Power to Forgive
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for 19th Sunday after Trinity, October 10, 2021
“But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house.”
WHO IS IT that you would happily send away forever? If you had a magic button marked “Sent To Hell,” is there someone you would push it for? Are you so damaged by other sins against you that you’ll happily be the one to push them off the cliff? Even in your mind? in your heart? The rope by which they hang over the abyss is in your hand: will you pull it up, or let it drop? Who do you represent by judging forever anyone’s eternal soul?
“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” Mat 7:1 is a much-misused verse of scripture. If we see a crime against morals, and we cite it as such, we may hear Jesus’ words accusing us of judging, but that’s not what He meant. We are certainly to call a sin a sin, a wrong a wrong, a crime a crime. What we are not to do is declare any soul damned forever. We may accuse another of wrongdoing, but that accusation can always swing back around and catch us in the act. This finger-pointing can go too far.
You might wonder about St. Paul, hearing today’s Epistle. “Walk not as other Gentiles walk… understanding darkened, alienated from God through ignorance and blindness of heart, past feeling, given to lasciviousness, unclean, greedy.” But Paul is not talking about anyone specific. He is talking to us. We know the behaviors he means, and we took part in such lives ourselves before now. Degraded lives, hostile paths, selfish traits only dig a hole under our feet. We now walk in the light and resist those old ways. While we hear Paul describe the evils done on earth, I don’t hear him send anyone to hell. As we sum it up, we are to judge the sin, and love the sinner.
But why? Is there no exception? Very evil people have walked the earth in vileness, on the news, in our lives, in our experience. How can we wish them anything but eternal justice? So we feel. Can we enact that justice? Is it ours to declare over even one soul? Do we have the power to damn? Jesus said there is only One who can both kill someone’s body and send that soul to hell, and we are to fear, to hold in awe, that One, who is God Himself. Who is the eternal judge? Not me. Not you. He alone holds the right to send His own creature into a lake of never-ending flames. When we, in our indignation send a soul to the furnace, it’s only the witchcraft practice of cursing. It has some power. It hurts another. It hurts us as well. The final judgment can never be in our hands. And I say, thank God for that.
The Pharisees loved to think they held power to judge and condemn people for their behavior. They made lists of things you could do, and thing you could not. And when they were done making these arbitrary lists, they signed God’s name to them. Jesus grew up among them, and realized they only condemned people eternally. They never saved a soul. They felt their job was only to be sin police, not exemplars of true godliness. What passed for goodness with them was actually bitter, angry, ruthless judgment over others. It was the opposite of Jesus, whose very name means Savior.
One day when He had come back to Capernaum from a trip, He stood inside a house preaching to a growing crowd of excited followers and frowning skeptics. The crowd was too dense for a party carrying a stretcher with their paralyzed friend, so these enterprising guys lifted him up onto the roof, pried back some of the roofing, and lowered him and his bed by ropes to the floor at Jesus’ feet. It was such an effort of love and trust; Jesus was impressed enough to stop preaching and turn to the twisted figure before Him with pity and love. What His eyes told Him was not first the need to correct the palsy, but to relieve the man’s shame and fear that his illness was the result of a sin, some breach between himself and God. Why else would he lie there in such weakness? His only hope was forgiveness from above. Then, perhaps, God would heal his body also. The matter was clearly understood between the palsied man and Jesus. But it was a shock when Jesus actually said it. “Be of good cheer, my friend. Your sins are all forgiven.”
The wave of offense that followed His declaration showed the true sickness that beset everyone living back then. Sin was a matter for God, and in Judaism there was no guarantee that God would forgive any intentional sin. There were no sacrifices in Moses’ laws to set one sin aside. And no one thought the forgiveness we need could come from the lips of another human. Jesus heard the murmurs and felt these dark thoughts: this man blasphemes! He asked them all: “Why do you hold evil thoughts inside your hearts? Which is easier: to say ‘Your sins are all forgiven? Or to say, ‘Rise up and walk? To a man lying like this before you? Which one are you able to say?” A moment passed as He let them consider this question. Forgive sins or heal palsy… they could do neither of them. Who could? It looked like Jesus thought he could do both. But who can forgive sins? Only God. Who does He think He is? The man can’t be forgiven by His simply saying so, right?
Jesus went on. “But so that you will know the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins…” and He let that sink in… “Arise!” he told the crippled man, “take up your bed and walk home.” It was a test of both healings. If Jesus could heal the man of palsy, it was His proof that the power to forgive was His also. A tense moment followed as they all strained to see what would happen. The man’s face lost its twisted visage. His legs straightened. His hands set firmly on the ground and pushed his body up. Calmly he stood on legs now strengthened and he stood erect as any man. And he smiled. The smile was certainly for his physical healing, but clearly, he was also relieved of guilt and shame, the thought that all his calamity was his own fault. No longer would he feel about himself such dark condemnations. His face toward Jesus was full of love and thankfulness. Then in obedience, he stooped down and picked up the stretcher as the crowd made a path for him, and he carried away the very thing that had carried him in the place. As they watched him go, the crowd buzzed with shock and joy. Praise God! They all said. Such power to forgive sins and heal bodies is given by God to men.
This wasn’t an overstatement. Surely, Jesus is God and with Him must be these powers. God can do anything. But it went further than that. The night of Jesus’ Resurrection, the one called Savior greeted His Apostles and said, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” He breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This was not a mere symbol. It was real empowerment. The priesthood He created that night among His closest followers now has God’s authority to declare freedom from sin and guilt. It’s an extension of His mission, for God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to save us from our sins. He did not come to judge us, for we were judged and hell-bound already. He came to set us free. Just that. Freedom from sin. He says the world: not that He came to set some free, to forgive those He likes alone, to die for a few. World means all people of all time, from Eden to Armageddon. All are forgiven. That’s God’s declaration and Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
What then of the evil people on earth? Do they get off scot free? That’s not what Jesus says. There is a day of Judgment. That’s His job. The sins all humans have done on earth are forgiven. They come under the blood of the Lamb. But a new law, a new sign will set the goats over on one side, the sheep on the other. Some will have lamps burning, others will go dark. Some will be taken, and others left. There is certainly a dreadful day of realization, but the realization that separates a portion of humanity from the damned will be based not on the fact of sin, but a decision and the life lived after the choice. Do we live in Him, or stay with the world, the flesh and our accuser? What do we make of Christ? Whose Son is He?
You see, forgiveness of sin is already accomplished. That’s what the Gospel means. God set aside our sins from us, and made a new living way back to Himself. His Son. If we want Him, we may have Him, and all the joy that means. If instead we’re cynical, jaded, angry, and hanging onto our little corner of this planet, wanting harm to befall our enemies, hell to all who have hurt us, then we’ll miss the boat. God’s Son has opened the gates to all who will come to Him. He won’t force anyone’s confession of faith. He won’t make anyone want Him.
So, our unforgiveness only harms ourselves. It’s like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies from it. We have been given a great gift, and the realization that sin no longer cuts the relationship with God, can’t damn us, will not disqualify us from His mercy, this gives us freedom to be merciful toward others as well. They will still meet their Maker and will still stand before Him. Ours is not the power to put them in heaven or hell. But ours is the power to free us and them from the current interlock, that chain that binds us both in pain to the past.
The endless struggle for justice only weighs us down. It may separate us from God for anger at Him for His mercy. King David sang about it, wondering why bad people are having so much fun. Such thoughts take up space in our hearts and minds uselessly. They separate us from God and His truth and mercy, stunt us in our spiritual growth. Vengeance is His. And He will truly repay.
For Christ’s sake, God the Father has forgiven us many, many sins and many errors in our ways. Our business is to get back to Him, and let go of hatred and spite. When we hold another soul in judgment, we judge ourselves too. Let it go. That’s God’s job. May God have mercy on the souls we think aren’t going to make it. It’s okay to say that. It doesn’t make it so. But God likes it when we do as He does, wielding the power of forgiveness to set free the prisoners of guilt and shame who, like ourselves, need above all things, freedom from sin.