A reflection on sacramental confession from Fr. Shawn
In some of the darkest days of their lives, the disciples were hiding, locked up in a home. They had seen Jesus die with their own eyes only three days ago. Suddenly there He was standing before them, showing them his wounds, alive and victorious. Apparently, all of humanity's sin and death had not overcome Him. The living Jesus had come to share his peace, breathing His Spirit on them, and authorizing them with the most disruptive power the world would come to know: the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel lets us into that locked room when Jesus said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23) This is no benign religious power, no motivational talk or sentiment. No this was far more dangerous, think of it like nuclear material, passed along really, really, carefully from one set of fisherman's hands to another. Be careful with this stuff, it is the power of God’s Kingdom put in the hands of the apostles of Christ’s church. Yikes. Scripture shows us that the sacred and powerful work of peace-making begins with Christ, transforms us, and is extended through us for the sake of others.
“...in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us;...(2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
All Christians are invited to share in Christ's ministry of making things right in their own lives and in the world. Most of us have more of a heart to share in this peace-making work “out there” in the world, and less so in our inner life. If we continue like this, our campaigns for justice and reconciliation become a charade, a distraction, or a vain pursuit that conveniently overlooks the wounded condition of our soul. The journey to inward reconciliation goes hand-in-hand with the journey to outward reconciliation. This is, after all, how Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
This Lent, I’ve noticed in our community a prominent need to set some things right in our inner lives. How incredible, to see the Spirit of God sweeping through our lives with His healing power. As people ask me how they can cooperate with Lent's renovating work I’ve recommended a less practiced but incredibly powerful ministry of reconciliation in the Christian life: Confession. I remember the first time I did this with a priest it was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. It was as if the power of the Gospel poured into a new space in my real life, setting me free from old sin I’d been dragging around and accustomed to carrying. Travel light my friends, confess your sins and be welcomed by a God who is faithful and just to forgive us (1 John 1:9).
There is no mediator like Christ, who in His passion, drew together the expanse between our fallen lives and the holiness of God. There is no priest like Christ, who not only offers a sacrifice but is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 10). The ministry of reconciliation He imparts on his apostles and priests is a true Kingdom power to set captives free. It’s true what James 5:16 says “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
This kind of sacramental confession (called the Reconciliation of a Penitent in the BCP 447), is not required of anyone, because privately confessing your sins to God is a privilege all may enjoy. However, sometimes there is a need to take-up James’ guidance to confess to another who is entrusted with this ministry to heal and to receive a special blessing of priestly absolution in the Name of God. In my own life, private confession has done the heavy lifting that my soul often needs. I invite you to enjoy the same gift in confession.
How it works
The priest and penitent sit in chairs (though sometimes the one confessing kneels on a kneeler) usually next to a half-drawn curtain, or screen between the two. In the liturgy for confession on page 447 of the prayer book, there is a brief form for confession that takes less than 10 minutes (see below). In it, the penitent is led in confession, and the priest offers some brief pastoral guidance and/or spiritual direction, sometimes assigning scripture to be memorized, prayers to take-up, things to go make right, or thoughts to contemplate. His role is to help you cooperate with the reconciling work of Christ in your life.
The Reconciliation of a Penitent
The Penitent begins
Bless me, for I have sinned.
The Priest says
The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may
truly and humbly confess your sins: In the Name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.
Here the Priest may offer counsel, direction, and comfort.
The Priest then pronounces this absolution
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to
absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of
his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his
authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
The Priest adds
The Lord has put away all your sins.
Penitent Thanks be to God.
The Priest concludes
Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.
Isn't that beautiful! If this is new to you, as it was to me years ago, don’t be afraid. In a light-hearted way, give it a shot and be open to being surprised by the grace of God.
When I Can Confess
Through Lent I’ll be available to hear confessions on Sunday morning from 9:00-9:30 AM in the sanctuary. We are carving out space in the back of the church near the sacristy. Throughout the rest of the year, we will begin setting aside the first Sunday of the month for confession during those hours. You may also contact me over email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to set up a time to confess.
Other FAQ About Confession
Isn’t it weird to confess your sins to someone? Maybe for the world, but not for Christians (James 5:16).
But I know my priest personally, isn’t that weird? For me, this is not weird even with friends, but I can see how it might be for some who aren’t used to it at first. Like a doctor who sees bodies all day and gets used to them, hearing people’s confession is not something I do as your friend but as your spiritual “doctor” or priest, and in a healthy way, we get used to it. Also, the confession space is sacred and put in a special place in my life that doesn’t change what I think of you or others but is kept in a holy confidence that I give to the Lord. For me, it occupies a different “headspace” than the rest of my life and interactions with you.
How safe is my confession? Every confession is kept in absolute moral and sacred confidence. Even in confession I would not bring up your past confessions or refer to them in any way. You may refer to them, but as far as confidentiality, we really do believe at absolution “the Lord has put away all your sins.”
But won’t I be embarrassed to share my sins (they’re really bad)? Everyone thinks this, and you might be right. Your sins probably are terrible, but get over yourself, you’re not alone in the community of sinners that is the church. More importantly, be mindful of how shame empowers your secret sins and reject that temptation in the name of Christ. Your sins are not greater than the cross. Bring your sins to Him who is able and faithful to heal you.
Do I really need to confess to someone, let alone a priest? No. But as your priest, you have a great wealth for spiritual direction, growth and freedom in Christ available to you. You have only one mediator and advocate in Christ, but your priest is one given a special role in the church to share in the ministry of reconciliation for your sake. All may confess to a priest, some should, but none must. It is a great gift, not a burden.
Am I required to? Why would I? No, none are required. For a long time, Anglicans have said about confession, “All may; some should; none must.” It is a special gift of grace to assist the people of God as they continue to unpack the Good Life they have in Christ.
More questions? Email me at email@example.com