Monday, June 6, 2011
Baptism, Confession and Absolution
Confession and absolution are the practical way in which baptism is lived out in the daily life of the Christian. It does not necessarily stand completely upon its own in this way but flows from baptism and extends the baptismal event into the present moment. To daily die to sin and rise to the new person you are in baptism is not primarily a mental activity but the practical and concrete domain of confession and absolution. The call to daily repentance is not a call to prayer but a call to live out this baptismal identity through regular confession and absolution.
I am not speaking of a new law or command here but that which flows naturally from baptism. Perhaps this is why we Lutherans have trouble explaining what our baptism has to do with our daily life -- other than the mental remembrance that I am baptized. We talk a great deal about baptism but for most Lutherans baptism remains an event caught in time, it is something that took place but whose consequences and effects are not easily connected to the present moment and to this day and this life. We have problems seeing the value of or experiencing the gift of confession and absolution because baptism itself is so far from our Christian identity and the practice of our faith.
Strange, isn't it, that we Lutherans tend to be more at home in an evangelism program borrowed from D. James Kennedy or in a stewardship program borrowed from the Baptists or in a "liturgy" and songs that come right out of the latest non-denominational setting than we are in private confession and absolution? The general confession and absolution (or its declaration of grace) that takes place publicly as the preparation for the Divine Service is a relatively new addition in comparison to the ancient practice of private confession. Perhaps the strength in numbers gives us the courage to own our sins and express the contrition and sorrow of our Christian heart. In any case, the place of confession and absolution is far removed from the lives of the ordinary Lutheran -- not at all similar to the situation in the first century or more of the Reformation.
We could suggest that we are afraid of being painted as "Catholic" or that we would go if we needed it but we don't need it, but I wonder if the real problem is more related to baptism and how we understand the living out of our once for the rest of our lives baptismal event. Where baptism lives strong in our hearts and in our thinking and in our piety, confession and absolution flow naturally forth.
Over the years I have had any number of folks wonder why we might leave out the public confession and absolution on Sunday morning when there is a baptism scheduled for that service. It is worth reminding that the liturgy of baptism and our remembrance of that baptism as we watch another claimed by water and the Word are itself an event filled with confession and absolution. Not the same, for sure, but connected. Then again, as one woman put it to me so long ago, "Why did you omit the confession because of that baptism? I needed that confession and absolution." When I pointed out the connection between confession and absolution and baptism, she wondered what "some kid's baptism had to do with her?" When I offered to schedule private confession and absolution, her reply was, "I don't need it that bad." Therein lies the problem. It is not simply a confession and absolution issue but a baptismal one.