Sermon: The Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent (Confession)
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50
The Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent (Confession)
When the Epistle of James was written, people believed sickness was a consequence of having sinned. James tells us if any are sick, they should call for the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil. The prayer of faith will save the sick, the Lord will raise them up, and those who have committed sins will be forgiven. We now realize that many sicknesses are not healed, but I fully believe there is a deeper spiritual healing that takes place from such moments. I have witnessed the comfort which comes from such prayers, and have been immeasurably blessed to offer such prayers. In that our sins will be forgiven, James exhorts us to confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed (James 5.16; NRSV). The spiritual healing which comes from confession may be more important than the physical healing, though physical benefits may also be derived. Having something gnawing on one’s conscience can elevate one’s blood pressure, create tension headaches, and gastro-intestinal distress. We were created for a right relationship with God and our neighbor – when we live in less than that, we experience physical and mental distress.
We see the nature of this distress in David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51: “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Vs. 3; BCP). David’s sin was weighing on his mind; he could not escape the awareness of his sin. Hence, he came to pray, “Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Vs. 9, 11 -12; BCP). David confessed his sins and pled for the renewal of his relationship with God.
We see further evidence of the torment which stems from sin in David’s prayer of thanksgiving where he says, “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night . . . then I acknowledged my sin to you . . . I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32.3-6). Confession precedes forgiveness and reconciliation. The act of confession humbles us; it prepares and enables us to receive the gift of mercy – whether from God or another person.
The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, provides a great contemporary story of confession and reconciliation. The Commission was established by the “postapartheid government” under the direction of President Nelson Mandela for the purpose of moving South Africa “beyond the cycles of retribution and violence that had plagued so many other countries during their transitions from oppression to democracy” (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/truth_and_reconciliation/). Bishop Tutu described the work of the Commission as follows:
The commission granted perpetrators of political crimes the opportunity to appeal for amnesty by giving a full and truthful account of their actions and, if they so chose, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness—opportunities that some took and others did not. The commission also gave victims of political crimes a chance to tell their stories, hear confessions, and thus unburden themselves from the pain and suffering they had experienced (Ibid).
Why was the work of the Commission deemed necessary? Tutu explains:
For our nation to heal and become a more humane place, we had to embrace our enemies as well as our friends. The same is true the world over. True enduring peace—between countries, within a country, within a community, within a family—requires real reconciliation between former enemies and even between loved ones who have struggled with one another (ibid).
The formation of, and the rationale for, the Commission reflect tremendous spiritual insight and wisdom.
Permit me to once again quote Bishop Tutu:
True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done. We know that when a husband and wife have quarreled, one of them must be ready to say the most difficult words in any language, “I’m sorry,” and the other must be ready to forgive for there to be a future for their relationship. This is true between parents and children, between siblings, between neighbors, and between friends. Equally, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the lives of nations are not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic. They are the stuff of practical politics (ibid).
One cannot but wonder at the reconciliation take might place if we took confession more seriously. I encourage you to watch the film Forgiven which portrays the work of Desmond Tutu (played by Forest Whitaker) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a powerful film. Better yet, let’s schedule it for some evening in Thorburn Fellowship Hall.
I suspect that most of us privately confess our sins to God. We may make confession at the end of the day when we review the day’s events. There we can ask God’s forgiveness and plead for the strength to live a more Christ-like life. Another opportunity for confession arises in the Eucharist when we recite the general confession. There is yet another opportunity for confession of which I suspect most Episcopalians are unaware – the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. This rite is “available to all who desire it” (BCP, p. 446). The rite is generally conducted by a bishop or a priest but may also be conducted by another Christian. Only the bishop or the priest can pronounce God’s absolution; where the rite is conducted by another Christian, a declaration of forgiveness is provided.
Perhaps you are wondering – what’s the difference? Both involve forgiveness, but absolution is “the formal act of a bishop or priest of pronouncing God’s forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ” (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/absolution). It is important to note that the bishop or priest only pronounces absolution as opposed to granting absolution – only Jesus Christ grants absolution. To put it another way, the bishop or priest is only the conduit through which absolution is delivered. The difference in language in form one appears on page 448 of the Book of Common Prayer:
Pronouncement of Absolution by the Priest or Bishop: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and restore you in the perfect peace of the Church. Amen.
The Priest adds The Lord has put away all your sins.
Declaration of Forgiveness used by a Deacon or a Lay Person: Our Lord Jesus Christ who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Why would one desire to make confession, to undergo the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent? One may have committed a sin which is especially grievous. In such cases, the rite provides for specifically confessing one’s sins – the confession begins in much the same manner as the general confession: “I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; especially ____________. For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.” At this point, the bishop or priest may offer counsel, direction, and comfort before proceeding with absolution.
Rite Two is somewhat longer than Rite I. Rite II begins with many of the verses cited above from Psalms, from David’s prayer of confession and thanksgiving.
Confession, as pointed out in the words of Bishop Tutu above, “is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what” one has done. Absolution and forgiveness follow, and those in turn lead to reconciliation. In cases where we have wronged another person, where we have sinned against another, we should confess to the other and ask for his or her forgiveness.
Today, in the Episcopal Church, the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent is seldom used. James said, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (5.16; NRSV). In that the Church is called to the ministry of reconciliation, we may want to consider reestablishing this ancient rite.