My sermon for Trinity 11. A little heavy on advocacy for Private Confession. There may soon be a pastoral vacancy…
The Pharisee and the publican – this one’s easy. Forgiveness is not based on what you do, but on the merits of Christ for you. If you think that what you do gets you forgiveness, then you have rejected the salvation of Jesus who actually brings you salvation. Easy.
A couple of weeks ago, it was hard to even figure out the point of the parable. Now it’s so easy that we could just hear the Gospel reading and go home. But as we have gathered to hear and learn God’s word, let’s consider this a little more deeply. There is still much to learn.
Two men went to the temple to pray. While we are correct in pointing out that it’s not our work that saves, notice that the parable starts out with both of them doing something – they are going to the temple to pray. It does not say that they both prayed at home. It brings them to the place set aside for such prayer. There is a locatedness to the way God works. He doesn’t just work whenever and wherever at random. He works in various times and places as he has promised. In the kingdom of Israel it was through the priests, offering sacrifices in the temple on behalf of the people.
The Pharisee and tax collector don’t just sit in their rooms. Jesus says in the sermon on the mount that the hypocrites like to pray on the street corners. But this parable doesn’t happen on a street corner, with the Pharisee praying on the corner about what a great guy he is and the tax collector hiding in the shadows of a doorway – this happens in the temple, because the temple was where God had promised to be to bring salvation to the people of Israel. And that temple points to Jesus, who, as we heard last week, is the new temple.
Of course, God can work however he wants – we have the apostle Paul converted on the road to Damascus by a bright light and the voice of Christ from heaven. And yet, even Paul recognizes how unusual this is – referring to it as one who is untimely born, or prematurely born. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. And even if it were, Paul then goes to Damascus where a pastor speaks to him and baptizes him. That is, after the amazing events on the road, Paul doesn’t then brag about his getting-hit-by-a-lightning-bolt conversion. He says, this is not how it should be. Of all the things about Paul, this is to him the most shameful. It’s supposed to be the way it is for everyone else – the preaching of the word, baptizing, the Lord’s supper, these are how things are done.
And in this parable, we see that – the Pharisee and tax collector in the temple, praying. Even though the Pharisee is there not for the true worship of God – not to receive his gifts and believe his word, but to worship himself, to talk about how great and faithful he is, how much he does to the praise and glory of God – he is there. But while the Pharisee never even asks for forgiveness, the Tax collector does nothing else.
Forgiveness is an outdated concept to day. We live in a world of forced and false apologies, where public figures are more concerned with how to restore their earning power than actual harm done. The media determines what is acceptable and what is not. This offense is minor, this one is career ending. They enforce such determinations with relentless around the clock coverage. There is talk among the political talking heads about this or that politician – who learned from his mistakes and so will be returned to office by the voters, who has not learned and should withdraw from the race. Marital infidelity is apparently ok, so long as your wife stands by you as you tearfully announce how sorry you are that others are disappointed in you. Such apologies make for great TV, and so are accepted by the media and public.
Improper attitudes toward race, or homosexuality, or abortion are career enders, no matter how sorry one may be.
Our world has no idea what sin really is, and so it can have no idea what forgiveness really is. Forgiveness is simply rebounding in the latest polls. Websites offer a place to confess and have people vote on whether you should be absolved of your offenses or not.
And the church has not helped the situation. Rather than calling sin a sin, rather than confessing without excuse our failings to God, we come up with all sorts of ways to bury them. We confess a general sinfulness at the beginning of the service, but never really discuss actual sins, never really have the healing salve of the Gospel applied to those sins which we know and feel in our hearts – except of course, in our hearts. We internalize the faith so much that it’s not uncommon to hear people say, “I don’t need church, I read the bible at home, and I believe.” And yet, there is never a time to hear the word of law spoken, to hear the Gospel proclaimed to those specific sins which are committed.
We complain about those Lutheran congregations that have abandoned the historic liturgy for modern worship styles and lyrics that turn the attention entirely onto us. And yet, when we deal with sin, we set ourselves up for such things – the church isn’t where one goes to confess sins and be absolved by the pastor as if by Christ himself. It’s the place we go for community building, to share faith with those around us. It’s as if the doctor’s office was no longer used for treating patients with individual illnesses discussed with their doctor, individually diagnosed, and individual treatment plan administered, but rather we just went to a seminar on healthy living. All well and good, and certainly helpful. But the place of individual confession is lost in the church, and has been for some time. That is the place where sins are confessed, and those specific sins are absolved. Luther says “when I encourage you to go to confession, I am simply encouraging you to be a Christian.” Walther says in the strongest possible terms that individual confession must be used in the church wherever possible. That was one of the reasons for the founding of our synod – a return to private confession and absolution. And yet within a hundred years, the synod published a catechism without Luther’s form for confessing. The treasure was never even fully regained in the Lutheran church before it was lost. Luther laments that, instead of taking advantage of these treasures, now that the popish works were removed from it, people were abusing their freedom and never going to it. So we have it today. We generalize things. We don’t want to confess. And yet, God gives this gift to the church so that we would be even more certain of the forgiveness of sins.
Luther talks about two different kinds of confession and forgiveness – there is the forgiveness between individuals – when you harm your neighbor or are harmed by your neighbor and you confess to him, or hear his confession, and then you either are absolved or you absolve him. “I am sorry I hurt you by my words and actions” “I forgive you.” Such words are critical if families are to live together in peace and harmony. Forgiveness is not a ratings game, but the genuine leaving behind of past hurts. And when those hurts get so deep that the sinful bitterness rises up in you, we must pray with Jesus, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Luther also talks about the confession made privately to the pastor. This confession is, like King David, recognizing that, despite the lovelessness to our neighbor, all sin is against God and God only. “Against you, you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
And this sin, confessed the pastor as if to Christ himself, has the healing balm of the Gospel applied to it specifically. This sin, which you have committed, is forgiven.
Luther says that confession has two parts, one that we confess our sins, two that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness from the pastor as from Christ himself not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
We want to add a third part. Whether it is the Roman plan of being sorry, confessing and then doing some work of satisfaction, or whether it is the reformed plan of being sorry, asking God to forgive, and then promising never to do it again, we want something for us to do, and if possible without having to admit to anyone we have sinned.
We sin so easily, and without shame, but we reject any notion that we should admit the sin to others. I would be ashamed to do so. I am not bad, at least not as bad as those tax collectors who really need forgiveness.
And that is why God gives us the church in which to confess, and pastor to whom to confess – so that the excuses can fall away. So that we stop living with the sins of our heart and our mouths and our hands, we stop rationalizing how we must be forgiven because of our faithfulness to God, and we say, Lord be merciful to me a sinner. No excuses. No rationalizations. Just speaking God’s law back to God, and asking humbly for the Gospel.
And then, forgiveness. This one went down to his house justified. For there is forgiveness with thee. Create in me a clean heart o God, and renew a right spirit within me. The prayer of the forgiven sinner. Forgiven not because of your work, your faithfulness, or even your extreme sorry, but because of Jesus work, and his mercy.
You are forgiven. Go in peace, serve the Lord.