This forgiveness Jesus speaks of, the forgiveness he gives us the authority to speak or withhold, is a real thing, a tangible thing, as real as the wounds of Christ, the dead body of Christ, and the resurrected, living body of Christ.
Jesus illustrated this to Thomas. Thomas rejected Jesus’ resurrection. “Until I jam my fingers into the wounds and dig around in them, I won’t believe.” Jesus answered in kind, “Thomas, dig around in my hands. See if they aren’t real.”
Jesus made tangible and touchable what he moments before spoke, “Peace!” This explains why Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, though that’s unnecessary. Jesus can simply give them the Holy Spirit. But he doesn’t, he breathes and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Just as on Pentecost the disciples don’t just begin speaking in tongues. A sound like a wind blows, tongues of fire appear on their heads.
Jesus has no problem making visible that which is invisible. Forgiveness doesn’t have physical weight. You can’t buy a box of it at the store or measure it on a scale. Neither does peace. Yet what do warring nations do when they seek an end to fighting? They sign documents. Neville Chamberlain waved that document after Munich saying, “Peace in our time!”
Jesus makes visible and tangible peace and forgiveness, that refreshing Peter spoke of. Jesus foreshadowed it as he healed. With a deaf and mute man Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears. He spits and touches the man’s tongue. He speaks a word, “Be opened!” With a blind man, Jesus makes mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash. Jesus takes a dead girl’s hand and says, “Get up.” Though Jesus did not need to do those things, he did them. For us and for our salvation.
Go back to the Old Testament for another example. Naaman comes to Elisha with a problem: leprosy. His captured Israelite slave girl says, “This man can help you.” Naaman comes to him, and Elisha says, “Go wash seven times in the Jordan.” Naaman balks at this. “The water’s dirty. I thought this shaman and holy man would do some dance, wave his arms around, chant and sing, or at the very least give me some medicine. But this….” To which Naaman’s servant replies, “If Elisha gave you some arduous task, you would do it. Do this simple thing.” Naaman does; God cleanses his leprosy.
Why? We can’t believe without seeing. Jesus said that to Thomas. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are, by nature, empiricists. We must see and experience. By definition, the Holy Spirit can’t be seen. And when he’s experienced, we’re sometimes left to wonder, “Have I experienced him?” Imagine it in the disciples’ case, if they always had to wonder, “Do we have the Spirit? Was that the Spirit?”
As Jesus said in John 3, the Spirit is like the wind. We can’t catch or trap or see him, only where and when he blows. And feeling and sensation notoriously have their way with us. We feel the Spirit today. Tomorrow we don’t. We’re convinced of God’s forgiveness today. We can’t find it tomorrow. We trust in God now. We wonder about him in tomorrow’s dangers. It is a dangerous thing to thrust ourselves upon our feelings. Not that it’s wrong to have feelings or emotions. We’re human, that’s who we are, that’s what we do, nothing wrong with it. But sin corrupts our feelings and emotions.
So God gives us something to point to: a laying on of hands, a commissioning, an ordaining, an installing. The disciples don’t have to say, “We decided” or “We felt like this was the best thing to do.” They say, “Jesus breathed on us,” “We saw the tongues of fire,” and “Jesus said, ‘I am sending you.’” In those ways, God instituted a ministry, a service, within his Church, a ministry and service with one goal, one task, one job, one effort: to dismiss sins, to forgive sins. This is the continuous, uninterrupted work in which the Church and her ministers, her pastors and teachers, engage: “I forgive you your sins.”
Likewise, for us, God gives us moments to point to, to hold on to. That blind man, that deaf man, those weeping, parents, Naaman, none need wonder if it was coincidence that they got better in Jesus’ presence. Nor do they have to wonder what God intended. He made it clear: “I am fixing, cleansing, and dismissing your problems. I am resurrecting you from the dead.” When God dismisses something, be it sickness or sin, it is dismissed. And we believe it, even though we can’t always “see” it. As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
God gives more. He gives a baptism for forgiveness. He gives a communion for forgiveness. He gives preaching for forgiveness. He gives confession and absolution, the mutual consolation of brethren, a written, spoken, and heard word for forgiveness. We don’t talk about forgiveness, but we give it, distribute it, do it to each other. We confess and absolve, not just counsel or console. We say “I forgive you,” instead of “It’s ok.”
Like Thomas, though, it may not seem enough. He behaves like a petulant child, doesn’t he? “I will never, ever believe these things about Jesus?” Is he mad? Does he feel left out? “I wanna see Jesus too! Gimme Jesus! Whaaaa!”
Jesus did this intentionally. He appeared to the Ten without Thomas. He disappeared for a week. On purpose. Imagine chewing on that. Did Thomas get angrier? Did he spit out “I told you so’s” and “You guys imagined it all!”?
Then Jesus appears with Thomas around. “Do what you wish, Thomas. Dig around inside me.” Within words of rebuke are words of love, just as that same love resides within our words, “I don’t forgive you, I can’t forgive you, you are excommunicated.” We don’t speak those words to destroy souls, but to restore souls. When Jesus talked about forgiving and not forgiving with disciples, he told them that the goal is to win the brother over. We hold on to sins so as to forgive them when God’s law has crushed a soul, not so that we have something to hold over a person, or some pound of flesh satisfaction for us, “Well, at least I can damn him to hell!” Jesus says that’s not forgiven as we’re forgiven; it means we aren’t forgiven.
Oh, but this is hard. The rich man wanted his brothers to see Lazarus risen from the dead. Moses needed to see God’s glory. Thomas had to touch Jesus. But, ironically, when some did at the Transfiguration, it drove them crazy. When Peter saw Jesus miraculously haul in hundreds of fish he begged Jesus to leave. When Isaiah saw the Lord he said, “Woe! I’m unclean! I’m dead!” Be careful what you wish for…
Still, we let anger simmer. Like Thomas we say, “But he doesn’t show himself to me.” We look at the confidence of other Christians, or that warm, fuzzy feeling some describe, or the emotional fervor of some other groups and we find ourselves abandoned and without blessing. “What about me? I wanna see Jesus too! No fair!” Perhaps we’re dissatisfied with what God points us to: words and water and meal.
Yet hear Jesus. He says, “Blessed are you.” He speaks in paradox. In the Sermon on the Mount he said the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the insulted and persecuted are blessed. We say, “No, they’re stepped upon.” God says, “No, they’re blessed. They will get everything.” So too those who don’t see what they expect to see. We expect so much from God: sky writing, a voice whispering in our heads, God talking to me directly, one on one, maybe a vision of heaven, or a saint sharing inside baseball news with me.
He doesn’t do that. Yet he knows we need to see. We have to see. He blesses us. He knows how visual we are. Vestments and architecture work wonders for us. Stained glass moves us. God taps into that, hence water, bread, and wine. Hence he attaches himself to those things through words and says, “Here I am, crucified and risen for you. I forgive you.”
He surrounds us with the God’s voice that points us to “the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ…. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” We haven’t seen Jesus. Two thousand years separate us from his accomplishments. So the Spirit brings Jesus’ water and blood to us, “Touch Jesus. I forgive you.” He brings us the water and blood that poured from Jesus’ side, the water and blood that death couldn’t conquer, the water and blood by which God dismisses your sins as he puts them upon his Son, the water and blood that he makes visible and tangible, and in a miracle of his grace puts this water and blood into hands, my hands, to place onto you, as we do this morning for Jacob Bryant.
He gives us water that does something amazing. It lets us not only say something, but do something. We don’t just say Jacob’s sins are forgiven. We forgive, just as happens when I speak a word of absolution to you, or when I place the body and blood of Christ into your hands in those sacred elements and say, “For you, for forgiveness.” Because Jesus sent me, as he sent the apostles, as the Father sent him, for this purpose: to “forgive, bear with, and help one another.”
It is real. You can see it, and in seeing it believe what you can’t see: that these words are spoken on earth as the voice of God speaks them in heaven. Do not doubt it, believe: I forgive you. God forgives you in Christ, risen from the dead, the sure hope of our forgiveness and resurrection. Amen.