Posts Tagged ‘confession’

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

One way of undermining community is to focus our critical energies on others, exposing their shortcomings and condemning their sins. Of course, as members in community we need to be morally vigilant and address injustice where it occurs, but when we only look outward in our vigilance we can quickly become saboteurs of the very thing towards which our evolution is aimed.

So James advises the Christian to examine the soul and moral life of him- or herself. It’s been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason: so “be quick to listen and slow to speak,” the apostle enjoins. And don’t just memorize and spout off doctrines, but seek to live out the truth they represent.

The tongue is a viper, so the proverb goes. Elsewhere in this same letter, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: though small and seemingly of minor significance, the tongue can steer the vessel of one’s life into all kinds of peril. So important is the tongue in the author’s estimation that anyone who believes and recites the confessions in church but cannot control their speech during the week is perpetuating a worthless religion.

We’ve all heard the maxim that “talk is cheap,” and surely that is true. But what comes forth from the mouth, as Jesus says, was first formed in the heart, which means that while talk may be cheap, it’s still a dependable witness to the soul’s general health.

PSALM 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

There is a high probability, although we can’t be absolutely certain, that David wrote this poetic prayer in the aftermath of his moral collapse. We hear in its words a profound sense of guilt and a desperate longing to be made clean. The sin he had tried to hide could no longer be blanketed behind a veil of denial and self-justification. As long as he persisted in walling off this part of himself, he was living a divided life.

For the ego this is rather typical, but for the soul – that dimension beyond our personality where our autobiography is archived and our highest spiritual aspirations are conceived – this divided state is intolerable. Whereas the ego coordinates the multiple roles we play in life, our soul thirsts for wholeness and authenticity. While David’s ego could go on with the charade of self-justification, his soul was tormented and in deep need of forgiveness.

Repentance involves a series of subtler moves beginning with the admission of guilt, and moving on through inner remorse, self-examination, personal confession, acceptance of consequences, attempted restitution, a pledge toward moral improvement, letting go of the past and moving on. The forgiveness of God makes all of this possible by holding before us the promise of freedom, love, and fulfillment.

HEBREWS 2:10-18

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

As “the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” Jesus’ suffering and death are being interpreted by the author as having accomplished the reconciliation of the world to God. How is that?

The imagery and its meaning is fairly straightforward. In the ritual of atonement as described in the book of Leviticus, the dynamic of reconciliation is represented in two separate but essentially related “episodes.” In the first, a goat (selected by the casting of lots) is sacrificed and its blood used to sanctify (make pure) the communal space between  God and the people. This was understood as God’s provision and initiative (since it is the first of the two episodes) on behalf of human salvation.

Following this, a second goat was brought before the people. The high priest placed his hand on the head of the animal and confessed the collective guilt of the community, effecting a transaction whereby the goat was made to carry this burden of guilt into the outlying wilderness and away from the people. This, then, was the response of the people to God’s provision of grace and forgiveness. God acted first and the people responded. Grace was revealed, guilt was confessed, and reconciliation was accomplished.

In using this ritual of atonement as a paradigm for the interpretation of Jesus’ passion and death, the New Testament authors were offering a lens into its meaning for human salvation. His blood sanctifies the place of contact (the cross), and our confession places the burden of our guilt on his body in order to receive a forgiveness already accomplished.

                                                                                               

Whereas early Christian reflection upon the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ centered its attention on his atoning death on the Cross and the Resurrection mystery, later generations expanded the frame with the symbols of Nativity and Ascension (the coming and return to God) of the world savior, and still later with Incarnation and Pentecost (the embodiment of the cosmic-creative Word in Jesus and the indwelling Spirit of Christ in the disciple community of the church).

A responsible theology will not simply throw these concepts under a common category, but will search out the evolution of Christian experience by following their expansion as symbols in the growing traditions of the New Testament.

And throughout, we must keep our eyes on the figure who is the axis around which all these symbols turn: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived among us, proclaimed the New Reality, reached compassionately into our pain, confusion, fear and need, suffered our rejection but came back every time with forgiveness and the promise of authentic life.

In the end, the full meaning of his life eludes the grasp and control of our rational minds. Jesus revealed something, and in Jesus something was revealed that escapes the logical formulas of dogmatic orthodoxy, something that instead invites us to ponder its mystery and contemplate its meaning for the adventure of our human journey into God.