In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Is forgiveness like espresso, or is it like life support? Often, we think of the forgiveness and life that Jesus gives us from His cross as espresso: you might need some when you get worn down and tired; it’s not for everyone; and it’s an acquired taste. If I’m feeling fine, well-awake, and functioning pretty well, I don’t need anything else to help me out. Sometimes, though, when nothing else is working, when I’m exhausted, and when I’m particularly stressed, I might need an espresso to help me get going. More than that, I don’t really need too much of it, or to have it too often, because I feel pretty good afterward.
That fits nicely alongside the idea that our need for God’s grace is like a gas tank. We fill it up on Sunday—well, most Sundays—well, at least once a month—and then we’re good for a while. Daily life drains our tank, and then we need it filled up again. And if we do a self-check of our tank, and it seems to be half-full or more, we feel like we’re good for now. Sure, the car runs on the fuel, but as long as there’s fuel, we’re in the driver’s seat.
But what if that’s not how God’s grace and mercy in Christ work? What if it’s more like life support, which can’t be disconnected without a person taking a quick turn for the worse? Jesus does more than suggest this when He says that He is the vine and we are the branches. How long can a branch be disconnected from the vine before it starts to die? A day? A month? A year? The misconception is that our life is our life, and Jesus’ life is Jesus’ life, and sometimes He gives us that life when we need it.
But if the Scriptures are correct—and they are—then the life that was ours died in Holy Baptism. That’s the end of me and my life. What is life now? It is Jesus. Only Jesus. “For you died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). “With Christ I have been crucified. I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. What I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself over for me” (Galatians 2:20). The branch, in itself, is nothing. It doesn’t live from itself, but from the vine. Christ, now, is my life. He doesn’t just give me life. And whatever is not Christ is not actually life.
So when we want to know where life is, the question we ought to ask is, where is Christ? And you don’t have to look far or too hard. Because He who is the Resurrection and the Life says that He will be present wherever His baptized people are gathered around His forgiving word. As important as it is to read the Scriptures often, to hear the Word of Jesus through His apostles and prophets, consider how many millennia passed without the people having the Scriptures in a book form for them to read at home. When we put all the emphasis on reading the Bible by ourselves, in our homes, we are saying that Jesus, in the last 500 years or so, has completely changed the primary way He gives life to His Body, the Church.
What has Christ’s promise? First, Holy Baptism, as we heard last Wednesday. Christ commands it in Matthew 28, and it runs throughout the New Testament as the way our sinful life is killed and we’re joined to Christ’s resurrection life. Baptism happens once, and then it continues until the resurrection. I am baptized, not I was baptized.
But Christ’s life and peace given in baptism are renewed and continued every time we gather in the baptismal Name. It’s not a coincidence that the Name into which we are baptized is the Name in which we are given Holy Absolution. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, make disciples by baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells His disciples after His resurrection.
Holy Absolution has no less a command than Holy Baptism. “As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever sins you forgive, they have been forgiven. And whatever you retain, they are retained.” Absolution, like Baptism, is a gift given to the Apostles to deliver to Christ’s entire Church. If Absolution goes away, so does Baptism. They are the gifts of the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit to the entire Church until the day He is revealed in glory, and we finally see Him who is our life. Like Nathan forgives David, like the Apostles forgive sinners, so also the Church forgives. It is a gift to the whole Church, but it is delivered according to our vocations: the pastor delivers it publicly to all, as well as individually to each; while each Christian delivers it to those for whom they’ve given responsibility (such as parents to their children—and vice-versa!)
The Absolution is an ongoing gift, a return to Baptism, which is a return to death for our old self and a return to resurrection for our new self in Christ. It is not a different forgiveness or a different Christ, but it is a different means. And Christians do not ask, why does God give us all these different means? Isn’t one enough? Now that I’ve had one of them, why do I need the others? No, a Christian rejoices in the gifts in all their variety and gives thanks to God that He delivers Christ to us with the physical touch of water and the physical hearing of words. Further, He delivers Christ to us in the physical eating and drinking of the Holy Supper.
And so the ongoing life of Christ, who was promised, conceived, born, lived, died, rose, ascended, and is coming again—that same life is ours now. He bridges the gap between His completed work and our lives in the ways that He chooses. This is good news for you and for me. Here He is, delivering to you and sustaining His life in you. His living Word, whether in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, or Holy Supper, is your life because it is nothing less than Himself, the Word made flesh.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/12/17