Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Authority of Grace

John 20:19-31

“If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18

We love authority, don’t we? I don’t mean the authority someone else has over us; I mean the authority we have or might have. We love to be the boss over those things we care about because it means we have some control. Being the boss over something means that if we don’t like what we see or do, we can change it because – we are the boss! Maybe more than simple control, I think we like having authority and power because these things make us feel important and needed, like we matter, like we have something useful and edifying to contribute. We like the idea that what we are and what we do can have a lasting impact in our own little part of the world.

The power that has been granted to us, however, is not exactly the kind of power most of us have in mind nor is it the kind of power by which we can gain something for ourselves. Soon enough we find that true and lasting power is not the kind that allows us to do as we wish but, rather, compels us to do as we have been entrusted, if commanded, to do because in the end we realize that no matter how much power we think we have, Someone else always has more! The root of the power which exists within us is granted to us, not earned by any means, and it is certainly not something we are entitled to.

By any definition, power in and of itself can either be edifying or it can be destructive. It all depends on how such power is used and for what purpose. And when we look around, we can see that power in the hands of the wrong person or entity is about as dangerous as a loaded weapon; handle it carelessly, and someone will get hurt and irreparable damage will be done. It is not a matter of if, but when, if care is not taken.

The gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus is empowering His disciples with can be construed to mean “power” or “authority”, but we must also know that the Lord knew what He was doing when He offered this overwhelming gift as an extension of His own ministry. We can also be sure the Lord means for His Holy Church to serve its divine purpose in a secular world: to make disciples, to baptize, to teach, to lift up, to redeem. Within this divine gift, however, is the authority to “retain sins” against someone. For many this is a tricky endeavor because we surely understand Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew: we will be judged as we judge, and we will be forgiven only as we forgive. So what kind of authority is being given by Jesus, and what is the extent of this implied authority that comes with the power to forgive sins or retain them?

The Roman Catholic Church has long held that the authority implied in this passage is unique not to all disciples but exclusively to the apostles themselves and their successors, those charged with specific priestly duties. We are familiar with the Roman Church’s sacrament of reconciliation in which an individual goes to a priest, confesses his or her sins, and is then granted absolution; that is, forgiveness for those sins. Usually the person seeking reconciliation is given a penance, such as a series of prayers to recite, and is then sent away in peace but with the condition that the penance be followed through. It is also understood that repentance is absolutely required.

The Protestant Reformation gave rise to the more expansive notion of the “priesthood of believers” spoken of in Hebrews 7 by which is implied that all believers, true followers of Christ, are also endowed with this special gift, this awesome authority to grant absolution – OR withhold such a blessing. If we find it necessary to withhold that blessing of absolution and find it necessary to retain the sin, then, what is happening and are we then subjecting ourselves to that same lack of grace we seem to be displaying to another?

It goes without saying that only the Lord can forgive sins. Whether this authority to forgive or retain is specific to a person or a category of persons, I think, is beside the point. It is truly a game of spiritual “Russian Roulette” that we would play if we were to take upon ourselves the authority that, though implied, is not completely surrendered – or even shared – with us. Clearly, however, the apostles are being given something awesome that extends far beyond themselves personally and is more representative of the duties and boundaries of the Church as a whole, as the Body of Christ, as the representation of the very presence and essence of Christ on this earth. So, as the old commercial saying went, “What Would Jesus Do”?

To withhold a blessing of absolution, something has to be amiss. And it must be remembered that we’re not be talking about someone’s transgression against us personally. It is, I think, much bigger and broader. Besides, Peter was told by the Lord that we as individuals are called to forgive “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22).

Back up to Matthew 18:15-18. There is a prescription for dealing with sin which begins first with the one who has been offended. That person is charged with the responsibility – the duty, in fact - to go to the offender one-on-one and seek to work it out, and the Lord says if the offender agrees with the accusation, it’s all good and “you have gained your brother”. Implicit in this formula at this point is, of course, repentance. The offender makes nice, honestly promises not to repeat the offense, offers perhaps to make amends if necessary, and all is well. As the Lord promises to forget our iniquities, so must we extend to others that same blessing – if they ask for it.

However, if the offender will not listen to one, then two or three witnesses become necessary so that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Mt 18:16). Gaining the perspective of others prevents an individual from grinding a personal ax against someone. The witnesses must agree to the charge and then the offender confronted with the intent that the offender will see his error and repent. Failure at this level, then, is the involvement of the ENTIRE CHURCH should the witnesses fail to restore the offender. The pattern begins to take shape. It is not about the accusation or the accuser nor is it about who is right and who is wrong – it is ultimately about the RESTORATION of the offender. But we must also be mindful that we are not talking about someone who is merely a jerk; we’re talking about that which serves to separate an individual from the Lord.

So what Jesus is charging His followers with is not the authority to “judge” by which we determine as individuals who is guilty and who is not nor are we charged with seeking out and finding sinners to judge as in a “witch hunt”. Rather, we have been granted the “Authority of Grace” by and through which transgressors can be restored by the power of the Gospel – not condemned by the personal opinions of individuals. They must be called out, but Paul also admonishes the Ephesians that this “calling out” must be that “truth spoken in love” which is to say that we earnestly feel a stake in the spiritual well-being of the individual who is being called out. It is never about us and our delicate or social sensibilities – it is always about the restoration of the offender to the Lord.

It is not about whether this person has upset us personally or our individual sense of right and wrong. All up, all in – it is about RESTORATION – by the authority of the Church. Having sin retained against someone is the unfortunate result of pride, malice, and a refusal to hear the call of the Church to turn away from sin, and it then becomes the authority – if duty – of the Church to turn away from the one who refuses the grace and then demand – if require - a separation lest that “rotten apple” spoil the entire basket.

It sounds harsh on its surface, but it is no less harsh than when parents finally make the decision to punish a child for repeat offenses. One must be corrected and put back onto the path of righteousness. But it must also be on the forefront of the Church’s mind as it renders such a judgment and decision to remember that “with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” As earlier stated, like a loaded weapon which must be handled with the utmost respect and care lest more harm than good comes as a result.

This is the authority granted to believers because it is the exercised authority of the Christ who “did not come to condemn the world but that the world would be saved through Him”. It is an awesome responsibility and a privileged duty of every true believer to understand that we are not called to do battle or to fight – but to love, to lead, to lift up, to heal; ultimately, to restore to the Kingdom of Heaven that offender who has placed himself or herself in danger of the judgment. It is indeed, my dear friends, an act of love.

May the Lord God grant to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not only the will to see to this awesome task faithfully and judiciously but also the wisdom and grace necessary to fulfill His charge and be that extension of HIS ministry of reconciliation and GOOD NEWS! It is our privilege; it is, indeed, our task.

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