Based On: Mark 15:37
Tonight let us look at Mark chapter 15, verse 37. “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” It was finally over. After hours of pain, torture and the shedding of much blood it finally ended. Christ was dead and our sins were paid for. It was Christ’s suffering and his last breath that won forgiveness for our sins.
The Bible mentions Jesus’ breath one other time. That was on the third day after his death on the cross. In the evening of that first Easter Jesus came to the disciples while they were in that locked room and the Bible says, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
The two events are intimately connected. On Good Friday Jesus died on the cross and paid the price for every sin that anyone has ever or will ever commit. On Easter Sunday Jesus tells his disciples, and therefore he tells the church, that they have the power to forgive or withhold forgiveness for sins.
This is nothing less than the keys to the kingdom of heaven. If you forgive someone their sins they will go to heaven. If their sins are not forgiven, they will go to hell. The door to heaven is either unlocked or locked. As we continue our Lenten series we focus on these “Keys” and on Confession – the fifth and perhaps least known part of Luther’s Small Catechism.
We use these “keys” to unlock the door to heaven when we comfort a sinner’s guilty conscience. A fellow believer repents – he admits his sin and desires to avoid that sin in the future. We want to lift the burden of guilt from his heart so he is not tempted to despair. Just as the Apostle Paul said concerning a man who repented of his sin, “You ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
Out of love for their soul we announce their forgiveness and when we tell them they are forgiven it is just as true as if Jesus Christ were here in plain view to say the same thing.
Isn’t this the same comfort we want – the assurance that in spite of our sins the door of heaven stands open before us? We receive this comfort in Confession. Through confession we admit that we have sinned and the keys are used on our behalf to assure us of our forgiveness.
Every week when we start our worship service we admit, “I am by nature sinful, and . . . I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions.” The pastor then announces by Christ’s authority our sins are forgiven. This is Confession.
Confession can also be done privately – reading the promises of forgiveness in God’s Word – or with a fellow Christian, but it can also be done privately with the pastor.
Perhaps we don’t often think of going to the pastor privately, but it is especially comforting to confess a particular sin troubling us. And what would pastor say about our sin? “How horrible!”? No! But as Luther describes in the Small Catechism he would say, “By the authority of Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
How comforting it is to hear those words spoken directly and personally to you. But how often do we take advantage of this wonderful gift? We prefer to keep our guilt bottled up inside of us or perhaps we don’t think of our pastor as God’s representative called by this church.
Even when we neglect God’s gifts, we confess, we receive forgiveness, and we remember that Christ also died for this sin.
Sometimes a sinner is not repentant and is not willing to confess. It would be offensive to God and unloving to our neighbor if we forgive him when he is not repentant. In this case he does not need comfort, but a warning. Withholding forgiveness communicates a stern warning to the unrepentant sinner. He is outside of the church, outside of the fellowship of believers and God’s wrath is on him.
For indeed, when the church tells someone his sins are not forgiven it is the same as if Christ himself delivered that grave message. That is exactly what Christ was doing to the Pharisees when he said, among other things, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”
Jesus loved them just as he loves us. He died for them just as he died for us and Jesus wanted the Pharisees to know how they separated themselves from God by their sin. When we sin and do not repent, we want that warning that we have ruined our relationship with God. We want the believers in the church to work to bring us back to a right relationship with God.
With a breath Christ died and our sins were paid for. Also with a breath Christ gave his church the power to forgive and to not forgive sins. We lovingly use this authority to comfort troubled hearts and warn the hard heart so that the body of believers is preserved in Christ. And as we use these keys to the kingdom of heaven we confess with Luther, “I believe that when this is done, it is as valid and certain in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.”