The text for this lesson is John 20:19–23.
- Jesus empowers His servants to forgive or withhold forgiveness.
- Law: I sin when I doubt the forgiveness given through the Church.
- Gospel: Christ Himself gives complete forgiveness in the words of Absolution spoken by my pastor.
The disciples had good reason to remain behind locked doors in fear. Jesus Christ, their mentor and friend for three years, was dead, put to death by the Jewish authorities and the Roman Empire. Jesus’ ministry included miracles, amazing demonstrations of His divine power. If such a teacher could not resist the power of the Jewish leaders and Rome, what possible chance did the disciples have?
In addition to fear, the disciples no doubt experienced profound despair at the death of their beloved Jesus. As circumstances had appeared, Jesus had not turned out to be what they had expected. Even up until Christ’s ascension into heaven, many of the disciples still expected Jesus to claim His rightful throne as the earthly king of Israel and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the Jews. This possibility died with Jesus on the cross. For those who had more clearly understood Jesus’ true mission, that, as He had repeatedly stated, He came into the world to die for the sins of many and rise again after three days, where was Jesus? Shouldn’t He be alive? Was it all just a hoax?
Yet now, Jesus appears and stands among them. We are fixed on His first words, “Peace be with you.” We harken back to similar messages from the angels who bade the shepherds not to fear at Jesus’ birth or to those who spoke to the women after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ peace is not made up of empty, meaningless well-wishes or good intentions. Jesus brings peace because He accomplished peace. He bids the disciples to embrace what He earned for them on the cross. Sin was removed and with it, enmity with God. Now, the task at hand is to equip and empower the disciples, His servants, to take that peace, that forgiveness, into all the world.
Our risen Lord not only conveyed peace to His beloved disciples but also spoke words on which we base our theology of the general pastoral office and the Office of Keys. Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (v. 23). Here, He endows the Church with the power to forgive the penitent sinner or to withhold that forgiveness.
Jesus didn’t choose the time and place for this event arbitrarily. Our Lord had just accomplished the redemption of the world through His perfect life and innocent death on the cross. His resurrection demonstrated that the Father had accepted this ransom as sufficient. Jesus empowered the Church to forgive sins based on what He had just done. Sinners receive forgiveness not because of some vague niceness on God’s part, but rather because of the just punishment for our sin poured out upon our innocent Savior. For this reason, forgiveness comes with Christian repentance; that is, a turning away from sin and a turning toward Christ. Through faith, the penitent Christian understands that forgiveness is found in Christ’s death and resurrection and nowhere else.
The Church, empowered with the Office of the Keys, calls pastors to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. This calling also includes speaking the words of Absolution to the congregation. As a servant of Christ and by His authority, the pastor forgives sins. However, he does so only in the stead and by the command of Jesus. The congregation may hear the voice of the pastor, but Absolution is the words of Christ.
For this reason, the Christian need not and should not doubt the Absolution voiced by the pastor. This forgiveness is not based on the fellow sinner standing before him, but rather on the risen Savior, Jesus Christ, who Himself paid for their sins with His own blood.