I have noticed that when I go out jogging lately the turkey vultures circle overhead. Makes me wonder how they know. Perhaps they smell the sin on me.
Carrion foul sense death, they smell it. They gather when it is near so that they can feast on its fruit. Not too different from Satan. He loves to feast on the death of God's people. He loves to torture and torment and intimidate those who are dying. He loves to be the ominous threat hovering over the head of those drowning in sin pretending that he is waiting for his first opportunity to strike.
I had a longstanding member of the congregation die recently. His name was Ralph Burns. He was 86 years old. He fought in World War 2 and was one illness away from being sent to Iwo Jima to fight and probably to die. He got sick and was transferred after his unit shipped out.
All these years later that event still tormented him. He felt guilty, like he failed his brothers in arms, like he took the easy way out. He felt like a sinner. As he lay on his death bed he felt the hungry gaze of Satan staring down at him from the perch above his hospital bed. It cast a dark cloud over Ralph's conscience as he lay there waiting to die.
That is what Satan does – that Old Evil Foe, that dreadful accuser, that liar and that thief. He tells us that we are no Christians, that we are too wicked to be saved, that God doesn't want us and that he wouldn't have us. But, then again, Satan is a liar.
You see, we know better. We know that God does want us. In spite of our sin, God loves us. In spite of our wretchedness God thinks the world of us. And so he has moved heaven and earth to come to us with the intention that he bring us to where he is.
We have nothing to do with it. We are sinners. Ralph was right, he had failed. Even though he didn't intend to, even though he couldn't help that he got sick, he failed. He didn't do his duty as a soldier, as a husband, as a father, as a churchman. That's not to say he wasn't faithful. That's not to say he didn't do his best. He did by far better than most, if not all of us. But what do we know? We are sinners too. Even the least of sinners is still a sinner. Even the least of sinners still deserves to die in hell with the devil.
But we don't. Some do and that's tragic. But because of Jesus we don't. Ralph didn't. Ralph doesn't. Ralph won't. He is alive. Even though we had his funeral and buried his body and mourned his loss, Ralph is alive. Jesus said so.
In our text the risen Christ stood in the middle of his frightened disciples, gathered together and locked up because they were afraid to die and He spoke to them words of peace. “Peace be with you.” Jesus said. Jesus doesn't give peace like the world gives. Jesus gives true peace. Peace that comforts sinners. Peace that comforts a man on his death bed feeling the foul breath of Satan on his neck.
Jesus breathed. Just like God breathed on clay and gave life to Adam. Jesus breathed on the 10 frightened and fearful disciples with words of life and he gave them life, he gave us life, he gave life even in the face of death. “If you forgive anyone his sins they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.”
Jesus had pronounced forgiveness before. To a man let down through the roof in a crowded house. Jesus took pity on the man and announced to him that his sins were forgiven. The pharisees scoffed. Who can forgiven sins but God? Who can forgive sins but the one who has authority over sin? Only God. Jesus bought the rights to our sin, when he suffered for them on the cross. He paid the price. He bailed us out. And he did it with his own blood.
And since the debt is paid and the price has been laid down, Jesus has come back. He is restored to life to prove to you and to me that he has done it and so now he has the authority. All authority. All authority in heaven and on earth.
And what does he do with that authority? Does he keep it for himself? Does he guard it and defend it and keep us away from it? No. He passes it out. He gives it to his church. In his Church He gives it to pastors so that the authority to forgive sins, the authority that only God deserves has been given to man. You can forgiven the sins of the sinners and Jesus hears your voice and He says in Heaven, “Amen. Your forgiveness is my forgiveness.” The sins of the sinner are gone.
Ralph knew that.
While the Devil was doing his best to shake Ralph's confidence, to drive him to doubt and despair, God sent His man with His authority to pay him a visit. God sent to Ralph his pastor to go into the hospital room, beside the death bed to hear the confession and speak the absolution.
We speak those words all the time. Weekly. “I forgive you all your sin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We forget their power. Ralph did not. Not at that moment. With relief on his face and tears in his eyes Ralph said to me, “Pastor, It's so nice you can say that.” It took the faith of a dying man to get this sinful pastor to appreciate God's good gift.
So often we want God's gifts to be flashy, to be powerful, to fill up the pews and overflow the coffers. God occasionally gives those gifts and when He gives them they are good gifts. But the best gifts, God gives weekly, daily if you want it, abundantly and without limits. God gives his forgiveness, his absolution.
When we say we don't have sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is nowhere within us. But when we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
Would that we had the faith to believe it.