From St Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth:
I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:10)
And from the same letter, earlier on:
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you …was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. (1:19-20)
This morning I want to talk about the Sacrament of Penance. Confession. Reconciliation. And I am minded to talk about this, because I am afraid that Penance is one of the most misunderstood of the Church’s ordinances, and, because misunderstood, it has fallen into disuse. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, where Penance was at one time very strictly and, I should add, very legalistically required, the number of people who make their confessions has declined significantly in the past four decades. And that is a bad thing – bad for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, because Penance/Confession/Reconciliation is an essential part of the Church’s ministry. Without it something crucial is missing, for like all the Sacraments Penance is itself an encounter with Jesus Christ, his power, his grace, and his love. It is a way by which the Church, as he commanded, exercises his ministry and makes present and active the salvation which was and which is the meaning and purpose of his life. That life which brings life to the world.
Again, like all the Sacraments, Penance is an encounter with Jesus Christ. There we meet him; there we come face to face with his mercy and his love; there, by him forgiven, we are a new creation. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
What Jesus accomplished in His dying and rising – atonement, the reconciliation to God of a world estranged from him – those happy things which he accomplished – Jesus gave power and authority to his Church to exercise and make real. Penance is a personal and particular aspect of his universal salvation, and this means that it is one way that salvation can touch you and me as individuals. It is nothing less than that. God’s love and forgiveness for all humanity focused individually on your and on me.
As we heard from St Paul, Jesus Christ is God’s Yes. Yes to the whole human race. “Not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but in Him it is always ‘Yes.’” He is the Yes which God spoke in the promises made to Abraham and Israel, and through Abraham and Israel He is the Yes to God’s purpose for the whole world. In Christ God has said Yes to us, and has claimed us as His own.
The sacraments of the Church are God’s way of saying that Yes to each individual Christian. They are particular forms and individual expressions of this Yes. God said it first in creation when he gave us existence and the possibility of a life in fellowship with Him. God said it again and decisively in Christ Jesus, from whose risen life all the sacraments flow.
In Baptism God says Yes to an infant or to an adult life to be dedicated to Him. In the Mass he says Yes to the routine of human life and provides spiritual nourishment to empower that life in the world. Yes to the love of man and woman in marriage. Yes to health of body and soul in Unction, making possible spiritual growth even out of those things which threaten life. Yes to the life of the Church, his household, in Holy Orders. And he pronounces Yes upon us in the Sacrament of Penance. There God is victorious, as always, over sin. There he does not allow our sinfulness or the weakness of our will to part us from His love.
“Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” A question put by Paul. And Paul answers, “Nothing.” Paul’s answer is reiterated in every confession. Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – nothing, not even sin.
And that is exactly what this sacrament is all about: God’s Yes spoken to each of us, for we encounter God there in his triumphant forgiveness, and we hear personally and anew the Yes which he pronounces upon each of our lives. There he blots out and does away with all those things great and small, inside us and outside us, that move our lives away from Him. In Penance God frees us from the shackles of our past and points us toward his future. As we heard this morning, he makes us strong in our weakness.
There is, of course, a “No” contained within God’s Yes. It is God’s No to sin. God’s wrath, if you will. And we should be thankful for that No. We should praise Him for His wrath. It is a blessed wrath, a holy wrath, a saving wrath, for it is directed not towards us, but towards everything that hurts us and threatens our life and fellowship with him. God declares No to those things, and in that No he says Yes to you and me. As Paul told us, “In him it is all ‘Yes.’”
Every time we make our confession God invites you and me to add our No to his No. We examine our lives and single out those things that have torn us away from him and from one another. We renew our repentance, that “turning away” from whatever is un-Godly and opposed to his love. And in Confession we say No, and get rid of them.
This is easy to do generally and in the abstract. There is little difficulty and little remorse in admitting abstractly the weakness in our wills and in our faith. It is a good thing, but it is also a small thing to make a rather uninvolved review of the progress of our lives before mass or in our daily prayers. It is much more difficult and – yes – sometimes even painful to do this personally and in the presence of another Christian – even one in whom the Church has entrusted her power of “binding and loosing”, “forgiving or retaining.”
Painful or not, it is wiser to make that more difficult step of penance and individual sacramental confession, for there is a danger in abstraction: if we confess our sins in the abstract, we may well receive the assurance of forgiveness in the abstract. And, frankly, what good is that? All of us desire and sometimes we pray to God for a personal encounter. Yet . . . if we are to receive God’s person, we must at least offer Him our person and show ourselves. Penance is an effective way of doing just that.
We hear from the prophet Isaiah as he speaks for God to His people:
I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
That prophecy has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, and it is most fully realized in you and me when we show ourselves and bare our souls and encounter God personally in confession.
Isaiah prophesies again:
Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth.
Dear brothers and sisters, we must, you and I, take advantage of this sacrament. It is one of God’s greatest gifts to us in the Church. It is an encounter with Christ and the assurance of His forgiveness. It is a new thing, a beginning, a fresh start, for it is to you and me the triumphant and saving Yes of God.