Forgiveness, Faith and the Field

Text: Luke 17:1-10
Date: Pentecost XIX + Proper 22 + 10/3/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

In this section of St. Luke’s Gospel we have heard Jesus addressing various groups of individuals; “the disciples” are all His followers numbering in front of Him at least eighty-plus; “the Pharisees” who were listening in and received Jesus’ special attention, and now, today, He has some words specifically for the Twelve, “the apostles” who were to be the official witnesses of His coming death and resurrection, a few of whom were to write portions of what would become the New Testament of the Bible, and all of whom were to form the foundation of the teaching and preaching ministry of the Word and Sacraments for the Christian Church of all times and places throughout the world.

The apostles, and therefore pastors and ministers of all times, and, by extension, every Christian to some extent is to embody the presence and salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ as we are all commanded to dispense forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ’s reconciliation of the world to God. The three apostolic functions of the Church include Absolution, that is the forgiveness of sins, the gift and increase of faith through the ministry of the Word, and suffering for the sake of the faith under the cross while we are about the harvest in the field. Forgiveness, Faith and Suffering and Service in the field are the issues in today’s Gospel.

Forgiveness. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” In commissioning the twelve apostles at a later time Jesus would say, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any it is withheld” (Jn. 20:22-23). And in so saying our Lord established what we call the Office of the Keys, the authorization to proclaim, apply and dispense Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of sins He had won and obtained by His sacrificial, vicarious death on the cross. This is the heart, the cornerstone of the ministry of the Church and the service of every Christian, proclaiming the release, the forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ’s reconciliation of the world to God through His death and resurrection.

You know the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran understanding of confession and absolution? It’s not just the Roman Catholic emphasis on doing certain good works to atone for the sin. It is the Roman Catholic idea that you can be forgiven only for those sins you confess. And since no one is fully able to recall every little sin, much or little remains unforgiven. In other words the Roman Catholic emphasis in confession and absolution is on the confession of sins, whereas the Lutheran, the evangelical, Biblical, Gospel emphasis is on the forgiveness. “Do you believe that the forgiveness I speak is not my forgiveness but God’s?” asks the pastor. “Yes,” says the penitent. “Let it be done for you as you believe. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “Amen.” “Go in peace.” And so these words authorized by Jesus Christ grant release from the guilt and the punishment of God by the power of the blood of Jesus shed upon the cross. And this forgiveness is also applied privately by and among all Christians. So we pray daily, “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness of sins is the heart and cornerstone of the Gospel.

All of you can imagine if not actually recall an individual that, for some reason, you just can’t bring yourself to forgive. This is the same thing the apostles were thinking when they asked Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They were right, of course, in the sense that it is going to be only by faith in Jesus’ gift of release by His death that anyone can actually forgive another their sins. And it is true that the apostles did not have this complete sort of faith yet as Jesus’ death and resurrection had not yet come to pass. But it did. Christ has died and Christ is risen. He breathed on His apostles and sent them to dispense the release and forgiveness His atonement has won, and so also He sends you. And it is an act of faith. Jesus’ answer, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” etc., means to encourage them, telling them, in essence, that, even though they don’t yet realize it, they already do have enough faith to do miraculous things. And what’s more miraculous, after all, transplanting a mulberry tree or granting someone the gift of full and free forgiveness and release from sin?

Jesus ends this part of His instruction by addressing His apostles, His ministers, as servants, plowing the field and keeping sheep. These words describe the pastoral ministry and the caring ministry of every Christian and the whole Church as bringing the Gospel for the conversion of unbelievers in the field of the world and the keeping of their brothers and sisters in the faith safe in the sheepfold of the Church. Above all these words proclaim Jesus Himself as the Savior and Good Shepherd.

It cannot be otherwise. For the apostles’ ministry, the ministry of the Church, and your service is above all for the purpose of bringing the release from the bondage of sin and the salvation of Christ to all people and the whole world in His name. In a mysterious way Jesus describes the goal of His work as well as the work of His Church in terms of a servant preparing a supper and dressing properly.

When His fieldwork was done He commanded His apostles to prepare the Passover supper for Him (Lk. 22:8, 13). Yet it was, after all, Jesus Himself who became the Suffering Servant, fulfilling all that was written about Him in Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. He would be and is the Servant who was “dressed” properly, not as for a banquet but as a Victim and sacrificial lamb to be killed and drained of His lifeblood for the life of the world. So He transformed the Passover Supper for His apostles, or, rather, fulfilled it, taking the role of a slave by washing their feet, and then instituting the Sacrament telling them, as St. Paul said it, “As often as we eat this [eucharistic] bread and drink this cup [of the Lord’s blood] you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). For “this is my body,” “this is the new testament in my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26; Mk. 14; Lk. 22; 1 Cor. 11).

So here is the nourishment by which faith is strengthened to do its miraculous work of grasping the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation that God holds out and offers to His whole world. So now, according to these commands given the apostles, the supper has here been prepared for you whereby you become not only what you eat but you become in a sense Who you eat, that is, Christ’s body, His new flesh and blood, His voice to proclaim release, salvation and forgiveness, His hands to bring the healing touch of His forgiveness to every corner of the world today. May we all continue in this faith, following the pattern of the sound words we have heard in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13).