Prior to our establishing of saint benedict’s table, I served as pastor of a shared Anglican and Lutheran congregation, in which week by week we alternated between the communion liturgies of the two traditions. There’s a good deal of overlap between the two, and where they do differ they tend to actually really complement each other in terms of theological focus. One of the places where they differ in that complementary way is in how the two traditions approach the confession of sin.
As you’re aware, in this tradition we offer our confession in the middle of the liturgy, after the prayers of the people and before the sharing of the peace. The idea is that having entered into worship and heard the scripture proclaimed, we then move toward reconciliation with God—the confession—and with one anther—the sharing of the peace of Christ.
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In the Lutheran tradition, the general confession takes place right at the beginning, before worship actually begins. And whereas in the contemporary Anglican liturgy the priest invites the community to “confess our sins, (plural) confident in God’s forgiveness,” the Lutheran focus is on sin as a state; as a reality of human life.
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” the presider declares, and I’ll tell you it is quite something to stand before a congregation and speak such words. How dare I say that to these people? Thing is, I wasn’t just saying them to these people, but to myself as well… which in a strange way makes the words all the more challenging. What am I living with, right now, in my own life? And then the liturgy continues, “But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (Lutheran Book of Worship)
Of course, these words are lifted directly from the opening chapter of the 1st Epistle of John, which we heard read aloud tonight.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
If we say… If we confess… John is big on that word “if” in this section of his epistle, using it six times in the course of six verses. Does that make it seem as if he’s attaching conditions to grace and forgiveness, as in “if you do this, then you get that?” Well, in some sense yes, that is what John is doing.
You see, John is faced with a problem in his community. It seems that there has been a serious split in the community, with some people leaving to start their own church (funny, we sometimes assume that church divisions originated with the Reformation…). It isn’t entirely clear what all drove the split—doctrine, ethics, spiritual practice, or probably some combination of the three—but whatever it was, it has pressed John into using that word “if.”
And yet John is not using it in any moralizing sense, as in “if you follow the prescribed rules and obligations, then you’re acceptable in the eyes of this church.” He’s not looking to construct some spirituality of the well-behaved; of a people beyond or above fault and failure. Quite the contrary, actually. John wants a people able to look honestly at themselves, in all of their failings.
In the early 90s, our local clergy conference hosted the liturgical scholar Robert Webber as our guest speaker, and over the course of his sessions he challenged us to take a hard look at the way in which churches tend to think about failure. He asked us what typically happens when a church member’s life falls into crisis; when a marriage fails, a life-defining career collapses, or an addiction begins to take hold. Is that person able to carry their pain or failing with them to worship? Often as not, Webber observed, the answer is no. Often as not, a Christian in that kind of crisis quietly disappears from church, maybe even permanently. “Our churches have to be the sort of places where it is okay to be a hurting person,” Webber challenged. When things are really bad we need to learn to not hide away in shame, he said, but rather to “flee to the Eucharist.”
And that is very much what John is driving at here, with his repeated use of the word “if.” “This is the message we have heard from [Christ] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” That’s his starting point, after which he continues, “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Cleansed from all sin? But if that is the case, then when we do mess up isn’t it proof that we’re not walking in his light? Good reason to stay away from the community, and to stay locked in shame… they’ll all know what I’ve been up to…
And so John continues, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That’s all of us, right from the one who seems to have life all neatly lined up on through to the person who is just now confronting the worst of the worst in his or her own life. And yet, “If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Stop kidding yourself, get honest, and face down your limits, your failings, your human vulnerabilities, and you will be forgiven. And just in case you think this sounds as if you’ve got one shot at it—you know, be the repentant prodigal with the great conversion story, but heaven help you if you blow it after you’ve shared your testimony—John is categorical: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.” So get real, already.
I wonder if at this point as he was writing his letter, John began to feel as if he was sounding just a bit too raw. Sort of like the feeling I had the first time I stood before my former congregation and read the Lutheran liturgical text based on John’s verse, is he afraid that he might be sounding a bit presumptuous? Because writing in his role as a senior elder in the faith, the very next thing he does is to address them with the warmest of words; “My little children.” “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin”—there’s that word, “if” again—“if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And what’s more, John declares, “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
John can write all of this because he knows himself, and he knows that on his own steam he will never be righteous, holy, or beyond sin. He is at once realistic about his own self, open to the promise of transformation and of a renewed life in Christ, and willing to let it finally all ride on the work and person of Christ, which is given not “for our [sins] only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
As is always the case on the second Sunday in the Easter season, we also heard read aloud the story of the disciple Thomas, the great doubter. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas says, and wouldn’t you know it… Jesus meets him in his doubt. Jesus meets him, I believe, because Thomas is honest enough to lay his doubt squarely on the table, right in the midst of the company of disciples. And notice, too, that Thomas has not abandoned them in shame over his doubt, nor has he written off their faith as naive. No, he is still able to keep company with them. And significantly, they’ve managed to make room for him, even in his doubt. They haven’t pushed him out or rejected him on account of his lack of faith. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them…”
We need to hear John’s call to be honest and transparent about what is going on in our own selves, and then like Thomas we need to learn to keep company with the community, letting the church believe for us on those days when we’re not sure if we can have faith on our own. And like that circle of disciples, we need to be willing to make room for those who having a hard time of it all. Because after all, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… but if we confess our sins”—if we actually acknowledge the wounds and the sins and the fears that are a part of each of us—“God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins.” Again and again and again.
There is room here for the doubter; there is room here for the broken, and the broken-hearted; there is room here for all of us in all sorts and conditions. And to say otherwise? We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!