Thinking about Communion (ii) Confession

This is the second in a series of sermons about the service of Holy Communion,
what is in the service, why it’s there, what the pattern, the shape of the service is.
Part 1 is here

Last time I talked about gathering / preparation and said:

  • we gather as Christ’s fellowship so need to restore good relations with brothers & sisters
  • God is the host who invites us to gather with the community of saints around His table, we are drawn into worship

If you are invited to a wedding party you would probably polish your shoes, put on clean, ironed outfit, make sure there were no soup stains on your tie.

As God welcomes us into this time of worship in his house, we are – or should be – conscious of those stains upon our lives which need cleaning up to make us more fit to gather at God’s table.

Repentance is a core part of Christian faith – Jesus called people to repent, believe the Good News of the Kingdom of God and to follow him. But repentance is not a one-off act, it is an ongoing process. As we learn to follow Jesus more closely, we recognise more clearly what is not worthy of him; there is a continual turning to God and away from what competes with God in our lives.

So, the next part of our service is the prayer of confession.

How we feel about confession will depend upon our image of God. Too often He is seen as the stern headmaster, the harsh judge. Yes, those images are there in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament but Luke (who was himself a physician) shows us Jesus as more like a doctor,

Luke 5:29-32 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

It is Luke who gives us Jesus’s story of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving Father
and Luke who tells the parable of the Good Samaritan – showing the inclusive love of God that we are called to emulate.

As one might go to the doctor with physical symptoms, hoping to be made better, so we go to the Physician of our soul looking for forgiveness, healing, help to become better.

But what is it that we need to confess?

The prayer of confession we use starts: Heavenly Father, we have sinned in thought, word and deed, and have failed to do what we ought to have done. (1984 says ‘we have sinned against thee’ which makes it more personal.)

But that is very general – what does it include?

The old BCP confession is stronger! “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. . . . We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.”  (back to the medical comparison)

Those words imply we should know God’s ways and his laws, and that means we need to spend time with our bibles and Christian teaching.

Some things are obviously wrong but sin – which I would define as anything which blocks the flow of God’s love – is rather more insidious than we often realise.

I left out one phrase in that quote from the old prayer – and it is a key phrase for reaching an understanding of what sin is: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.

The Bible recognises the self-deceiving nature of our selfishness and self-justifications: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

And of course, the answer is: “God can and does”. Jeremiah continues (v10) “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”

Or, when Samuel is wondering which of Jesse’s sons is the one chosen to succeed Saul as king, God tells him not to be dazzled by good looks or fine physique for “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Perhaps that is discouraging – if my heart is devious, how can I know what God is seeing and I have missed? Am I condemned to be, in the old words, a ‘miserable offender’?

It can help to work through a checklist in prayerful self-examination, asking God to show you what you need to notice. Here are some suggestions:

1) we have sinned in thought, word, deed, and in what we have left undone

  • what thoughts have I had that were less than loving?
  • what words have I said that were less than loving? or what words of praise, encouragement, could I have said but didn’t?
  • similarly what have I done or not done that was life-draining rather than life-affirming?

2) use 1 Corinthians 13

  • Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

3) in similar vein use Galatian 5 fruit of the Spirit

  • the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When using such checklists, it can be helpful to notice what comes up regularly – what is a weak spot I need to work on? But also notice where the Spirit is showing fruit – yes I’ve been impatient again, but I am growing more patient than I was.

4) and a reminder that Jesus us taught us to pray: forgive us as we forgive others
We cannot pray to be forgiven if we are not ready to forgive. Am I nursing a grievance which I need to deal with?

Of course, you don’t have to wait until Sunday to acknowledge and confess! We can say a personal ‘sorry’ to God at any moment of any day (which may also involve saying sorry to someone else as well – repentance is shown by trying to put right what has been wrong).

There is also the option of sacramental confession, something we connect with the Roman Catholic church but which is available to Anglicans as well. The one-to-one meeting with a priest who can offer counsel and absolution. It is said: all may, none must, some should. It really can help lift burdens of guilt from weary souls.

But this morning I am talking particularly about the General Confession which we make in public worship.

It is something which, if it is to be effective, needs preparation, honesty and sincerity.

NB I often invite the confession with the words ‘confess our own sin and the sin of the world’. We are inextricably caught up in systems that are unjust, dishonest, downright bungling and it can be too easy to use that as an excuse for our own laxity. We do need to be aware of our own part in that and ready for God to quietly show us ways in which we can be agents of resistance and change.

Absolution

So we confess. And then the priest, with the authority of the church, pronounces absolution, forgiveness, cleansing, healing, liberation from the corrosive power of sin and strengthening in all goodness which enables us to live with that quality of life which is eternally of God.

Gloria

And from there we move naturally into the Gloria, the song of the angels greeting the birth of Jesus – God our loving, forgiving, merciful Father, taking the initiative and making the first move towards reconciliation.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

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