Power on earth to forgive sins: sermon on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“That you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins”

I am struck by the way in which our Lord expresses Himself to the scribes, when He is about to heal the paralysed man. He doesn’t say that He is going to do it simply so that they will know that He, the Son of man, has power to forgive sins, but so that they will know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins. Why does He express Himself in this way? After all, one might say, He is on earth, so if He has power to forgive sins, isn’t it obviously that He has it on earth?

I think He speaks like this because He wants to emphasise that this is one of the great things that He has come to do: He has brought to earth a power that had never previously been here, a power to forgive sins, and from now on, this power will always be there. Until this moment, this has never been the case, in the whole history of the world. Until this moment, when people sinned, they could certainly ask God in heaven for forgiveness, they could even offer animals in sacrifice as proof of their sincerity, but they could not come to any tribunal on earth that was capable of taking away their sins. The priests in the Old Testament could not do this. The Old Testament priests could pray for the people, they could offer animals in sacrifice on behalf of the people, but they could not pronounce words of absolution over sinners.

Now, all this has changed. And just as it was a wonderful change when the paralysed man suddenly rose from his stretcher fit and well and walked home, so it is a wonderful change that Christ has brought into the world. We have now what Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and king David and all the saints of the Old Covenant must have longed to have and did not have: a tribunal on earth to which we can go, and in which our sins can be taken away. I mean, of course, the sacrament of confession.

The sacrament of confession exists in the first place for dealing with mortal sins. If someone has had the misfortune to commit a serious sin, then of course they should go as quickly as possible to this tribunal to ask for God’s mercy. God has given the Church the power to forgive even the greatest sins, provided the penitent is sincere. As St Matthew says, the crowd “glorified God that gave such power to men” — not just to a Man, His incarnate Son, but to men. The bishops of the Church, and their priests, receive this power from God.

But secondly, this sacrament of confession exists to help all Catholics, even when they are in a state of grace. St Paul says today to the Corinthians, “Nothing is wanting to you” — that is, nothing is lacking to you — “in any grace”. And again, “He will confirm you unto the end without crime.” How does God make us persevere in His love unto the end, without falling into any crime or mortal sin? Even more striking, how does He make it possible for nothing to be lacking to us in any grace? In many ways, but especially by making this sacrament available to us as a remedy even for our smaller or daily faults.

I know that there are other remedies available, which must certainly have a place in our lives, such as fasting or abstinence. But confession has a unique power, precisely because it is a sacrament, which means that it is God Himself who puts the power into it. I’d go so far as to say that if we feel that our spiritual life is not improving, and that the months and years are going by without our drawing nearer to God, then it is likely to be because we are not yet making the use that we might of this sacrament. 

But what does that mean, “not yet making the use that we might”? Perhaps we don’t go very often. In that case, the solution is obviously to go more often! Or perhaps we already go quite often, but we still don’t feel that we are improving much. In that case, I suggest two things: first, pray to the Holy Spirit before confession to show you what things in your life He wishes you to change. Secondly, after confession, make some definite resolution: not something very vague or general like “I resolve to be a better person” but something sufficiently precise that you can know at the end of a day whether or not you have kept it. For example, it might be a resolution to speak in a friendly way to some person that you find difficult.

If we do these things, and persevere in them, then although we shall not become sinless overnight, the life of Christ will grow within us. We shall not only resemble the paralysed man when he rises from his stretcher, which is an image of the soul that rises from mortal sin, but we will also resemble him as he picks up his stretcher and walks to his home. Each passing month and week will bring us closer to our only true home, which is heaven itself.