Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
Ephesians 4:17-32 and Matthew 9:1-7
Jesus said to the paralyzed man, "Stand up, roll up your mat, and go home." The man stood up and went toward his home. At the sight a feeling of awe came over the crowd and they praised God for giving such authority to men.
My friends, the story of the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each one of the three Gospel writers, however, puts his own spin on the story. Matthew's is a bit different than Mark or Luke. The details are different, but the sense of the story is the same in each of them. You are familiar, of course, with the story in Mark and in Luke because these are the places where four men took the man who is lying on his little mat up on the roof of the house, opened the hole in the roof and lowered him with ropes in front of Jesus who then healed him. It would not have been too difficult a thing to do in a house in Palestine at that time because the roof would have made of thatch and mud. Luke, who was not too familiar with the architecture of buildings in that part of the world, had the four men up on the roof tearing off tiles. That would have been quite a project!
Matthew doesn't bother with those little details. He just has the four men bringing the man to Jesus and Jesus says, "Your sins are forgiven." Did that cause a stir! "He's saying, 'Your sins are forgiven.' He's blaspheming. It's God's work to forgive sins." Jesus knew what they were thinking. He could read it in their faces. So He said, "What's easier to say? Your sins are forgiven, or stand up and walk?" (It's pretty easy to say either one.) "But that you might know that the Son of Man has power —" He heals him. The man rose from his little mat, rolled it up, and headed for home. He was cured. He was no long paralyzed.
What Matthew adds to this story is something very special. That final little line that I read to you earlier. "At the sight, a feeling of awe came over the crowd and they praised God for giving such authority to men." Note the plural - to men. Why to men? Remember that the Scripture is the Church's book. It belongs to the Church. It was written for and by the Church. Matthew, reflecting this idea, would write that the Lord had indeed given this authority to men. To the Church. It was the work of the Church after the resurrection of Jesus to forgive sin in Jesus' name: to carry on the work of Jesus.
Remember when Jesus rose from the dead that first Easter Sunday? The same evening. He came into the room where all of the disciples were huddled together in fear. breathed on them," St. John, and said,receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them. Whose sins you hold fast, they are held fast'" John 20:22-23).
Jesus gave to the Church the power to continue on what He had done: to forgive sins. It is interesting that our Church, at the ordination of a priest, says this:
"...the Bishop...shall ...lay...hands...upon the Head of every one that receiveth the Order of Priesthood... saying, '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. Amen" (BCP p.546).
It is very specifically outlined in that ordination ceremony that the power to forgive sins in the name of the Lord belongs to the priest.
It all follows quite naturally. If Jesus said. "Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you retain, they are retained" — how can one retain or forgive anything unless one hears the sins? It makes a case for auricular confession of sins.
Now you and I are quite aware of the fact that we are sinners, that we must seek the forgiveness of the Lord daily because we sin daily and anyone who doesn't think that he does sin daily is not playing with a full deck religiously. We have to seek the forgiveness of the Lord. We do this as a community of believers every time we gather for Holy Communion. We acknowledge our sins and the priest grants absolution in the name of the Lord.
"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p.76)
Even in Morning and Evening Prayer we acknowledge our sins and receive the absolution of the Lord should a priest be present.
But there is a sacrament of our Church, the sacrament of penance, that has been provided by the Lord to His Church in order that we can confess personally the sins that we have committed and receive the assurance of the Lord's forgiveness.
This is what the priest says in the forgiveness of sins. I take this from Practice of Religion,a beautiful manual of instructions and devotions by the Rev’d Archibald Campbell Knowles: "Our Lord Jesus Christ who hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him of His great mercy forgive thee thine offenses and by His authority committed onto me, I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
That is the belief and the practice of the Church.
How did all of this begin to happen this way? The Church understood at the very beginning that it was necessary to reconcile its members to the Lord. Initially, there was a public confession of sin. When the assembly got together, individuals would stand up before the whole community and confess what they had done wrong. Then they would approach the bishop, or if the bishop was not present, the priest, to receive the absolution and a penance would be imposed on them. Some work of mercy would be imposed on them. This was done especially during the Lenten season.
You can see how popular that must have been! But it went on for nearly six centuries that way. Because of the public confession of sin in those days, a lot of people didn't avail themselves of the sacrament of penance as they were supposed to do. When less and less people were standing up and admitting the fact that they were sinners publicly, some good churchmen in Ireland and in Scotland changed things quite a bit. Using a monastic model where the monk would go before the abbot to confess his faults individually, the Church in Scotland and Ireland developed this as the way in which the sacrament could be celebrated: individual auricular confession and the individual absolution by the priest. It has come down all the way to our day in that mode. It is available to us as a part of our heritage, a part of who we are, as Anglicans, as a Church.
If we were to listen to the word of St. Matthew in today's Gospel, we can see why they praised God for giving such authority to men. In the plural! The authority belonged to the Church as the work of the Church. Is this something that is good and necessary now? I do believe that it is. If there is anything that afflicts the churches in this age, it is the downplaying - or downright denial - of sin. Some don't like to talk about it. It makes people uncomfortable. So we say other things, euphemisms: "unacceptable behaviour". Or, "That really is antisocial behaviour".
Call it sin! It's a lot simpler. It's three letters. Get it over with. Admit it. And go on to seek the Lord's forgiveness without a lot of psychobabble. We know that we commit sin. We're guilty. And the guilt is with us.
If there is great sin within an individual, he can tend to despair. Sometimes an individual even feels this way, "I don't know whether God has really forgiven me this sin." It's a horrible position to get into. Within our Church, if that individual is truly repentant, and he has heard the words of absolution by the priest, he can be assured those sins are blotted out. Period. Ended. And he can rest easy. You and I may not feel that kind of overwhelming guilt but we do know that as sinners we have to seek the forgiveness of the Lord over and over again daily. If we are to grow in our faith, if we are to grow in our life in Christ, it is necessary for us. Just compare yourself to the All-Holy God. You begin to say, "I am a sinner." That's why the psalms of penitence are so beautiful in the Old Testament. They cry out to the Lord from a sensitive consciousness, "I am a sinner and I need the forgiveness of the Lord."
We have quite an arsenal within our Church in the seven Sacraments. One of those Sacraments is the Sacrament of Penance. I encourage you to look at it, to study it in the Book of Common Prayer and to avail yourself of it as you need it.
Today as we receive the All-Holy God in Holy Communion, conscious of our sins, we ask our God to forgive us. As we hear the words of absolution upon the confession of our sins, let us remember that it is the Lord who forgives through His Church and through the ministry of His priests. Praise God for giving such authority to men!
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne