Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Blessed Sacrament Lutheran Church, Hayden, Idaho
October 10, 2021
Text: Matt. 9:1-8
Which is easier to say? “Your sins are forgiven?” Or, “Rise and walk?” On the face of it, of course, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because there is no visible test this side of Judgment Day whether the words have been effective. But to say, “Rise and walk,” well… Either the man will get up and walk, or he won’t, and then we’ll all know whether Jesus has such authority.
But in reality, in terms of words actually accomplishing what they say, it is much easier to say, “Rise and walk,” than “Your sins are forgiven.” Doctors apply remedies to physical afflictions all the time, and that skillful application often (though certainly not always) results in the bedridden arising and walking. We Christians recognize God behind the medicine and the doctor’s skill, and even unbelievers will often call it a “miracle” when extreme illness or injury is cured, or at least mitigated, by medical treatment. But the fact remains, what we see is a mere human being, perhaps not even a Christian, saying to someone previously rendered immobile, “Rise and walk,” and that is just what they do.
But only God can forgive sins. The scribes are on to something when they say, “This man is blaspheming” (Matt. 9:3; ESV). They are wrong, of course, but only because they do not recognize who Jesus is. If Jesus is a mere man, like a medical doctor, He has no business forgiving sins! And to claim such authority for Himself is to claim that He is God. Blasphemy for any rabbi to claim of himself, no matter how pious and great a theologian he may be.
“‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic – ‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home” (vv. 6-7).
Authority. This is the nature and purpose of the miracles. They show Jesus’ authority. They are a demonstration of who He is, and what He has come to do. Who are You to forgive sins? “I’ll show you,” says Jesus. “I am the Creator come to heal my creation of its brokenness. I am come to restore fallen sinners, broken people, paralyzed by their iniquities, dead in their transgressions. I come to forgive. I come to enliven. I come to heal and to save.”
Now, unlike a medical doctor, in the case of this miracle, our Great Physician, Jesus, does not do His healing work by means of herbal or chemical prescriptions and physical therapies administered over time. No. He speaks His authoritative Word. He gives a command. And the cure is immediate and comprehensive. The man gets up, and not only walks, but picks up his bed! So what is the only conclusion to be drawn? This is a miracle! Only God could do such a thing! Therefore, this man must be God. And if He is God, not only can He miraculously heal paralytics, He can forgive sins.
And which is the greater miracle? It is the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus begins by treating the foremost need. “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (v. 2). Paralysis is just a symptom. Sin is the disease. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul reminds us (Rom. 6:23). All illness, all affliction, and all injury, be it physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, is an indication of, a prelude to, death. You may treat the illness, affliction, or injury, and you should. Jesus does, after all, heal the paralytic. But in the end, you’ll still die. To save you from death, and that is to say, spiritual death, eternal death in hell, never mind physical death, Jesus must treat the mortal disease: Sin. And that is what He does with the medicine of His Absolution. “Your sins are forgiven.”
I often use this same distinction between disease and symptoms to illustrate the difference between original sin and actual sins. This is a common catechetical device. Original sin is the disease passed from generation to generation. We inherit it from our fathers going back to Adam in the Garden. This is why newborns and even babies in the womb are in need of Jesus’ forgiveness, even before they have an opportunity to actually sin. Actual sins, the actual bad things we do against God’s Commandments (sins of commission), and the actual good things God commands that we neglect or fail to do (sins of omission), are the symptoms of the disease, which is original sin. This is where so much of Evangelical Christianity goes off the rails. You can go to an Evangelical Church (which is a misnomer, because it is anything BUT evangelical, anything BUT Gospel-centered), and you will probably hear a sermon about how to combat some actual sin that is plaguing your life. Now, understand, you should combat any actual sin that is plaguing your life. Of course you should. Actual sins are bad. They hurt you. You should strive against them, and not do them. But you have to understand, such actual sins are but symptoms of the fatal disease called original sin. And unless you treat the this fatal disease, no matter how successful you may be at eradicating the symptoms, they will come back again in one form or another. If I have a brain tumor, I will most probably have a headache. And it is fine and good to take Tylenol for that headache. But I would be dead wrong if I thought that by taking Tylenol for my headache, I had in any measure successfully treated the disease. And if I don’t treat the disease, the headache will be back, and more seriously, I will die. There is only one medicine that will cure the disease of original sin, which is the cause of all actual sins. And that medicine is not your striving and effort. That works about as well as the paralytic trying really hard by his own efforts to get up, pick up his bed, and walk home. The medicine is Jesus. The medicine is His Holy Absolution. Take heart. Your sins are forgiven.
They are forgiven, because Jesus, who is God, and therefore has the authority to do so, has taken them away. He has taken them into Himself, all your sin, original and actual, your very death, and all the afflictions that are death’s indications. And He suffers it all, and for it all, for you, in His Body on the cross, where He puts it to death in Himself. He buries it all in His tomb. This is why the medicine of the Absolution, Jesus’ Word of forgiveness, is effective. Jesus Himself is the active ingredient in it. He pulls the disease out of you, sucks out the poison of sin and its guilt and shame, and ingests it, and bears it away to His cross and death. But that’s not all! Now He is risen from the dead (though your sins and afflictions will never rise), and now by the same medicine of His Absolution, administered in Baptism, and Gospel preaching, the Office of the Keys, and the Lord’s Supper, He infuses His resurrection life into you. So that you rise. He raises you. By His authoritative Word. “Rise and walk.” In your hearing of this Gospel, He addresses these words not only to the paralytic, but to you! You have been raised from the dead… by faith, even now. You have eternal life, even now. And you are given to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
And so, having been cured of the disease, what happens with the symptoms? Well, in one sense, and it is the most important sense, they are taken care of, too. That is, your sins are forgiven. Not only original sin, the disease, but all actual sins, the symptoms. And what Jesus has done for you spiritually already, He will do bodily, on that Day when He comes again in glory.
But in another sense, there are still the vestiges of the symptoms on this side of that great Day. That is, Old Adam is always struggling to pop his head up above the baptismal waters. You still sin, actual sins of commission and omission. And though you are forgiven, it is a daily struggle. Daily repentance. Daily emerging and arising to live before God in righteousness and purity. Simul iustus et peccator. At the same time righteous and sinner. Jesus didn’t only say, “Rise.” He said, “Take up your bed and carry it until you get home.” It is a burden. But it is a burden always borne in the faith and knowledge that the disease has been cured, your sins are forgiven, and it is Jesus’ life that enlivens you to carry it until you see Him face to face, as He welcomes you into that place where all your burdens are cast away forever, and you are finally home with your Savior.
And we do still get sick and suffer afflictions in this life, and these, too, are vestiges of the symptoms. Now, when we do suffer in this way, our friends often bring us to Jesus for His help and healing. That is, our brothers and sisters in Christ, pray for us, and Jesus hears their prayers, and answers. We often take it for granted that, in most cases, when we are hurt or sick, we get better, we overcome. But we forget that when we do, when we get over a cold, or COVID, or cancer, or a hangnail, even when this is accomplished by the intervention of modern medicine, it is the same Lord Jesus who healed the paralytic, who also speaks us well.
And the medicine we need above all else when we are ill or injured, as in our daily life of repentance and struggle against sin, is the Absolution spoken by Christ, “Your sins are forgiven.” This is why you call your pastor when you are in the hospital, and want him to come to your bedside when you are sick, or hurt, or dying. When you think about it, by any worldly standard, it is a rather ridiculous thing to call your pastor in a medical emergency. What is he supposed to do about it? He will only get in the way. That is why, with almost no scruples, nearly every hospital, nursing home, and care facility immediately banned clergy visitation at the beginning of this pandemic, and even now, the door is only open for us a crack. But you know what the world in general, and the medical profession in particular, has forgotten. What you need most in a time of crisis is the forgiveness of sins. That is why God has given you a pastor, to speak, not his own forgiveness (for no one can forgive sins but God alone), but the very forgiveness of Jesus Christ. That is the most important thing. When the paralytic was brought to Jesus, He didn’t immediately tell him to rise and walk. No, the first thing He said, the first order of business, as a matter of first importance, was “Your sins are forgiven.” Now, disease cured, He moves on to the symptom presented, thus curing the paralysis.
The forgiveness of sins, the curing of the disease, will always lead to the healing of the symptoms, from paralysis to cancer to hangnails. Always. Oh, it may first lead through the valley of the shadow of death. But you know where the true and perfect healing will be manifest. There is, of course, heaven, where your soul will be with Jesus, and you will no longer suffer. But I’m not even talking about that. No, I’m talking about the Day when Jesus comes to you at the cemetery, and because He has already, here and now, declared to you, “Your sins are forgiven,” He will bend down over your coffin and say to you, “Rise and walk!” “Live!” And He will take your hand and pull you out of the grave. So that you do just that!
Which is easier to say? “Your sins are forgiven?” Or, “Rise and walk.” Jesus says both. And He has all the authority to do it. Because He is the Son of God. He died for you. And He is risen from the dead. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.