“…Jesus seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy, ‘Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.’ ”
As important as this is in the case of jurisprudence, and as trivial in the case of sports, it is of ultimate importance in religion. I have often wondered why people who know that doctors are the experts in medicine, lawyers are the experts in law, and plumbers the experts in plumbing (or so we hope), have decided that they know as much as the most godly and learned clergy; and, with or without learning- usually without- appear to be convinced that on the subject of God and salvation, they have it all figured out. It is amazing to me that people can read the Bible, read it faithfully, and yet see in it things that are not there, often failing to see what is there. Of course, this only proves the point that the Bible is impossible to understand without the Holy Spirit and His revelation in the Church by its Tradition which has been handed down since the times of the apostles. It was never meant to be separate from the Church, never meant to stand alone as sola scriptura over against the Church, but instead as simply the scripture of the Church. It is the Word of God that “contains all things necessary for salvation;” but not by itself alone, because the Bible has never existed alone and was never meant to be taken away from the Church within which it was written and compiled, expressing from the earliest times the same teaching that we find in sacred Tradition.
I say all of this because if we assume that an individual can understand the Bible without the input of the early generations of Christians down through the ages, we can be misled by sincere but erroneous assumptions. Were we to ask about today’s Gospel, many sincere Christians would demonstrate early on that the people they agree with, in this story, are the enemies of Christ who wanted to kill Him. I say this, because quite often I have heard from sincere Christians the refrain spoken by the Pharisees, as Luke and Mark both tell us in their account of the same event: "But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?”
I am not saying that these Christians are hypocrites like the Pharisees. I think they are honest, and that they believe that their notion is in the Bible. In fact it is in the Bible. The problem is, the doctrine that only God can forgive sins, and that men cannot forgive sins, is expressed by the enemies of Jesus Christ, and only by them. In the Bible, yes, but look who says it. Many times I have heard such people tell me, “the Bible does not say that I should confess my sins to a priest, but only to God.” They are sure that the Bible says this, somewhere. If pressed, they produce a verse in the First Epistle of John, chapter One, verse Nine, about confessing sins, a verse that simply does not say that confession is made only to God. They add that part in their minds. Taken within the context of the whole Bible, it probably cannot be reduced to what they say. The whole Biblical picture of Confession involves men as God’s instruments, because it comes from the Book of Leviticus.
In the laws about Kippur- atonement- the penitent Israelite is instructed to take a sacrifice, confess his sins and ask the priest to make atonement. In the New Testament, we learn that all of the sacrifices were types and shadows of the One True sacrifice when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins. So, the blood of the sacrifices was shed in the Old Testament to announce that the real atonement was yet to come. And, now, we have an altar- and the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us this is an altar that we have, not simply a table- and since it is an altar what we do here is indeed a sacrifice (because that’s what altars are for). But, our sacrifice does not involve killing and the shedding of blood. Because, just as Old Testament sacrifices showed that the true atonement was going to be made, our sacrifice on our altar shows that the true sacrifice has now been made by the One Whose blood is the real atonement for all sin, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
Without an altar we could only give an abstract teaching. With an altar of sacrifice, our Eucharist is joined to the death of Christ, just as the elements themselves are joined to the One Who said “this is My Body…this is My Blood.” And, in answer to our friends who don’t see what is there in scripture, and somehow manage to see what is not there, let us take Jesus Christ at His word. He did not say it was a symbol, so let’s not see mere symbolism where we are told to see reality. He said that it is His Body and Blood, just as Saint Paul also said when writing to the Corinthians. So, let’s see what really is in scripture. This is His Body, this is His Blood, and it is the One True sacrifice that was once for all offered on the cross to which our Eucharist joins us, to which it becomes a part, transcending time and place.
Getting back to confession, the only picture that the ancient Jews had of Confession involved the ministry of select men, the Kohanim, that is, the priests. So, in the Epistle of James we are instructed to confess to those who will pray for us. Look at today’s Gospel. The Pharisees said that only God can forgive sins, but the people rejoiced that God had given such power unto men. They did not know, as yet, that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. But, they saw in Him the compassion of God as it was demonstrated in power. The healing of the man who had once been paralyzed, showed that Christ’s word of absolution- “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee”- was no empty promise, but a true word with power. God does not deal with us as our sins deserve, and here He proved it by healing instead of striking the man dead. His messenger brought healing, and thereby proved that when he forgives sins, His forgiveness is the mercy of God Himself.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The answer is, Jesus could forgive sins because He is God.” True, very true. But, says Saint Matthew when writing down this report of what he had witnessed, the people “marveled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.” And, the people got it right, while the Pharisees got it wrong, and, unfortunately, as many well meaning Christians still get it wrong. They could not rejoice with the people at the idea that God has given this power of absolution to men. In the Book of Common Prayer, when a priest is ordained, the Bishop, as part of the Ordination Rite, along with the laying on of hands, repeats the words of Jesus Christ that come from the Twentieth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John:
In the ordinal these words are repeated. I remember all those years ago when Bishop Joel Johnson laid his hands on my head and said the words in the Ordinal: “Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” I was aware of the line of Bishops stretching back to the very first Apostles, to whom the words of Ordination by the Risen Christ first were spoken. And I was aware too, that through this line, as it came forward in time, it truly was Jesus Christ Himself who was speaking these words to me through His Apostolic representive. I was aware too of the power of the Holy Spirit creating a change within me, a supernatural reality that I could feel.
The continuation of the sacramental ministry through the priesthood is a means of grace, an extension of the ministry of Jesus Christ Himself, for your benefit.
A while back, a seemingly sincere fellow was trying to debate with the Catholic Tradition that has always been a part of our Anglican understanding of what the Church is. I quoted this passage from the Gospel of John. I asked, in all sincerity, “who, in your church, by its professed beliefs, has the power to forgive sins? If the answer is ‘no one’ then how can you believe that you are in the same Church that Christ established?” We, Anglicans, have always known that this power resides in the priesthood through the Apostolic Succession. It is, if you will not be afraid, a gift from God, the blessed assurance through a sacrament that God has forgiven you, a gift of His love, made possible only because Jesus Christ died for you. Understand, He died for you- the great act of love that He means for you to take personally. And, he means for your conscience to be clear, for your hope to be firm, and your joy to be full.
Because the Word was made flesh, because Jesus Christ was revealed to be God come to us in the flesh, nothing remains the same as it was. He commits His entire ministry to His people, and His priestly ministry specifically to ordained men, as an extension in the earth even now of His Incarnation. All of the sacraments extend to us His Incarnation as the One we hear, see and touch. Another thing some people think they see in the Bible is the idea that the Church will be taken away to some heavenly place before the end of history leaving everyone else behind. They fail to see that Jesus promised to raise the dead who believe in Him on the Last Day, and not even so much as one day before that Last Day. So it must be in order for God’s will to be complete. For, the Church continues as the extension of the Incarnation where the risen Christ is present in the earth among fallen humanity. The Church does not only proclaim salvation; the Church actually administers salvation by the Word and Sacraments that Christ Himself works within her.
One of those sacraments is Absolution.