To be honest I’m not very good about getting regular checkups in my diary. I know that I should go to the dentist twice a year; I know that I should go regularly to get my eyes tested; I know that I should have my blood pressure and cholesterol level checked, and of course, if I’m summoned by the doctor I go, but those things are not high on my agenda. So I suddenly realised that my reading glasses were less effective and scratched! So I went to the optician. It turned out I hadn’t been for five years! To cut a long story short I came out with glasses which I have to wear all the time. In those five years my sight had deteriorated so much that that was thought to be necessary.
I put the glasses on and – wow! – I could see things I hadn’t seen for ages. But I hadn’t really noticed that the distance was no longer in sharp focus. I had got used to how things were.
And what about my soul? What about the state of that? I fortunately have a good Spiritual Director whom if I haven’t seen him for a while will call me – ‘Shouldn’t we meet?’ Of course we should – I just hadn’t made that check-up a priority either. So I go along and we chat about what has been going on in my life and in my prayer and seek to refocus both. And the truth is that without that refocusing, without that realisation that not all in the garden of my soul is blossoming, I could lose the focus of my life altogether – and not notice it. The conversation and making my confession are as important as any other health check that I may receive, its another and vital dimension of the whole me.
There is always some confusion about sacramental confession in the Church of England. Mention it and often people will say something like ‘I thought that’s what Catholics did?’ or ‘Can we do that in the Church of England?’ But the simple answer is, we have never lost it from the church. Archbishop Cranmer located it, or hid it, depending on how you see it, in ‘The Visitation of the Sick’ in the Book of Common Prayer, so you have to hunt it out but there it is and those powerful words, words which we all, from time to time need to hear
OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Yes, I know that in my own prayer I can repent and know the power of God’s forgiveness; yes, I know that in the Eucharist I can recall my sins and hear the words of forgiveness but sometimes, sometimes, to hear these direct words, to me, from a priest, is an assurance that I am reconciled to God; words and assurance like no other.
There is a great and simple statement about sacramental confession and Anglicans
‘All may, none must, some should.’
The big question for us is how we know if we are part of that third group, the ‘some’ who should. All I know is that there are some things that I need to talk through with another priest, there are some things that I cannot quieten my conscience about, there are some things that I need to say out loud and out loud hear those words of forgiveness, just as those who came to Jesus heard those words of forgiveness.
When Jesus was confronted, in John 8.1-11, with the woman caught in the very act of adultery he won’t participate in the condemnation of her that is going on. Instead he challenges those self righteous men who are dragging her outside the walls to stone her to death with the fact and relaity of their own sinfulness.
‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (v.7)
Of course, one by one, they leave. There was not one of them there who could honestly throw the stone. And so Jesus turns and says to the woman.
‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ (v.11)
In a similar way that is what the priest says finally to the penitent at the end of confession. The words of forgiveness have been spoken, baptismal grace has been restored, it needs to be retained. So why do I keep having to go back to make my confession again?
We are following Jesus on the way of the cross and this, in terms of the Stations of the Cross, is the halfway point. Though Jesus is no longer carrying his cross – Simon is doing that – scripture doesn’t tells us that, unlike when we are carrying the cross on the Via Dolorosa we take turns, hand it back, hand it on, Jesus took the cross back from Simon – though he may have done. Nevertheless, Jesus is weak and exhausted.
As we walk the Way of the Cross today we notice that we are going uphill. At various points the cobbled streets are quite steep. They are stepped, to help us manage the climb. But perhaps they weren’t for Jesus; it wasn’t made easy for him. Instead, he is being dragged, pushed, beaten, jostled, abused as he makes his way along and inevitably he falls again, flat on his face, flat on the floor. He falls for the second time.
I fall continuously, I fall constantly. As Jesus said to Peter he says to me
‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matthew 26.41)
Peter denied the Lord three times, he fell, and fell and fell. And I fall and need picking up, restoring, forgiving and set on my way again. How many times? Seven times? Jesus says
‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18.22)
Jesus gets back up and so do I. The journey continues for him and for me and for you.
Lord, forgive me.
As many times as I fail you,