We Confess that Christ Reigns

Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord based on Mark 16:14-20

Dear confessors of the faith: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Mark writes that upon His ascension into heaven, the Lord Jesus sat down at the right hand of God. This we confess in all three of our creeds.

At the time of the Reformation, Zwingli and other radical reformers used this as an argument that Christ cannot give us His body and blood in the Lord Supper, since His body and blood are at the right hand of God in heaven. Luther wrote an extensive response to these fanatics, showing how the right hand of God is not a localized physically confined space, as if Jesus is incarcerated on a throne in heaven and cannot leave.

This is shown in Ephesians, where it is written, “When [God the Father] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (1:20-23)

This passage shows that to be at God the Father’s right hand, though referring figuratively to a place, far from being confined to a space, it represents a power that is working everywhere; a power that is above all power, all rule, authority, and dominion. Thus, Luther contends, if God’s right hand is an image for His almighty power and if God’s mighty power can be shown to be at work in all places, then the right hand of God to which Christ is appointed is also everywhere. And if Christ in His almighty power is everywhere and fills all in all as Scripture says, He is certainly also in the bread and wine of communion as He has promised to be.

That Christ sits at God’s right hand means that He rules over all things. He has all power and authority. He is no longer in the state of humiliation, to suffer poverty and hunger with no place to lay His head, to be beaten and suffer and die. He accomplished all these things for us and our salvation, but now He lives and reigns forever.

If sitting at God the Father’s right hand meant that Jesus was stuck someplace in heaven, He also would not have promised us saying, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20) and “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) Jesus is with us. He is wherever His Word is.

Two Sundays ago, we heard Jesus say that it is to His disciples’ advantage that He go away because He would then send them the Holy Spirit. This morning, we also heard His promise of sending the Holy Spirit. It is to our advantage that Jesus ascended into heaven and has sent us His Holy Spirit to give us faith through the Word of God.

It is also to our advantage that Jesus has ascended into heaven and rules over all things, especially His Church. As we heard from Ephesians, Jesus is the head of the Church, which is His body. As the head of the Church, He rules through His Word. His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119:105). His Word is eternal and will not wither or fade any more than Christ’s reign over us will wither or fade.

This is the confession Brooke will be making this morning. She will be confessing that her ascended Lord Jesus Christ rules over all things. She will be confessing that she believes what He teaches in His Word even if all the rest of the world forsakes His Word. She will promise that she would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from this confession and Church.

That is a rather huge promise and confession to make. One might even ask, “How can the church ask her to make such a confession and promise?” The answer is that it is Jesus who says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 10:32) Romans 10:9, which is Brooke’s confirmation verse, tells us, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The other reason we ask for such a confession is that which one of you can see her heart? Which one of you can see what she believes? You cannot. But you can hear her confession when she tells you what she believes.

This is why the church has always based admission to the Lord’s Supper upon confession. No pastor can see your heart, but he can hear you confess what you believe.

Every member of this congregation has confessed and made the same promises that Brooke will confess and promise. Those who have not made such a confession and promise therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s Supper at this altar. Why? Is it because a judgment is being made against their faith? No, not at all. Remember, no one can see another’s faith. Rather it is because their confession of faith has not been heard. Or, if it was heard some years ago, it has since changed.

The confession of Lutheran Church Canada says that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. This means that we do not believe that as society changes, we should follow society, but continue to follow the Word of God. There is thus necessary conflict between what our church believes and what the world believes.

Church bodies that follow society instead of God’s Word have abandoned the confession of this congregation and church body. Sometimes people join such churches to avoid the conflict that Jesus tells us Christians will have in this world (John 16:33). Sometimes it is done without knowledge of the differences. Either way, everyone must be taken at their confession, which is made through the promises and confession you have made at the church where you are a member.

Why are we such sticklers to following Christ’s Word? Because we believe that He sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, and that He will return to judge the living and the dead. We believe that He reigns far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and thus we fear no other power. We desire those who are lost in errors maze to hear the truth and be set free.

Most especially, we believe that Christ is our head and we are His body. Jesus, our head, rose from the dead. Do you think that we, His body, will remain dead? Jesus, our head, ascended into heaven. Do you think that we, His body, will remain here on earth? Where the head is, there will His body be also.

Jesus made sure of this by His suffering and death in your place. What is there to keep you from ascending into heaven? Your sin? You sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus and left in the grave when He rose. Your sin was removed from you in Baptism, and Christ offers you forgiveness again and again in Absolution and in His body and blood.

Since Christ in His almighty power is everywhere and fills all in all as Scripture says, He is certainly also in the bread and wine of communion as He has promised to be. Not in the same way as He is everywhere, for Christ never promised concerning anything else that in it He gives you His body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sin.

Yes, Christ who reigns at the right hand of God says, “This is my body… this is my blood… given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

Christ is not incarcerated in heaven. He reigns from heaven and is everywhere, filling all in all. He is where His name is confessed before men. He is where two or three are gathered in His name. He has promised to be with us until the end of the age. And He has promised to give us His body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins.

Let the world and the devil rave and storm. We will follow our risen and ascended Lord and confess what He teaches in His Word even if all the rest of the world forsakes His Word. We would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from this confession and Church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

Praying for Healing

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on James 5:13-20

Dear people who pray: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We should pray to God because He has commanded us to pray and because He has promised to hear us. But sometimes we are a little sheepish with our prayers. We are timid with our requests to God.

Is it because we are not sure that we’re praying for the right thing? Perhaps. We heard last week that if we ask wrongly, to spend it on our passions, God will not give us what we ask (Jas 4:3). This should actually comfort us in the sense that if we are asking God for something that is not good for us; something that would lead us into sin; something that would lead us away from Him – He will not give it to us. So we don’t have to be afraid of praying for the wrong thing. If it is the wrong thing, God will not give it to us.

Perhaps we are timid to pray because we are worried that God won’t give us what we are praying for. We are worried it might crush us not to have our request granted. This should not be a worry either. Because God only gives us what is good for us, if He doesn’t grant our request, we should not be crushed, but rather understand our request was not for the best. If God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we would like, it is because He is answering our prayers in the way He would like – He who knows better than we what is best.

Perhaps we are timid to pray because our conscience is bothering us over our sin. If that is the case, James writes, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Then we are given the example of Elijah. He prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three and a half years it didn’t rain. Is it because Elijah was a great prophet with a special connection to God that such a prayer was answered? Our lesson makes a point of saying that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours – a nature that is human; a nature that is weak; a nature that is sinful. Yet, the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Was Elijah righteous in himself? No, Scripture tells us no one is in himself righteous in God’s sight; none is righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:10,20).

This is why James writes of confession. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Certainly confession and absolution is always available from your pastor. Confess your sins and “receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” (SC V)

When we have sinned against our neighbour, we should also confess that sin to them. That’s why James says, “Confess your sins to one another.” It is reciprocal. Sins should be reconciled and forgiven so that they will not hinder our prayers being answered. This is why we also pray in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” (SC III)

Absolution makes you righteous before God, because Absolution covers a multitude of sins. Absolution forgives transgressions and covers sin. Absolution declares you righteous so that the Lord will count no iniquity against you. Because your sins are covered by the blood of Jesus who gave His body to death and shed His blood for your sin, Absolution declares you righteous.

As righteous, your prayers will be heard by God. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Especially in this context, our lesson is talking about prayers for healing from sickness. “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Do not be timid to pray for healing from sickness. Declared righteous, your prayer has great power as it is working. It is not your power at work in prayer, but the power of God almighty who can heal the sick and raise the dead. Pray for healing. You have the command from God to pray and you have His promise that He will hear you. God can heal where doctors fail.

Tell me though, what healing is best? Healing in this life where God saves you from sickness and raises you out of your sick bed? Or healing in the next life where God saves you from your sins eternally and raises you from the dead? Healing in this life where you will get sick again, or healing in the next life where you will be healed and never again get sick?

“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Confess your sins and receive forgiveness and you will be saved and the Lord will raise you up on the Last Day.

Since God answers our prayers in the way He knows is best, we may be praying for healing in this life, but He is going to give us something far better. He is going to give us eternal healing in the life to come. He is going to give us eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth that Jesus ascended to prepare for us.

After accomplishing our salvation through His innocent suffering and death, He ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us. After taking the guilt of our sins so that the multitude of our sins is covered, He ascended to prepare a place for us without sickness, sorrow, or sin. After dying our death on the cross, He ascended to prepare a place of life for us – eternal life.

Pray boldly for healing, and know that God will answer your prayer and save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. Because your sins are covered, your righteous prayer will be heard. Your prayer has great power when it is working. You will be saved, and God will raise you from the dead to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[A note to readers: starting in Advent, we will be following the one-year lectionary.]

The Church: Built on Confession

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 16:13-20

Dear absolved believers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The jokes get Saint Peter all wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard many of them. Saint Peter stands at the pearly gates giving an entrance examination which must be answered correctly to get into heaven. There are many varieties of these jokes, but the funniest ones seem to involve lawyers, politicians, and celebrities. Saint Peter supposedly gives a last chance to outwit or outsmart him or get his question correct to get into heaven.

Of course, we don’t get our theology from jokes, but these jokes do stem from bad theology – the idea that Jesus made Peter the first pope and that the pope has the authority to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. It is the misunderstanding of our text where Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, as if that gives Peter the authority over who gets into heaven.

First of all, Jesus did not give the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter alone. Two chapters later in Matthew, Jesus tells the same things to all His disciples. He tells all of them, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you (plural) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you (plural) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18) Also, in John 20, Jesus also speaks in the plural to the disciples, saying, “If you (plural) forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you (plural) withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (v. 23)

This did not, however, give the disciples the authority to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. It did not give them the authority to decide on a whim whose sins they would forgive and whose sins they would retain. So based on what did the disciples absolve and retain sin? Based on confession.

Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the rock on which Christ builds His Church. Christ does not build His Church on Peter himself, but on the truth that Peter confessed.

Jesus did not give Peter the authority to decide who gets asked the hard questions and who gets asked the easy questions at the pearly gates. In fact, no one will be asking any questions at the gates of heaven. By the time you are dead, your sins have already been loosed or retained. No amount of correctly answering easy or even difficult questions will change that fact.

Christ builds His Church on the confession of who He is and what he has done. These are what the church confesses.

Christ sees the hearts of all, but we cannot see hearts. We cannot see faith. But we can hear faith being confessed. Thus, the decision of whose sins are forgiven and whose sins are retained is based on confession. This is as true today as it was in the time of Saint Peter and the other apostles.

The Church teaches the faith. Those who learn and believe the faith as taught by the Church, confess the faith. They confess, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” All Christians of all time confess the faith as outlined in the three creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

When someone wants to join the church, since we cannot see their hearts, we simply ask them their confession. Do you believe what Scripture teaches as it is summarized in the Small Catechism? Do intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully? Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

If they confess these things affirmatively, the church takes them at their word, and they are brought into the church. We cannot see faith, but we can hear it confessed.

In addition to what Christians confess about God, we also confess something about ourselves. We confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We confess that we are sinful by nature and have sinned in thought, word, and deed.

Again, we cannot see hearts. The pastor cannot see the hearts of those who speak the words of Confession. He does not know if they mean what they say. However, based on the confession he hears from their mouths, He absolves them in God’s name – remember, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” and “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The pastor does this, because whether or not someone believes the words they confess – that they there are sinners deserving hell, it is true. Whether or not someone believes the words of Absolution – that their sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is true. These are just as true as the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Whether or not someone believes that it is true does not change the reality of it.

Speaking the words of Absolution is nothing other than speaking the Gospel. Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. If someone does not believe it, they get no benefit of it being true, but it still remains true.

Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. This remains true even for those who do not believe it. Everyone’s every sin was paid by Jesus. If you reject His forgiveness then you do not have it and will go to hell, but His offer for forgiveness remains. His death in your place remains true.

So who then has their sins retained? Those who confess that they are not sinful. Those who confess that their sin requires no forgiveness. Those who refuse to turn away from their sin and want to stubbornly remain in sin. Those have their sins retained who do not confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Even for such people, however, there is hope. There is hope that they will still come to realize their sin and turn away from it. There is hope that they will hear God’s Law which condemns their sin so that they would fear God’s righteous punishment and repent. There is hope that they will hear the sweet words of the Gospel that Jesus has paid the price of their sins and believe.

For those who struggle to believe that some sin from their past is forgiven, private Confession and Absolution is offered. Private Confession and Absolution is offered so that the burden of sin can be unloaded on Jesus who has already carried that sin on the cross. Private Confession and Absolution is offered so that those who struggle with sin can be strengthened in their fight with sin by hearing it specifically absolved from the mouth of the pastor as from Christ Himself, since He is the one who sends His minsters saying, “He who hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16)

Absolution heard in private is the exact same Absolution heard in public in the Divine Service. It is not because of the length or detail of Confession that sins are absolved. The Absolution is the same, whether you spend an hour tormenting yourself to confess every detail of every sin to God that you can remember, or if you merely say as we did this morning, “Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.”

Absolution is the same, because Absolution is the Gospel. Absolution is the good news that because of Jesus’ death for your sins, you are forgiven. Absolution is the good news that because of Jesus’ death for you, you have eternal life. Absolution is the word of Christ Himself which forgives your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

The Heavenly Courtroom

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter based on John 14:15-21

Dear defendants in the heavenly courtroom: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you are charged with a crime, the best thing you can do to escape punishment is to hire a team of lawyers to represent you. They know the ins and outs of the law. They know when to speak and when to be quiet. They know the best way to get you off the hook for what you’ve done.

On your own, without a team of legal counsellors, you would probably have the tendency to respond to the accusations of the law by saying, “It’s not my fault,” and trying to shift blame, thus perjuring yourself. You might also try to excuse what you’ve done wrong, seeking to justify it, thus incriminating yourself.

It’s best to have the counsellors do the talking for you. It’s best to have the counsellors deal with the prosecution’s discovery evidence and witness testimony that incriminates you.

Jesus promised that God the Father will send us another Helper or Counsellor. One way of looking at it when picturing the heavenly courtroom, is to think of the Holy Spirit as our legal counsellor representing us. And He’s not the only one. Jesus says “another” counsellor, indicating that there is more than one. And indeed, Jesus Himself is also in the heavenly courtroom representing us as our mediator and advocate. We have a team of lawyers defending us in the heavenly courtroom.

Without our counsellors, we would have the tendency to respond to the accusations of the law by saying, “It’s not my fault,” and trying to shift blame, thus perjuring ourselves. We would also try to excuse what we’ve done wrong, seeking to justify it, thus incriminating ourselves. On our own we would only make matters worse and dig ourselves into a bigger hole.

God’s Law accuses us. Jesus Himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you love God, you will keep His Commandments. Every single one. The Law thus tells us that we do not love God. We do not love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. Responding with “It’s not my fault” won’t cut it. Making excuses won’t get us off the hook.

It’s not just some prosecution investigators trying to find dirt on us or human eyewitness testimony that is presented for evidence. It is God Himself who accuses us and presents His evidence. He who sees the actions of all, hears the words of all, and knows the thoughts and hearts of all gives testimony against us. Every sin of thought, word, and deed is known to Him, including those sins of which even we are not aware.

This too, is where our counsellors come in. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning sin (John 16:8). This means He convicts you of sin. He opens your eyes to how you have not kept God’s Commandments. He convicts you of the fact that you have not loved God with all your heart, soul, and mind, or your neighbour as yourself. Even though He is your counsellor and representing you, He’s telling you to fess up. Confess what you’ve done. Confess your sins.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t tell you to do this so that you will be found guilty in the heavenly courtroom. In fact, that is how you get off in the heavenly courtroom. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

The way to be found guilty in the heavenly courtroom is to deny your sin; to make excuses for your sin. Saying that you love God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself is deceiving yourself. It’s being blind to the times you have had your priorities skewed, your own selfish interests at heart, and ignored the needs of your neighbour.

But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That’s how the heavenly courtroom works. It’s not about having your counsellors argue what a good member of society you are or listing the good that you have done. It’s not making excuses or pointing fingers at others. It’s about confessing your sins. Confessing what you have done wrong, without excuse. It’s about admitting guilt.

Then you are pronounced innocent, as Jesus, your mediator and advocate stands up for you because His blood has covered your sins and transgressions. He has already paid the price of your sins. He has already been found guilty of your sins and been punished for them. There’s no more punishment to come from the Judge. The legal demands of the Law have been met on your behalf by Jesus, and your punishment has been taken and paid by Jesus. You will be declared innocent.

You know that on Judgment Day you will be declared innocent, because you have a preview of Judgment Day every Sunday. Every Sunday in Divine Service you hear God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin. Every Sunday in Divine Service you confess your sin and admit your guilt. Every Sunday in Divine Service you are declared innocent and free from sin, as you are absolved in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with you Himself, because it is He who has commanded your pastor to absolve you in His name. The Judge Himself has declared you forgiven and pardoned through His representative, thus you have already been judged.

Legally, you cannot be charged for an offence a second time. In American and Canadian law, this is called double jeopardy. No person shall be subject for the same offence to be twice put into jeopardy of life or limb. You cannot be again tried for something of which you have been acquitted. Since you have been declared forgiven and pardoned, you cannot be tried for them again. You cannot be charged with them again.

Jesus was charged with all your sins and found guilty. You walk away scot free because you have confessed your sins, and your counsellors have spoken on your behalf. You’ve been declared forgiven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

The Marks of the Church: The Use of the Office of the Keys

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Dear members of the Christian church: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you know that you have found a Christian church? There are all kinds of places around that call themselves Christian, and there are all kinds of places around that call themselves church. The question is that if you walk into any given church, how do you know if that place is a Christian church?

There are all kinds of reasons why people are in any given church. Perhaps your parents attended there so you grew up attending there. Maybe you married someone who is a member there. Sometimes, simply the location of the building or the worship times are what make it convenient and that is why some people attend. Sometimes, people look for a church with lots of children or youth, skilled musicians, or a charismatic preacher. None of these things, however, really tell us whether the church is a Christian church or not.

So what does? That is the topic of our midweek Lenten services this year. It is not a new question, and our seven-part sermon series is based on Martin Luther’s answer to this question. Luther identifies seven marks of the Christian church based on Scripture and points us to look for these identifiers in answering this question.

The first mark of the Christian church that we will examine is the use of the Office of the Keys. As we know from the Small Catechism, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”

The Office of the Keys has two sides to it, or two keys: forgiveness for the repentant sinner and the withholding of forgiveness from the unrepentant sinner.

The need for the forgiveness of sins is perhaps the more understandable of the two. The Christian church is Christ’s holy people. How are people made holy? By the Holy Spirit giving the forgiveness of sins which Christ has purchased for us. Without the forgiveness of sins, we cannot be holy. Thus, if a church is not forgiving sins, it is not and cannot be a Christian church. Therefore, it is a sure and certain mark of the Christian church that the forgiveness of sins is there given.

Christ says to His Church, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19) Christ tells the ministers of His Church, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23), and “He who hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16)

Christ sends ministers of His Word to speak on His behalf. The Absolution spoken by a pastor is not his own. As a man, a pastor cannot forgive sin. However, in his Office, having been called by the congregation to exercise the Office of the Keys – and thus being called by Christ Himself – his absolution is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

If a king sends a messenger to announce to a colony that has rebelled that they are forgiven their rebellion, the pardon announced is valid not because of the messenger, but because of the king who sent the messenger. So also, the called ministers of God speak God’s message of forgiveness, and this Absolution is valid and certain because the message is from God.

We know also from the passages we heard earlier from Matthew 16 and John 20, that Christ commands that unrepentant sinners have forgiveness withheld from them. This is the second key. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” and “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”

We tend to view discipline in a negative light. However, we should not. Discipline is not a bad thing, but rather a good thing. After all, we believe disciplining children is good for them. Scripture tells us that when God disciplines us, He is treating us as His sons, and if we are left without discipline, we are illegitimate children and not sons. The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives (Heb. 12:5-11). God disciplines His sons to keep them from falling away from the faith, and that is also why God calls on the church to discipline those who are wandering – so that they will return to God from their wandering ways. The Christian church is also to discipline those who have fallen away from the faith so that they would realize their fall, repent, and return to the faith.

Thus, it is a mark of the church that sin is rebuked and not tolerated. Open sinners are disciplined so that they would turn away from their sin and receive Absolution. Those who harden their hearts and refuse to turn away from sin are to have their sins bound so long as they do not repent. Nevertheless, should they at any time repent, they will never be refused forgiveness and the loosing of their sins.

Luther concludes, “Wherever you see that sin is forgiven or rebuked in many people, be it publicly or privately, know that God’s people is there. For where God’s Christian holy people is not, there the keys are not. And where the keys are not, there God’s Christian holy people is not.”

Christ has given to His church the Office of the Keys, by which the Holy Spirit makes fallen sinners holy. Those who fall into sin are to be restored again through repentance.

The Christian church thus also offers private absolution to everyone who desires to make use of it. Public Absolution in the Divine Service gives forgiveness of sins to everyone who hears it. However, for those who struggle with particular sins for which they want to receive Absolution, or for those who want to hear a personal word of comfort, private Absolution is offered to give that comfort in the forgiveness of sins.

It is important that you do not mistake struggling with sin as unrepentance. Struggling with sin is not the same as being unrepentant. Struggling with sin is a sign that the Holy Spirit is working in you. Struggling with sin shows that you do not want to do the sins that your sinful flesh craves. Struggling with sin shows that God is working repentance in your heart to turn you away from sin.

Our struggle with sin will not cease in this life. Our struggle with sin ends when we give in and let sin rule over us, in which case we have fallen away from the faith, or our struggle ends when we die from this life and God takes us to be with Him in eternity where there is no more sin, so there is not more struggle with sin.

To help us in our struggle with sin, Christ has given to His church the Office of the Keys. Unrepentant sinners are urged to struggle against sin and receive forgiveness, and repentant sinners who are struggling with their sins are absolved and given Christ’s true body and blood which strengthens them in their fight against sin and gives them the forgiveness of sin.

Where the Office of the Keys is found, there the Christian church is found because there God leads sinners to repentance and gives the forgiveness of sins. Where the Office of the Keys is used, there the Holy Spirit is working to make people holy. Where the Office of the Keys is, there you should be, because there is a Christian church. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).