St Agnes, Kennington
16 February 1997
Gen 9: 8-15
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 12-15
YEAR B: LENT ONE: THE SACRAMENTS: CONFESSION
This Sunday we return to the series of sermons on the Sacraments of the Church. Today's subject is the Sacrament of Confession.
Let's begin with those words from the Gospel which we heard earlier:
Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. "The time has come" he said, "and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good news"
Do you remember the automatic reaction as a child on being told to do something by your parent or teacher?
Isn't the reaction to say "Why?", often in a particular whiny tone of voice? And equally often the only answer that comes back is "Because I say so!"
There are two sorts of occasions when "Because I say so" is the only possible answer.
Firstly, when there just isn't time to given an explanation because the situation is an emergency needing instant obedience. "Don't touch!" to a small child about to play with an electric fitting; "come back of the road!" to one who has started to run into a busy street to retrieve the ball they were playing with.
Secondly there is the case of the child simply not being old enough to understand any answer we might give. "Why shouldn't I accept sweets from strangers?" asks the four-year-old. It's probably best not to give too detailed an answer but to say something like "because they might want to make you do something wrong."
But dealing with small children is one thing. Dealing with older children and grown-ups is another and people who are mature deserve a fuller explanation of why we are telling them to do or not to do something.
So for example when Jesus says "Repent and believe the Good News" he also thought it quite right and proper for his hearers to ask questions like "why?" and "how?" and "when?"
Much of his teaching ministry consisted in answering these sort of questions which he as often as not did by way of a parable; and whatever else people think about Jesus Christ, all the world agrees that he was the most wonderful master of teaching-by-parable that the world has ever known.
So when Jesus tells people to "repent", it's quite in order to ask questions like "What does that mean?", "Why should I do it?", "How does one go about it?" and "When?". Always providing of course that we end up by doing whatever it is he has told us to do. Asking questions and getting answers is only a preliminary to, and not a substitute for, obeying what we have been commanded to do.
So first of all, what does "repent" mean?
Literally it means "turn around and start walking in the opposite direction; and the next question "Why should I?" has the obvious answer "Because you're going the wrong way".
Now if indeed we are "going the wrong way" the question "When should I turn around?" has an equally obvious answer which is "because the longer you persist on your present course, the further you'll be from where you really want to get to. So the sooner you turn around, the sooner you'll get to your true destination."
That's all straightforward, isn't it. But please note that we've only arrived at this enlightened position by dint of asking sensible questions and getting the right answers. Therefore, so far from discouraging people from asking questions like "What?", "Why? and "When?" we should actively encourage them to do so - providing, of course that they then decide to do whatever is necessary, and don't just go on asking questions simply for the sake of it or in order to put off doing anything about it.
Decision and Action are the appropriate responses to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ. He can and will explain what they mean in practical terms; he can and will tell us why we should obey them; to the question "When" he usually says "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation". What Jesus Christ cannot do is to make up our minds for us or actually do for us what he wants us to do for him.
Yes, he will suffer death upon the cross for our redemption and to make it possible for our sins to be forgiven; yes he will stand at the door and knock and come in if we decide to open the door of our live to him. But sooner or later there is a decision and an action which only we can take.
Very well. Suppose we get past the deciding stage and want to turn our decisions into actions. What next? How do we go about it?
Well experience suggests that if Jesus has commanded something, and people decide to obey that commandment he will have taught his Church how to help them put that commandment into practice; and as often as not, the means by which this is to be done will be in the form of a sacrament - which is defined, you will remember as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
The Sacrament which Jesus has given to his Church to make repentance easier is called the Sacrament of Confession.
Notice that I said "make it easier", not "make it possible". Unlike the two Greater Sacraments of Baptism and Communion which are, as we saw, generally necessary to salvation, and therefore obligatory for everyone who calls himself Christian, Sacramental Confession is in a different category.
That's not to say that it doesn't matter whether people use it or not. Rather, it underlines the old saying about it that "All may, none must, some should". It's only necessary to see the difference that it makes to the lives of those who use the Sacrament of Confession regularly and carefully to realise that it does make a difference and therefore does matter.
Let's be quite clear about this. Repentance is something we are all commanded to do, and we've got to do it right now. Whether or not we make use of the means of grace which God has appointed for us to enable us to do it more easily, or whether we choose to go about repenting in some other way is, in the end, a matter for us to choose, although commonsense suggests that until we've tried using what God has provided thoroughly we can't really say whether or not we are in the "Some Should" category or not.
The means that God has provided are these. Every priest when he is ordained is given the authority by God to forgive his people their sins in his name.
In practice this means going to the priest, telling him honestly and in confidence what is wrong with ou and receiving from him not only the assurance of God's forgiveness, but also help, advice and encouragement as to how to follow the right road and avoid the wrong one in in the future.
Let's go back to the idea of losing our way.
Of course if you lose your way driving through a strange town and you've got a map and you just happen to know where you are then it's usually not too difficult to work out the way back to the right road. The problem about doing things that way is of course that we usually don't know where we are and we can't find it on the map because all the street names have been vandalized or obscured with graffiti, or were simply never there in the first place. The problem with sin is a similar one. People have been so busy removing or obscuring all the familiar moral landmarks during the past 30 years that most of us really aren't sure where we are.
Well then, if that fails you can ask some passer-by the way. But if your experience is anything like mine they will either say "Sorry, I'm a stranger in these parts" or "Don't ask me, I'm lost too" or (if you're in Ireland) "Well, if it's Ballymena you're wanting to get to you shouldn't start from here"
Thirdly, of course you can simply go on driving or walking around hoping that you'll find your way out; the chances are that you'll waste a lot of time and, in some places anyway, be putting yourself at risk simply because people will realise that you are lost and decide to take advantage of your vulnerability.
But just suppose that you happen to spot a man in a blue uniform with a helmet, or a car with a blue light on top. Isn't the sensible thing to hail them and say "I'm lost; I want to get to such-and-such; please will you show me the way?" and follow the directions they give?
Why is that course of action sensible? Because that is what their job is. That's one of the things which policemen have been ordained to do.
People sometimes worry that going to confession to a priest will be embarrassing or difficult. It should be no more so than going to the doctor when we are unwell.
Of course we must be willing to tell the doctor or the priest what our symptoms are. The person who went to the doctor's surgery and said "I'm not going to tell you what's wrong with me because I'm too embarrassed, so you've got to guess for yourself" would be shown the door double quick and told to come back when they were prepared to be more sensible.
For although it's true that a detailed and accurate medical diagnosis and the prescription to make us well again are the responsibility of the doctor, he needs to know from us, at least approximately what the symptoms are and which part of our body they are affecting - whether it's our toe, or our ear, or our heart or our stomach; whilst as for the cure: yes, it is their responsibility to prescribe but our responsibility to follow through their prescription.
Like so many other things, repentance is more easily done if we do it with a bit of help from someone else. Though no doubt there are many people who, so to say, repent "on their own", the one's who repent to the greatest benefit to themselves and to others are the ones who use the means which God has provided for us in the Sacrament of Confession precisely in order to make things easier for us.
Now isn't that a surprise!
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