One of the problems with getting all super spiritual is that we sometimes tend to… well… spiritualize everything.
We think we are learning new levels of faith and trust when we look to God alone–not realizing that God has given us people around us for the purpose of speaking wisdom, caring for us, and receiving our care.
We think that our prayers have reached a newfound level of purity when we leave aside requests for things, petitions for inner transformation, and celebration of what has happened for us, celebrating God only for “who God is” in and of Godself. And in so doing we completely ignore the fact that we only know God as God is in relationship to the world and that no prayer in scripture ever takes such a super spiritual line.
We are part of the story. Our communities are part of the story. God has chosen to be known in and by the story that unfolds in scripture and the history of the church.
Risky? Yes. But it’s what God has done.
This story of God at work in the world is a story in which God the way God works is through involvement in the lives of human agents. In fact, human agents become the very embodiments of God on earth.
In the priestly tradition of the Old Testament, humans are created in God’s image and likeness. Flip back and forth between Gen 1:26-28 and the early chapters of Ezekiel, and you’ll see that humanity looks like God and God looks like humanity.
David Garr puts it like this: humanity is like a theophany. People, at least idealized perfect people, are apparitions of God.
Jesus forgives his sins and then claims, “The Human One has authority on earth to forgive.”
God gave first humanity, the theophany of God, authority upon the earth. That authority was representative of God’s own rule.
Jesus claims that God is restoring what was lost. Divine authority is present upon the earth again. The reign of God has come near. And it has come near in the human being anointed by the Spirit to rule the world on God’s behalf.
No one can forgive sins but God alone.
And, God has bestowed this authority on the fully human Jesus.
So as this scene resolves, Matthew tells us that the people marvel at the authority that God had given to (or among) people.
God’s grace, human agents.
Forgiveness does not remain cloistered in heaven with God. It is not piled up in a stack next to the divine throne waiting to be dispersed on judgment day, or even waiting for the right prayer request to activate its flight to earth.
Forgiveness has been sent down to earth already. The Spirit has borne it down and bestowed it upon the man Jesus.
And, Jesus has entrusted it to his followers.
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” he says to his followers in Matthew.
In John he is more specific: “Receive the Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.”
As for Jesus in Mark, so for the disciples in John: those who bear the Spirit bear the authority of God on earth to forgive sins.
To be the people of God is to carry about the name of God and Christ upon the earth. It is thus to be charged to so live upon the earth that people who see us see not us but the God who is at work in and through us.
To be the people of God is to be written into a story that we must then write out in how we act upon the earth, always living as agents of the authority bestowed on us by God’s empowering Spirit.
If ours is a story of grace, we the human agents must be extensions of that grace. If ours is a story of forgiveness, we must pronounce forgiveness knowing that the pronouncement makes it so.
“Your sins are forgiven.” This is not a reference to a celestial reality that we hope someone will apprehend with their heart and mind. It is a reality that we bring into existence by speaking the words in the context of faith as possessed by God’s authority-granting Spirit.
The Human One had authority on earth to forgive sins. And so do the human ones whom he has brought into the new creation he inaugurates.
We are the forgiveness people. And so we, no less than Jesus, are the human agents of God’s grace.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of Jesus as an idealized human, keep your eyes out for my next book, A Man Attested by God, which should be released by this time next year.