It's a Miracle that Forgiveness is in the Mouth of Man
"Before God we should plead guilty of all sins...but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these?" Did you notice the answer to that question contains many sins of the mouth? "Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words?" How about in the Passion Reading? Peter and all the disciples said they would never fall away, and Judas betrays the Son of Man with his mouth: by a kiss. Thankfully more than sins can be found in the mouths of men.
Sins that we know and feel in our hearts, even if they never escape the lips, don't just lay there. Shakespeare says that sins burdening our conscience makes cowards of us all (Hamlet, III, I). Think about it. How could Peter ever write an epistle where he chides churches because they have not yet resisted unto blood if his conscience still convicted him of deserting Jesus in the garden and denying Him later? His conscience would make him a coward unless somehow it had been unburdened.
Sins that we know and feel in our hearts aren't inert. Arachane was a mortal who said she could weave better than the goddess Minerva. Her weavings were filled with the errors and failings of the gods. Minerva destroyed them and then touched the forehead of Arachane and made her feel her guilt. She couldn't endure it and hanged herself. Minerva pitied her and said, "Live guilty woman. And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants to all future times." Minerva changed her into a spider (Bulfinch's, 107-10).
Do you think this is how the true God wills to deal with the sins you know and feel in your heart? I think many do. They think God is like the alien in sci-fi series Defying Gravity. It motivates people by bringing their guilts to mind. It brings past abortions, sexual sins, letting others down, and just plain mistakes to mind in such a way the person believes he or she is undoing it if they do what the alien wants. That's your view of God if you think He uses your guilts as signposts to direct you.
You're not alone in this misbelief. Church history has a tradition that Peter fled being martyred. On the way out of Rome he met Jesus coming in. He asked Jesus where He was going. He said He was going to be crucified again because someone had to do it. Peter couldn't deny his Lord a fourth time, and so went back. But he insisted on being crucified upside down because he wasn't worthy of dying the same way his Lord did.
People who live by their guilts, who hang amidst them like a spider in a web, are great church members. They make sacrifices for the church. They are very generous toward her, but what moves them is their guilt. That baby's cry; that horrible mistake; that dirty little secret that they keep hearing moves them not the miracle of the Gospel in the mouth of a man.
I was a worried, fright-filled child; my mother often told me another Shakespeare line. She would paraphrase from Julius Caesar saying that the coward dies a thousand deaths while the hero dies but once (I, 2). If a bad conscience makes cowards of us all, then we're in for many deaths. But listen to the Gospel from these lips.
In the Passion Reading who watched? Who prayed? Though Jesus asks His friends and followers to watch with Him, they did not. On the worst night of Jesus' life, they deserted Him. You think you've let Jesus down, and you have. You've not prayed; you've not watched and you have entered into temptation, but Peter, James and John still surpass you. But back to Jesus. He did not enter into temptation but into the will of His Father. He prayed, "Thy will be done," even though it was not what He willed.
While a coward dies a thousand deaths, the guilts that make him a coward don't die easily. Guilts that press you, besiege you, that come upon you out of the blue much like sexual lusts (and here is an important fact: sins that Christians know and feel in their hearts really are a type of lust); guilts don't die easily. They can rise up in the dark of night; they can come to life in the light of day resuscitated by words and events totally unconnected to them. The person you're with will be involved in one thing while you're dying one more of your thousand deaths wrestling with your guilt.
Guilts are like a powerful snake or a ferocious beast that you can't kill, but Jesus can. The perfect Jesus who has not one bad thing on His conscience takes all your guilt as if it was His own. But as I said, it's very difficult to kill guilts. So the Man Jesus has to have an angel come from heaven to strengthen Him. Do you get that? The anguish of your guilts, the punishment due your sins would've killed the Man Jesus in the garden before He got to the cross and cried, "It is finished." And then you would be like Arachane, condemned to hang in the web of your guilts forever.
But Jesus didn't want that. So though He could knock His captors down with just the words of who He really is, Jehovah in flesh and blood, "I am," He let them get back up. Though He could have had 72,000 angels to release Him, He didn't ask for one but let His captors take Him. Our cup of sin, of guilt, of shame had to be drunk. The Father said so. If Jesus didn't drink it, you would. Jesus did winning our forgiveness; our freedom from guilt; our setting free from shame. Don't you see that this must have been what happened in the case of Peter or he couldn't have gone on to preach being faithful to Jesus? Surely someone at sometime threw his sins back in his face. They didn't stick to Peter because they stuck to Jesus.
The freedom from sin, shame, and guilt that Jesus won must be distributed; it must be given to sinners. The very first act of the resurrected Jesus on Easter evening was to direct that the full forgiveness He won be distributed by the mouths of men. Remember? He breathed on His disciples; gave them His Holy Spirit and said, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven."
Now do you remember what we confessed last week? "We receive absolution from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven." Where do we get that startling truth from? Where in the Bible does it specifically say that what a man's mouth forgives here is forgiven before God in heaven? In Matthew 18:18 Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
To illustrate this I use a scene from the movie "What Dreams May Come?" A man has died and gone to this movie's heaven. His wife, a painter, is left behind inconsolable. In her grief she paints. She is painting a picture of a tree somewhat like a crepe myrtle or a lilac in full bloom. As she makes the last brushstroke on earth, a purple tree explodes into view before her husband in heaven. The mouth of a man says, "I forgive you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," and BAM; your forgiveness bursts into reality before God in heaven. Gone is that guilt, that shame, that sin that you know and feel in your heart. You can forget it safely and gladly. You don't have to be moved or motivated by it anymore.
Next week Judas will go to the mouths of men for the forgiveness he desperately needs. We'll read, "When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he was sized with remorse and returned the 30 pieces of sliver to the chief priests and elders. He said, 'I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.'" What did those charged with speaking absolution say, "'What is that to us? That's your responsibility.'" But the sin, guilt, and shame of that responsibility were too great for Judas to bear and he hanged himself.
If your Protestant friends seek forgiveness from the mouth of a man, they won't find it there either. If your Catholic friends try, they will find it there but with qualifications. You, however, can find full and unconditional forgiveness in the mouth of a man. But sometimes we don't do a good job pointing that out. Take our closing hymn last week. We sang rousingly and joyfully "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood," but we didn't sing where it is. It's not in the Holy Land. It's not in your feelings. It's not even in your faith because that would be faith in faith. No, the Fountain filled with Jesus' blood bubbles up in the baptismal font, the Communion elements, and the mouth of a man, particularly your pastor.
A radio report about the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson River two years ago said this: "Some passengers screamed, others tucked their heads between their knees and several prayed over and over, 'Lord forgive me for my sins.'" Hear me rightly: in these people were praying in Jesus' name, they were forgiven. But do also realize that if you had been there you could have said, "I forgive you in Jesus' name," and BAM the reality of your absolution would've exploded in heaven.
Right now, however, I'm not concerned with you speaking the Absolution but with you hearing it. We say in our confession, "For if the Power of the Keys [Absolution] does not console us before God, what is there that will finally bring peace to the conscience" (AP, XII, 7)? I tell everyone of you who hear my voice: "Come in from the narthex." You know the narthex is the space right outside the sanctuary where the ushers stand. It's named from the long staff a medieval priest carried. Penitents weren't allowed to come into the nave where the sacraments were celebrated until the priest absolved them indicating he did so with the touch of the narthex. In Latin that staff was called vindicata (The Heresy of Formlessness, 167-8)
It's a miracle that the mouth of a man, in Jesus' name, for His sake, can vindicate you; can release you from the web of your guilt and shame. A young child usually develops a comfort point. Something he goes back to again and again to assure himself all is okay. With some it's a stuffed animal; with others it's a pacifier, with still others it's something ordinary. There are adults who have been trained by the devil, others, or their own flesh to go back to their guilt as a comfort point. Forgiveness in the mouth of a man, in your Baptism, or at this altar is where Jesus wants you to touch base. Ollie Ollie oxen in free. Come in from the narthex. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers (20110316); Confession II