The Joy of Confession

Here Are 6 Things Albert Einstein Never Said - HISTORY
Albert Einstein

It is said that an example of insanity is the performing of the same action over and over again and expecting different results.  This supposed pearl of wisdom is often attributed to Albert Einstein, although there seems to be little to no evidence that he ever said or wrote any such thing.

In addition to challenging the attribution, I would also challenge the accuracy of this statement.  As somebody who works in insurance in his secular job, I can certainly attest to there being some truth to this.  A policy either covers a particular eventuality or it doesn’t, and no amount of complaining from a customer who has bought an inadequate level of cover will magically change the policy documents.

However, this principle cannot be applied universally.  Sometimes we can do the same thing over and over and eventually see different results.

This is called faith.  It is the spiritual knowledge that God is able, and the placing of our trust in Him.  As we say at the end of every Divine Liturgy:

V. Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us
R. According to the hope which we have placed in You.

We see this faith, this trust, in the two examples of healing in today’s Gospel.  These events immediately follow the famous Sermon on the Mount – the sermon that gives us some of the most memorable sayings of the Saviour:

You cannot be a slave to God and to mammon.

Matthew 6: 24

Do not judge, that you may not be judged.

Matthew 7: 1

‘Do not cast your pearls before swine.

Matthew 7: 6

Not everyone who says to me, Me `Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 7: 21

It is the sermon in which He gives to us the Beatitudes and the Our Father – and which is recorded in divergent forms both by St Matthew and by St Luke, although in the latter Gospel it comes to us as the Sermon on the Plain.  Nonetheless, it is a sermon of instruction in the truths of God, and how humankind is to relate to Him – the imparting of faith into the hearts of his disciples.

Christ heals the leper

After descending the mountain, the Saviour encounters these two people who demonstrate great faith in his ability to heal – perhaps two of the most unlikely people to approach Him for one reason or another.  There was the leper – an outcast from society, from religious observance, and even from his own family; and there was the centurion, a Roman official, part of the occupying alien force, who would not wish to be seen placing his trust in this Jewish preacher.  Were they among the listeners at the Sermon only moments before, perhaps standing on the fringes of the crowd? The Gospel-writers do not tell us.

What they do tell us is that both men demonstrate great faith in the Saviour, and in his power to heal.  And the healing we receive from the Saviour takes a number of forms, touching on our whole person.  When we explored the Healing of the Paralysed man last autumn, we focused heavily on physical suffering and healing.

Today, I would like for us to turn our attentions towards spiritual healing – the healing that we receive from the injury that is caused to us by sin.

Some words from St John’s Gospel:

Jesus said to them, ‘Peace to you. Just as the Father sent Me, so I Am sending you.”  And after saying this, He breathed into them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. ‘If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold people bound, they are held bound.’

John 20: 21-23

With this action, this imparting of healing power to the Apostles, the Saviour grants to his Church the ability to forgive the sins of all who truly turn to Him for healing and grace, and so in the life of the Church we have the sacrament of Confession.

Given the situation of our small parish, which has had to survive for our entire existence without the ministry of a priest, this sacrament has not featured in our spiritual life.  However, if God wills it, we may soon find our spiritual life transformed with the sacramental ministry of a priest.  So I would like to take this opportunity to allow us to think about how the sacrament of Confession might fit into our life together, particularly as we come from different backgrounds.  Some of us have been Orthodox Christians for a number of years and are accustomed to a pattern of regular confession in our lives, and miss it now that we do not have it; others of us are still new to the Orthodox Faith, and the first experience of Orthodox life has been in a small, new, priestless mission parish, and the thought of confession before a priest might seem daunting.

Christ heals the centurion’s servant

When I was growing up as an Anglican, my family and I belonged to the flavour of Anglicanism that placed high value on the sacraments.  This was in the Caribbean, where the Anglican church is very much the product of the Oxford Movement, which was an effort to try to restore elements of apostolic faith and practice to the Anglican tradition.  I was taught about Confession in my Confirmation classes, and a rite of confession was included in our prayer books.  However, it did not feature in the life of the parish from week to week.  Although I have no doubt that the priest would have gladly heard the confession of anybody who asked, there was no advertised time set aside in the week for people to come to confession, and I do not recall ever having heard a homily in which the people were encouraged to come to confession.

Within the wider, heavily Christian society, there was also a culture of respectability.  The relationship with the priest – and church life in general – was a context in which one sought to appear respectable and upright before others. To be known to be involved in wrongdoing, or to admit to it, would have been a very difficult thing indeed.

This is not intended as a condemnation of any culture or Christian family – far from it!  Rather, it is my way of expressing the perceptions of a teenage boy – of setting the scene in which I grew up, and giving an explanation of why the concept of standing before my priest and speaking aloud my darkest secrets seemed so terrifying, and why I did not approach the sacrament for a number of years.

When I returned to the UK, I encountered within the Anglican church here a concept which was new to me and which was often applied to Confession: all may, some should, none must.  The idea is that Confession is there for those who feel they might benefit from it, but that it isn’t really necessary for everybody.  I believe that this is a very spiritually dangerous view of Confession, for it provides an excuse – as though we need another – for people to avoid making that difficult but necessary confrontation of our sin and approaching the throne of mercy.  The only people who are not in need of the sacrament of Confession are those who have not sinned.  However, read what St John says:

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

1st John 1: 8-9

Who wouldn’t want that?

It was only when I became Orthodox that I began to understand Confession within its proper context. It was practised regularly and people understood how it fitted into the Christian life. I began to see it in a healthier and positive light: not something to be ashamed or afraid of but rather something to look forward to.  The Church is not a place where we have to appear respectable before one another – thank God! – or where we have to impress others with our piety; it is a place where we come to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are spiritually sick, and in need of healing.

The world often criticises us, and tells us that the Church is full of hypocrites.  My answer to that? “Good!”  The Church is exactly the place where we should expect to find hypocrites, and gossips, and people who are unkind, and all sinners who have come to Christ, knowing that there is something wrong with them, and that they need his forgiveness. The Church is often likened to a spiritual hospital, where those in need of healing come to receive spiritual medicine. Yet who has ever heard of a hospital where the sick must wait outside and get better before they are allowed in? If hypocrites and other sinners cannot find a home in the Church, then where?

This is what the world does not understand.

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My godson, who often serves with me at the altar, posted to Facebook a video of his baptism last November, to mixed responses from his friends.  Some were derisive, others were curious, while others were supportive.  Even among the more supportive comments was the warning: “Just make sure they don’t try to change who you are as a person”.

The world does not understand.  Our purpose as Christians is not primarily finding a sense of community, although that is good; it is not mainly about embracing a better outlook on life; although that too is good; and it is not just about giving us something worthwhile to do on Sunday morning, which is also good.  Our purpose is primarily our salvation – salvation from the corruption of sin and death that is the state of humankind.

The Transfiguration

So changing who we are is precisely what the Christian life is all about.  Anybody coming to the Church expecting not to be changed will find no purpose here. That is why we are born again as a new creation at our baptism: we cast off our old self and we are born anew.  Yet we recognise that the sacraments are not magic spells – Baptism does not turn us into a perfect person in an instant.  We will still continue to sin, still face the same temptations, still fight against the same passions.  We might still be prone to anger easily, we might still be impatient with others at times, we might still have a weakness for one harmful indulgence or another, we might still lack love towards others, we might still work in a place where it is difficult to escape the culture of gossip.

But the gift of God is that these are not things for which we are condemned to carry the burden of guilt forever, for in Confession, we have the ability to turn away once again from these things.  We might then go away and often fall to the same temptations, and we might come back time and time again, confessing the same sins, and the world might think that we are indeed insane. Yet, our salvation is the result of our ongoing and lifelong co-operation with God, our willing and voluntary allowing of his grace to operate in our lives and to infuse us, constantly changing who we are, constantly transforming us.

In preparing for confession, we examine our lives, our thoughts, our actions, and we identify where we have fallen short of God’s will for us, we call to mind the things that we have done that we ought not to have done, and the things that we ought to have done but have not done.  We examine our lives, our relationship with God and with others, and we call to mind all the ways in which this has not reflected the saving love of Christ.  Then we come – we come to Him in faith, because like the leper and like the centurion, we know in our hearts that He has the power to help us to overcome them, and to find healing for our souls as well as our bodies.

And, in the Church, we have the knowledge that this is a journey that we are all making together, as broken people together, in need of healing together, and together we pray for and support each other, without judgement, without condemnation, but in the knowledge that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Once we realise this, Confession will cease to be something from which we shy away, and something which we dread, and we will begin to look forward as often as possible to turning to Christ with faith in his power of forgiveness.

So, when we eventually find ourselves with a priest, and we have the opportunity to avail ourselves of the sacrament, let us express our faith in Christ to heal us as we echo the words of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

From the Divine Liturgy according to St Germanus

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