Spiritual Practices 7 — Confession

If we confess our sins…

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
Loving Christ,
you bring your people into the community of faith,
a community forgiven yet broken.
You are in the midst
as we seek to be reconciled;
give us courage,
that we may take the first step;
in your reconciling name we pray. Amen.

Readings
1 John 1.5-10
Matthew 18.21-35

We’ve come to the last week of our Lenten series on spiritual practices. We’re going to look at Confession as a spiritual practice that makes a space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better. You may remember that Richard Foster called Confession a ‘Corporate Discipline’ in his book Celebration of Discipline. Corporate disciplines are things we do together. Worship is a corporate discipline; that’s pretty easy to see. And last week we looked at Guidance as a practice of discerning God’s guidance in relationship with one another.

What about confession as a corporate spiritual practice? This is a little more tricky for many of us I’m sure. We’ve all been taught to look aslant at the way Catholics go to the confessional. (Or at least, the way they once went to the confessional.) We know we can just confess our sins to God. Yet Richard Foster really emphasises confessing our sins to one another. Not necessarily to me as the minister, but to someone who is mature in the faith and able to convey God’s forgiveness and love.

Let’s talk about confessing sin in general terms, from basic principles. 1 John 1.8 and 10 say:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Let’s start there. We have all sinned, and we all do sin. No one here is exempt. Let’s not deceive ourselves.

The passage also says, in verse 9:

If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

That’s one starting point: We are sinners; yet if we confess our sins, God forgives us and makes us clean. (Thank God for that!)

There is another starting point, equally important: God has already forgiven us because of Jesus Christ and his saving acts. God declares us as righteous in Christ. The apostle Paul says:

…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…

What does ‘justified’ mean? It means put right. We justify text; we make it a nice straight line down the margin. To be justified means that when God looks at me, there’s nothing out of place. It’s ‘just-if-I’d’ never sinned. In God’s eyes, we are righteous because we belong to Jesus. We are adopted as God’s daughters and sons; God is our Father.

Martin Luther used to say that we are at the same time justified and sinners. We are both together. I’m justified, yet I sin. What do I do about that? I confess it to my Father in heaven.

So when I sin, I am still a child of my heavenly Father. I need to confess that sin to my Father, for the sake of my relationship with the Father. I don’t want to hide from God; I want—I need—to be healed.

It’s like in a normal family. My kids sometimes do the wrong thing. It doesn’t stop them being my kids. Nothing will ever change that; they will always be my children and I will always love them. But it’s important that we own up and take responsibility when we sin against one another.

In the life of the Uniting Church, there are three ways that we may confess our sin.

One is to confess my sin to God when I am praying. It may be in my daily prayer time, it may be at any time of the night or day. I can talk to my Father and re-establish the relationship. I don’t need to come to church, I don’t need to talk to my elder.

I don’t even need to put on a religious voice or pray a special prayer. Words like ‘sorry’ and ‘forgive me’ and even ‘I really stuffed it up Lord’ are just fine. ‘If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Confessing our sin to God in this way is a great spiritual practice.

There is a second way that we confess our sins: that is in a general prayer of confession as we worship God together. We’re going to pray that prayer after the sermon today; we usually pray it as we gather together.

It’s not unusual to go to a service in a Uniting Church which doesn’t have a general prayer of confession. No confession of sin at all. If you ask why not, there are two kinds of answer.

One is: people don’t like confessing sin. But you know, sometimes we’re unaware of our real needs. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…’ Whether we like it or not, we sin. We need to confess it and receive the assurance of forgiveness.

The second reason some congregations omit a prayer of confession is that we are justified through faith in Christ. Remember, it’s just-if-I’d never sinned? So why should we have to confess our sin in Church when we in God’s sight we are made right?

This line of thinking has a veneer of godliness, but it ignores the depths of sin within us. The prophet Jeremiah says,

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse –
who can understand it?

God understands our hearts; God knows our need to confess our sin, and be assured again (and again) that we are forgiven.

In fact, when we confess our sins in church it’s mostly about being assured that we are forgiven. It’s mostly about being reminded that we are God’s children. It’s mostly about being reminded that we are reconciled to God, and we don’t have to remain in sin.

Here, we usually pass the Peace after we confess our sins and hear again Christ’s word of grace to us: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Why is that? It’s to express that we are a reconciled people, a reconciled community. It’s not actually a chance for a chat. We’ve had a chance for that before church, we’ll have a chance after church, and we have chances from 10.00 am today to 8.30 am next Sunday. The passing of the Peace is a time to offer one another the Peace of Jesus Christ, and God knows we need that Peace. And God also knows we need to offer that Peace to others. So from today, why not just look someone in the eye, say ‘Peace be with you’, and chat later on?

So, we’ve heard about two ways in which we confess our sins in the Uniting Church. We confess our sins as we speak with God; we confess our sins as we meet together week by week for worship. Each time, we need to hear the word of grace. Your sins are forgiven.

There is a third way, and Richard Foster talks about it at length. It’s not common in our Church; some of us may think it’s all too Catholic, but it is possible for us to go to another person to confess our sins. There’s even a brief service in Uniting in Worship 2 for this purpose: it’s called ‘A service of reconciliation’.

That service is there for this reason: sometimes, a person just can’t believe that he or she is forgiven. What they’ve done is just too bad, or they’re just so sensitive that they can’t believe they have been set free.

Personal confession might happen like this. A person may come for a pastoral conversation. As that conversation unfolds, it is clear that they need help to realise that God forgives them. The service in Uniting in Worship 2 may help, or a minister or other pastoral person can guide them without the service.

Let me say that there is a very real difference between the practice of the Uniting Church and that of the Catholic Church. There is no ‘seal of the confessional’ in the Uniting Church. What I mean is this: a member of the Uniting Church could conceivably confess to anything from shoplifting to a paedophile act. A person hearing such a confession would need to stress the need to take responsibility for one’s actions, a responsibility which may mean going to the appropriate legal authorities.

Now, this is not the Uniting Church’s usual means of confessing sin, and we don’t require it. It is available because of pastoral need. Again, the emphasis is on forgiveness.

There is so much more that could be said about confessing sin. I haven’t said anything about confessing our sin to one another when we do the wrong thing. I haven’t said anything about forgiving others who wrong you. I haven’t talked about repentance and sorrow for sin. All huge topics!

Back to the service of reconciliation in Uniting in Worship 2. It finishes,

Our Lord Jesus Christ forgives your offences
and releases you from your burden of guilt.

By his authority,
I declare the forgiveness of your sins.

You are free:
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

This is the reality of the Christian life. We have been set free. But so often we don’t live freely. To be free is to be able to choose the good. To be free is to forgive others as we are forgiven. To be free is to follow the only truly free human being, Jesus Christ.

Friends,
we are free:
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Let us live in that freedom. Amen!

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