“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”

The readings in church last Sunday included this passage from John 20:

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

We get into a lot of good theological discussions on this blog.  Some of them get heated–and I apologize when they cross the line of Christian charity–but I know I learn from them.   I’d like to ask the non-Lutheran readers of this blog, what do you do with this passage?   We Lutherans, as is our wont, take it literally:  We see the office of disciple in the office of pastors today, so we believe that pastors, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, can forgive sins.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”   This happens individually, in private confession and absolution, and also every Sunday in corporate confession and absolution.   The whole congregation prays a prayer in which we confess our sins, and then the pastor says, “upon this your confession, as a called and ordained servant of the Lord, I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  This often freaks out non-Lutheran visitors.   But I’ve wondered, how do they get around this passage?  One could have a different theology of the ministry and apply that ability to ALL Christians (actually, Lutherans do say that laity too can forgive sins), but surely this passage clearly gives human beings who have the Holy Spirit the power to forgive sins.  This is as clear statement as I can imagine, and I can’t see how it could be interpreted any other way.

So I’m asking, what do you Reformed, Arminian, Baptist, Pentecostal, and adherents to other Protestant Bible-believing theologies do with this passage?

A dying church

A pejorative term directed against some congregations is that they are “a dying church.”  Either because most of their members are elderly or because they don’t get a lot of new members or because they don’t seem exciting enough.  I have always thought that this is rather wicked to say, since we have no idea about the true spiritual life that may be pulsing inside of these Christians, however elderly or not-growing or unexciting they may be.  Then our pastor, Rev. Douthwaite, preached this sermon on Palm Sunday:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. And we also prayed: Mercifully grant that we may follow the example of His great humility and patience.

What does this mean? Do you know what this is saying? With these words we are really saying: Lord, help us to die. Help us be dying Christians. Help us be a dying church.

Ah, no. That doesn’t sound right! We don’t want to be a dying church! We don’t want to be dying Christians, do we? That sounds like failure. We want to be successful, we want to be admired, we want to be big, we want to be glorious. A dying church sounds . . . like . . . a story gone horribly wrong.

But this is exactly what it means to have the mind of Christ. We are to be a dying church, because we have a dying Saviour. For only by dying can we live. . . .

But what has Jesus done? What is this story we are hearing again today and will remember all this week? This story is not a story gone horribly wrong, but of our Saviour using suffering and death for life, for good. That what looks like defeat is really victory.And so we are a dying church because we have a dying Saviour. This is not our doing – our Saviour pulls us into His dying; for to die with Jesus is to live.

And so in baptism we are pulled into His death and resurrection.

We hear the preaching of Christ crucified and are pulled into the story of the cross.

We die in repentance and are raised in absolution.

The dying and rising body and blood of Jesus are put into your mouth, to pull you into that same dying and rising.

You see, that is what set the Apostles free to face death when they went out into all the world – they had already died with Christ! They had nothing to fear.

That is what set the early martyrs and the Reformers free to face death – they had already died with Christ! They had nothing to fear.

And this is what sets you free to face whatever this world and its evil prince may throw at you – you have already died with Christ! You have nothing to fear.

And so it is only by dying with Christ that can we then live. For dying with Christ, we live a life that suffering cannot take away, that the sins of others cannot take away, that the struggles of this world cannot take away, that disasters and tragedies cannot take away, that laying down our lives for others cannot take away, that not even death can take away.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church.

He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows

On this Good Friday I urge you to read and to meditate upon that astonishing prophecy of Christ’s Passion and His redemptive work in Isaiah 53.  In doing so, consider these words:

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his stripes we are healed.

We are familiar with the notion that Christ on the Cross bore our transgressions and our iniquities, though we can never plumb the depths of that truth.  But we don’t hear much about how He also bore our “griefs” and our “sorrows.”  What does that mean, and what difference does that make in our lives?

Good Friday conjunctions

This year Good Friday falls on April 22, which is also the new environmentalist holiday of Earth Day.  (It is also “89ers’ Day,” the anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889, as all of my fellow Oklahomans should know.)   Some churches, usually of the more liberal persuasion, are trying to honor Good Friday and Earth Day together, recommending ecological gestures to honor Christ and suggesting that Christ died for the Earth.

He did die for the world.  And the whole creation suffered from the Fall and is in travail until the coming of Christ.  So can we make legitimate connections?

Easter and Baptism

Did you realize that you were buried in the tomb with Jesus?  And that on Easter morning when He rose from the dead, you did too?  That’s what your baptism accomplished, according to the Bible:  “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).

The impact of Holy Communion

Today is Maundy Thursday, when Passion Week takes off.   In particular, this is the commemoration of the Last Supper of our Lord with His disciples, at which He instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion.

We Lutherans, of course, consider that the bread and wine convey the actual objective body and blood of the Risen Christ given for our salvation.  So of course Holy Communion is a huge deal for us, the very center of our spiritual lives, the tangible manifestation of the Gospel, of Christ giving His broken body and His shed blood “for you.”  My Reformed friends say that we only disagree on less important matters, such as the sacraments, but that only shows how different we are, since, to Lutherans, the sacraments are not less important!  That the Reformed think the sacraments are not so important is kind of the point for Lutherans.

But we have lots of readers from different theological traditions at this blog, and I’m glad of that.  For once, could we NOT ARGUE about the nature of this sacrament?  And instead just talk about its blessings.

Certainly Holy Communion is always a blessing, but can you tell about a time when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ had a particular impact on you?

I’d like to hear from non-Lutherans too, the whole range, from those who believe in transubstantiation to those who see the elements as mere symbols.  We usually consider Holy Communion in terms of what people believe it is–and quite rightly–but I’m curious about its effect on people, whatever their beliefs.

Again, NO ARGUING.  If an argument is made or breaks out or a criticism is launched against another commenter or church teaching or practice, I will delete the comment.  Just state your experience, perhaps including your theological tradition if that is not obvious, and then move on.


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