If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
These words from today’s second lesson feel like we have entered a time machine and turned back the clock to Lent. Then in our gospel reading we hear the first words of the Risen Christ to his disciples. Among them are these:
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
Each year our community Lenten services remind me other Christian traditions talk about sin a lot more than we Episcopalians do. Interestingly, while we don’t talk about it, we are one of the few traditions that has a confession as a regular feature of our worship. When it comes to sin, we let our liturgy do the talking: “the remembrance of our [sins] is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.” Everyone who has ever said these words from the Rite 1 confession knows their truth deep in the heart.
The Didache is a first century Apostolic writing lost for centuries before being discovered in 1873, much too late to be considered for the canon of Scripture. Still, it gives us a window into the life of the early church. In Chapter 14, it directs the faithful to gather on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist “after having confessed your transgressions.”
The practice of Penance emerges by the third century as a means for fallen baptized people to be restored to the body of the faithful. Initially it is a public act undertaken during the season of Lent, culminating on Maundy Thursday by kneeling before a bishop and receiving the laying on of hands. The practice of making a private confession to a priest begins in Ireland. Manuals called Pentitentials are developed, which list a variety of sins with accompanying acts required for forgiveness. In time this practice spreads throughout the church.
For much of the history of the church confession is understood to be an act of mercy for the penitent, not a penalty. Priests were expected to suffer martyrdom if necessary before revealing what has been told to them in the confessional. Not all clergy are quite this scrupulous, however. Some use the information given to them to blackmail confessors. Others are not able to control their behavior during confessions so a 16th century Cardinal develops a booth with a physical barrier separating the priest from the penitent.
While the Book of Common Prayer has a rite for the Reconciliation of a Penitent, it is seldom used. I have used it only once in my life. I did so not because I had committed a horrific sin, but because I was not able to forgive myself for something I had done. Confessing it to a priest and receiving absolution was a part of the process of what I needed to receive God’s forgiveness in order to move forward. In my 31 years of ordained ministry I have never had a parishioner request this rite. Generally speaking, we find what we need in the weekly use of the General Confession.
And what is it we find when we confess? We find the truth about ourselves and the truth about God. Here is what is true about us. Our actions and our attitudes have consequences. Much of what we think and do is a blessing to ourselves, to others, to world we live in, and to God. Some of what we do creates brokenness. Sometimes the brokenness is not something we intend. Other times it is a deliberate choice. The truth is we are sinners, but our sins do not have to define us. We are more than the sum of our worst mistakes. We affirm this every time we confess our sins. We acknowledge sin as a part of who we are, but confirm it is not who we want to be.
And what is the truth about God. God knows who we are. God knows our strengths and our weaknesses. God knows our passions and the desires of our heart. God knows us in ways we do not even know ourselves and God loves us for who we are, as we are. There is nothing we can do, writes Paul, to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. Nothing.
Frederick Buechner says “To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.”
I have told you before about the beautiful rectory I lived in when I was in Iowa. One day I noticed every doorknob, every hinge, and most every light fixture and switchplate was made of brass, but over the years had tarnished to the point they had turned black. I set out on a project to clean them. With each piece I restored, a little bit of polish and a lot of elbow grease wiped away all the tarnish revealing a golden brass glow. Now, that gorgeous color had never gone away. It was just covered, hidden. It dawned on me no matter how tarnished our lives become God still sees the golden glow that is who we are and how we are created to be. Repentance and confession is what takes away the tarnish of sin.
I suspect our readings on this Second Sunday in Easter focus on sin because Jesus’ death on the cross is the means by which God rubs off the sinful tarnish covering us. It gives us the opportunity to repent and begin anew. The purpose goes much beyond having our slate of wrongs wiped clean. Jesus died for us hoping we would live life in a new way, following the example he set for us. He sends his Spirit upon us to heal us and to empower us to be a blessing in this life, not a perpetrator of brokenness. Confess your sins, repent and follow, and let God’s loving light shine in and through all you do. Consider it an Easter invitation to a new life.