SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 2011, THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

From St. Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth which we heard as the Epistle this morning:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you . . . was not Yes and No; but in Him it is always Yes.  For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. (1:19-20)

And a promise made by Jesus to His disciples after His resurrection from the dead, as recorded in the Gospel of John:

Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.  (20:23)

This morning I want to talk to you about the Sacrament of Penance, or, as it is known by most, Confession.  I am moved to do this today first of all because the time is appropriate.  We are now mid-way through Lent, and Lent, as you know, is the Church’s season of self-examination and introspection.  It is a time of penitence during which we are called to focus on our short-comings and our sins.  Lent is, then, a confessional season, and it is a good thing and an appropriate thing during Lent to think about Penance and Confession.

I am also minded to speak to you this morning about Confession, because I’m afraid that it is one of the most misunderstood of the Church’s ordinances, and, because misunderstood, it has fallen into disuse.  Among Anglicans, even Catholic-minded Anglicans, it is rarely exercised. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, where Penance was at one time very strictly required, the number of people who make their confession, I am told, has declined significantly in the past three decades.  And this is a bad thing for all concerned, Anglicans and Roman Catholics - a very bad thing - because Penance is an essential aspect of the ministry of the Church.  Without it something crucial is missing, and the Church’s ministry to her people falls short, for, like all the Sacraments, Penance is an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Penance is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It may well take place in the presence of one of His ministers; essentially though, it is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ Himself.  It is a way by which the Church, as He commanded, exercises His ministry and makes present and active right now the grace and salvation which is the purpose of His life - that Life which brings life to the world.  Again, like all the sacraments Penance is an encounter with Jesus Christ.  There we meet Him; there we come face to face with His mercy and His love; there in Him, forgiven, we are made to be a new creation.  “The old passed away; behold, the new has come.” (II Cor 5:17)

What Jesus accomplished in His dying and rising - atonement, the reconciliation to God of a world estranged from Him - those happy things which He accomplished, Jesus gave power and authority to His Church to exercise and make real.  And so, Penance is a personal and particular aspect of His universal salvation, and this means that it is one way that salvation can touch you and me as individuals.  It is nothing less than that: God’s love and forgiveness for all humanity focused on you and on me.

As we heard from St. Paul, Jesus Christ is God’s ‘Yes.’ God’s ‘Yes’ to the whole human race.  “Not “Yes and No,’ but in Him it is always ‘Yes’.” He is the “Yes” which God spoke to the promises made to Abraham and Israel, and through Abraham and Israel He is the ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’ (So be it!) to God’s purpose for the whole world.  In Christ God has said ‘Yes’ to us - ‘Yes’ - and He has claimed us as His own.

The sacraments of the Church are God’s way of saying that ‘Yes’ to each individual Christian.  They are particular forms and individual expressions of His ‘Yes.’ He said it first in creation when he gave us existence and the possibility of a life in fellowship with Him.  He said it again and decisively in Christ Jesus, from whose risen life all the Sacraments flow.  He says it in the Scriptures and He repeats and renews that ‘Yes’ in the sacraments.

In Baptism God says ‘Yes’ to an infant or to an adult life to be dedicated to Him and joined mystically to His life. 

In the Mass he says ‘Yes’ to the routine of human life and provides spiritual nourishment to empower that life in the world. 

‘Yes’ to human love in Marriage. 

‘Yes’ to health of body and soul in Unction, making possible spiritual growth even out of those things which threaten life. 

‘Yes’ to the life of the Church, His household, in Holy Orders. 

And He pronounces ‘Yes’ upon us in the Sacrament of Penance

There God is victorious, as always, over sin.  There He does not allow our sinfulness or the weakness of our will to destroy us or to part us from His love.

“Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” A question put by Paul (Romans 8:25).  And Paul answers, “Nothing.” Paul’s answer is reiterated in every confession.  Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing.  Not even sin.

And that is exactly what this Sacrament is all about: God’s ‘Yes’ spoken to each of us, for we encounter Him there in His triumphant forgiveness, and we hear personally and anew the ‘Yes’ which He pronounces upon each of our lives. There He blots out and does away with all those things great and small, inside us and outside us that move our lives away from Him.  In penance He frees us from the shackles of our past and points us toward His future.  It is, therefore, not the negative thing which some people suppose it to be.  Rather, it is overwhelmingly positive and joyful.

There is, of course, a ‘No’ contained within God’s ‘Yes.’ But even this ‘No’ is a joyful and positive thing, for it is God’s ‘No’ to sin.  Call it God’s wrath, if you will.  And we should be thankful for that ‘No’; we should praise Him for His wrath.  It is a blessed wrath, a holy wrath, a saving wrath, for it is directed not towards us, but towards everything that hurts us and threatens our life and fellowship with Him.  God declares ‘No’ to those things, and in that ‘No’ He says ‘Yes’ to you and me.  As Paul told us, “In Him it is all ‘Yes’.”

Every time we make our confession God invites you and me to add our ‘No’ to His ‘No.’ We examine our lives and single out those things that have torn us away from Him and from one another, those things by which we have betrayed ourselves.  We renew our repentence, that “turning away” from all those things within us which are un-Godly and opposed to His love.  And in Confession we say ‘No’ to them, and we get rid of them.

This is easy to do generally and in the abstract.  There is little difficulty and little remorse in admitting abstractly the weakness in our wills and in our faith.  It is a small thing to make an uninvolved review of the progress of our lives before mass or in our daily prayers.  It is much more difficult and - yes - sometimes even painful - to do this personally and in the presence of another Christian - even one in whom the Church has entrusted her power of “binding and loosing,” “forgiving or retaining.”

Painful or not, it is wiser to make that more difficult step of penance and individual sacramental confession, for there is a danger in abstraction: if we confess our sins in the abstract, we may well receive the assurance of forgiveness in the abstract.  And, frankly, what good is that? All of us desire and sometimes we demand from God a personal encounter.  (“Lord, show yourself. Where are you?”) Yet if we are to receive God’s person, we must at least offer Him our own person and show ourselves.  Penance is an effective way of doing just that.

We hear from the prophet Isaiah as he speaks for God to His people:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. (43:25)

That prophecy has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, and it is most fully realized in you and me when we show ourselves and bare our souls and encounter God personally in Confession.

Isaiah prophesies again:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth. (43:18)

Dear Brothers and Sisters, take advantage of this Sacrament.  It is one of God’s greatest gifts to us in the Church.  It is an encounter with Jesus Christ and the assurance of His forgiveness.  It is a new thing, a beginning, a fresh start, for it renews in us the triumphant and saving ‘Yes’ of God.

Again, from Saint Paul:

If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold the new has come.

Amen.