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Pray for me a sinner too

3rd Sunday after Trinity BCP

02 July 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The tut tutting murmerers are looking down their respectable noses at the bad company Jesus is keeping, as if somehow these people might contaminate him. I cannot be the only one old (or young!) enough to remember Bad Company more as a successful band from the classic rock era of the 70s, but despite the way words (such as wicked) change their meanings, I think we can all agree on what we mean by bad company. The theme of recent weeks in St. Luke continues…namely that God is open to the outcast, and his merciful holiness reaches out to the sinner. Jesus explains further with some parables… a lost sheep found by the shepherd…a lost coin found by a woman. And so, when he eats with sinners, we are to understand in similar terms that he is eating with the 'lost'.

There is no pretence that the tax-collectors and sinners were anything other than 'lost'. But actually this counts in their favour. If something is lost, then it is precious and worth finding. If sinners are the lost, then we are precious to God and therefore precious to Jesus. So off he goes in search of us. And when he finds us, he calls on angels to rejoice with him. We share with God the task of seeking out and finding what is lost, and sounding the call to repentance. Within present day controversies in the Anglican Communion we have to search for, and live with, those who are lost either in bigotry and narrow mindedness…or others lost in going along with whatever the latest secular fashion might be. Closer to home we might consider how much is lost in violence, in revenge, in hatred, and find a better way.

There is no way to understand the depths of God's mercy and grace if we don't recognize the capacity for sin within ourselves. We are uncertain about how to cope with the nagging guilt left over from wrongdoing that we bury, deny or ignore, and how to deal with the subsequent distancing from God that we experience. We are in danger too, of showing a pious harshness toward others whose sins have been made public. Protective of our own precarious righteousness, we allow ourselves only to see sin in others. Divine sight sees instead, the precious lost sinner in all of us, and rejoices at repentance.

I am a regular penitent, and the sacrament is no longer called confession, but rather reconciliation. The Church of England traditionally teaches that confession is optional, even though provision is made in the Book of Common Prayer as part of the Visitation of the Sick. The received wisdom is that 'all can, none must, some should' but my personal belief is quite clear that all should. What puts anybody in such a special category as a sinner that they shouldn't make confession?

Working in a hospice as a young lay chaplain, I heard the priest speak time and time again of the burden of some sin weighing heavily across decades of many lives, and of the relief, even in ones 80s or 90s of finally getting some (usually quite minor) guilty secret off the chest before death. I have no doubt of the psychological benefits of making confession, and believe strongly in the theological efficacy of being reconciled both to God and Church through the ministry of the priest. That is part of his raison d'etre after all. I'll happily explain the sacrament to anybody who wishes and prepare them for it.

I had to smile at the end of hearing a confession as a young priest: the celebration ends with the beautiful words 'Go in Peace for the Lord has put away all your sins, and pray for me a sinner too'. Instead of going in peace, the chap did indeed start praying aloud for me a sinner too…and went on for about 5 minutes…saying words to the effect that 'I am sure you aren't Father…not really'. Well, he was wrong of course. We are all precious sinners.

Many people avoid making sacramental confession because of a subconscious unwillingness to identify sin, and name it. A laudable humility ('I'm sure I'm as full of faults as the next man…I never claim to be perfect') is combined with a reluctance actually to put the finger on the imperfection. As if actually admitting 'I behaved dishonestly, or unkindly, or lost my temper, or cheated' is too painful. There is a buried fear of saying anything as frank as this, even to ourselves, let alone anybody else. A desire to avoid probing a wound or putting pressure on a scar best left alone… Yes, any liturgical and generic statements of guilt are fine, and we sing the Kyrie Eleison at the tops of our voices (or the choir do!)… but specifics are a different matter, and sacramental confession therefore becomes a problem.

If we were absolutely convinced that God's forgiveness was real, we would risk admitting our guilt. It is when we think that God is like us, only half-forgiving, still nursing a grievance, that it becomes too dangerous to own up. We forget the total joy of the angels and the celebration in heaven over the repentance of just one precious sinner, and need to be reminded to come in confidence to the throne of grace, and go in peace for the Lord has put away all our sins.
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