Monday, April 10, 2017

True confession. . .

Pope Francis warned against treating the confessional like the dry cleaners, a place to make a quick transaction, wipe away our sins and steal a false pardon. He also stressed the need for Christians to be truly ashamed of their sins.  These come from a March 22 mass in the Vatican.

Francis' words are worth our own consideration.  As we make our way through Holy Week, we can easily be tempted to be a mere spectator, watching the events of our Lord's suffering and death unfold as if we had no stake in them.  It is too easy to marvel from afar instead of being drawn into this suffering and death with the deep and profound realization that our Lord suffered and died for me.

Private confession that was once normative among Lutherans has been replaced by the general confession of the Divine Service.  While the general confession of the Divine Service is not a bad thing, it is not a real replacement for individual confession and absolution.  There is something stark and blunt about repeating out loud the sins we carry so easily inside.  Indeed, part of the power of sin is its anonymity.  If nobody knows, it is so every easy to believe that we can hide these sins from God as well and therefore we are deprived of the gift of a clear conscience, the fruit of repentance that hears the Lord's voice in absolution.

I believe that there is little danger of Lutherans reverting to the kind confession practice that Luther and the Reformers challenged.  There is little danger of penance being assigned or satisfaction that draws our attention away from the wounds of Jesus and the great sigh of death that paid for those sins.  But there is a real danger that we treat confession rather shallowly -- as if it were a quick trip to the dry cleaners or as if confession and absolution were merely a quick stop (the way we do at the ATM).  The danger here is that it is no confession at all and that our false repentance leaves us without real forgiveness and without the true consolation of the Gospel.

Francis does not need to remind us that our age wears sins publicly, almost as badges of honor.  We have grown so comfortable with some sins that we bristle if someone reminds us that these are indeed sins.  We have used mercy itself to justify our sins and make it offensive to do anything but accept, condone, and tolerate those sins.  We have turned the Gospel into a principle which makes all things good that we judge good and ignores the voice of the Law.  Shame is not high on our list of feelings.  Throughout the media and in our own personal lives, we flaunt the things we have judged to be right by our feelings and shrug our shoulders if they conflict with God's will and command.  That is certainly true and yet our consciences still cry out for resolution, for peace, for absolution.  This comfort will not come with a quick trip through a car wash only to set our to get dirty again.

Part of confession involves the will and intent to amend our sinful lives under the power of the Holy Spirit.  Absent any will and desire to make this amendment, absolution is, in effect, permission to go and sin again.  And that is where we begin our week walking to the cross.  We come with the shame and guilt of the sins that caused our Lord to suffer so and die.  We come rejoicing in what His sacrifice has purchased in forgiveness and new life.  And we come endeavoring by the power of the Spirit not to live in complacency before that cross, striving as best we are able to resist the power of temptation and follow the voice of God through His Word.  The steps we walk toward Calvary during Holy Week are the same steps we walk in its shadow every day.  Let our joyful confidence in what His mercy has done draw us in to honest confession and blessed absolution and the Spirit will work, as He has promised, to help us live within this faith even as He rescues us when we fall.

Lord, have mercy. . .

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