgive sins to believers or to the apostles personally, Jesus is establishing an office. As Jesus was sent by the Father to forgive sins, rescue from Satan, and conquer death, so He creates an office that has His authority on earth to do this. Nowhere else on earth is this power available except where this office is found.
Easter evening is the start of God's New Creation. Good Friday ended the old order where sin, death, and the devil reigned over the nations. Now Jesus sends out His sin-forgiving, life-giving, devil defeating Word into the nations. He says, "Go make disciples of all nations." In Luke He says, "Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations." Just as God breathed into the first Adam and produced a man able to pass on physical life, so the Second Adam, Jesus, breathes and produces an office that gives spiritual life.
In this text Jesus leaves the forgiveness of sins on earth. But if He leaves it to believers then what need is there for the church or the ministry? Since I've been given the power to forgive sins, I can forgive myself. And if He leaves it only to certain individuals then there is something different in them than in me. They are closer to God, holier than I. Instead of absolving yourself, you get absolution from a person but your forgiveness is attached to that person not to Jesus. Where the first error has the tendency to throw out church and ministry thinking it can do just fine because it believes, the second error has the tendency to make too much of organizational church and ministry.
In both cases, what gets obscured is what matters most: the certainty of your sins being forgiven. The believer who forgives himself has to wonder if he is just talking to himself. The person searching for apostolic succession for forgiveness has to wonder if he has found it. But Jesus doesn't want you wondering about your forgiveness. He lived a life of sorrow, died suffering to pay for your sins. Don't you think He wants you rock solid certain of being forgiven? Yes, He does, so He established a special office on earth to do this. Hear Martin Luther, "I as a preacher and ambassador of Christ have no business teaching you about home economics, or agriculture, or about marital rules, or about nutrition, or other things...My mandate and realm of authority concern sins alone." "Christ is instituting here an office through which all the sins of the entire world may be forgiven and taken away."
Perhaps you'll see why this view is comforting if we look at where the forgiveness of sins is located in each of the views. If the power to forgive is given to believers, it(s located in faith. Forgiveness is yours if the one who absolves you and you yourself really believe. Have you ever been on that bed of hot coals before? Have you ever put all the forgiveness of God in the one basket called faith? Then instead of forgiveness being as certain and powerful as God it's located in our feeble believing, and our believing is always feeble.
Jesus nicknamed His disciples "O ye of little faith," And He emphasized the smallness of faith. It's the size of a mustard seed not a peach pit. It's found in the hearts of simple, timid, weak children not wise, bold, strong adults. Faith is not a big thing, but a small thing. Moreover, it's a passive thing not an active thing. Faith doesn't reach up and pull down God's forgiveness from heaven. No faith only receives what God first gives.
Where is forgiveness located in the view that Jesus gives the power to forgive to the apostles? Then it's located in those who've been ordained by the apostles. But who tells you if someone is so ordained? A visible church. So really your forgiveness is located in an outward organization.
The danger in locating forgiveness in an outward organization is you can think that as long as the organization absolved you it doesn't matter what you believe. This is what people try to correct by saying forgiveness is located in believing. Our Lutheran Confessions talk about this too. In regard to the absolution by a priest claiming apostolic succession, we say, "They pretend that the Sacrament grants grace... without a right attitude in the recipient, and they do not mention faith, which grasps the absolution."
Can you see the 2 errors Lutheranism tries to stand between? At the start of the Reformation it was against the error that absolution could forgive sins no matter what a person believed. Over against this, Lutherans spoke of faith which grasps the promise of God in absolution. But then others over emphasized faith, and turned it into a work making absolution only as certain as your believing.
These errors are related to a person's view of the ministry. If you think that the ministry is based on belief, then your forgiveness is only valid if you know your pastor is truly a believer and it's only valid for you if you believe hard enough. If you think the ministry is based on a visible organization, you fall into the error of believing your forgiveness is tied to a visible organization no matter what they teach, and you have forgiveness as long as you're connected to that organization no matter what you believe.
For Lutherans forgiveness is tied to the Word of God outside of us. Because we cannot celebrate Easter everyday, because our Easter feelings wax and wane as we're confronted with deep sinfulness, deep graves, and grave illness, our Lord placed His forgiveness outside of us in the mouth of someone else. Luther said, "If you desire forgiveness of your sins, you must seek it from the Word, out of the mouth of the apostles, or the pastor, or a fellow Christian. If it is not sought from the mouth of the apostles, the pastor, or another Christian you will not obtain forgiveness of sins."
Don't look for forgiveness in your conscience, in your feelings, or in your faith. Look for it in the mouth of any Christian, and especially look for it in the mouth of this office, this branch office of heaven, called the office of the public ministry. While all Christians are privileged to speak forgiveness to someone who has sinned against them, the Lord has established an office on earth to forgive, He says, the sins of "anyone."
This great Gospel truth, that our certainty in matters of the faith is to be found outside of us in the words of others, is highlighted in the Easter accounts. What is the only sin Jesus rebukes the disciples for? Abandoning Him? Cowering in fear? Failing to wait at the tomb for His resurrection or to go to Galilee? No, the only sin Jesus rebukes is the disciples not believing the Word spoken by the women and Thomas not believing the Word spoken by the apostles.
Yes, that's us too. We've done, spoke, and thought many sinful things this week after Easter but our greatest sin was not continuing to believe the words spoken to us on Easter, "For the sake of the crucified Jesus and in the name of the risen Jesus, I forgive you." No, we put more stock in our faltering faith, our fickle feelings, or our conflicted consciences. That's why we need to be told each week that we are forgiven, and that's why the risen Lord established an office on earth to tell us this. Whenever we are told, (I forgive you;( it is Easter all over again. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday of Easter (20080330); John 20:19-31