There’s a great phrase used in the New Testament – a phrase that speaks to the heart of our faith – to the heart of our identity. Here it is: One another. One another. Now that you hear it, it’ll probably strike you as familiar.
Love one another.
Wash one another’s feet.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
Let us stop passing judgment on one another.
This little phrase speaks beautifully of the mutuality inherent in our life of faith. It demonstrates beautifully that within the Body of Christ each person must be intentionally engaged with the other – on a two way street. It’s not that only one person acts or speaks or teaches or whatever – rather as one is engaged with the other, that other is equally engaged with the one. Thus we read about the first Christians in the book of Acts, Chapter 4: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” — And so the list goes on as we scan through the New Testament writings:
Bear with one another.
Be devoted to one another.
Instruct one another.
Build one another up.
All of which brings us to today’s passage in James, in which the Apostle says: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Now in this little paragraph James doesn’t give much detail about what he has in mind as we “confess our sins to one another.” He doesn’t give clear instructions on how we should go about doing this. The fact that James doesn’t give a lot of details means we will have to display some wisdom. Indeed, we must take great care here. For example, it would probably not be the better part of wisdom for us to break into small groups this morning and confess our deepest sins to one another. To give a more specific example, it would probably not be the better part of wisdom for a person who is fragile to share their shortcomings and sins with someone who is neither sensitive nor thoughtful. If we aren’t careful it would be very easy for us introduce practices of confession that lead to pain, rather than to the healing of Christ. Certain practices could hurt either one who makes the confession or even hurt the one who hears it. So we have to display a great deal of wisdom if we are to follow James’ instruction.
Now perhaps we should acknowledge that we haven’t exactly chosen a very honest way into our discussion this morning. You see, the issue for us Presbyterians probably lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. Our problem probably isn’t that we’re on the verge of confessing everything carelessly and openly – our problem isn’t that we’ll confess our sins to one another without care and wisdom. Our problem is more likely that we won’t confess anything at all – most of us would much prefer to keep almost everything private.
This past week, I can’t remember where exactly I was, I saw a man with a t-shirt on that read: “the right to privacy is sacred.” The right to privacy is sacred. Well, there’s probably some truth there. Perhaps the message of that t-shirt represents a healthy response to overly-intrusive corporations, or a healthy response to an overly-intrusive state – in those cases privacy certainly matters. But in our culture and in our tradition, the emphasis on privacy often translates into a general unwillingness to share personal issues or struggles with one another. There’s that phrase again. In many ways we are private people – we keep our hurts, our grief, our pain, to ourselves. We touched on this just a couple of weeks ago – we acknowledged our tendency to not ask others to pray for us because we think our issues are private.
And how much more does this apply to our sins – to the confession of sin. Our problem as Presbyterians is likely not that we will rush out and confess everything in an unwise way – our problem is more likely that we will keep it all to ourselves – to keep it all private.
I’ve spoken of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before – he was a leader of the Confessing Church in Germany during Nazi Rule. The Confessing Church was a community of those who refused to accept the German Church’s capitulation to Nazi-ism. And from September 1935 until it was closed by the Gestapo in 1937, Bonhoeffer led a secret, illegal seminary of the Confessing Church in the town of Finkenwalde. At the seminary were found those who followed the way of Jesus Christ, those who were learning to be pastors, those who suffered for their faith, and those who (in the middle of it all) tried to form a genuinely Christian community. Out of his experience at the seminary in Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer wrote his powerful, little book Life Together.
One of the things he describes in that book, based on his experience at Finkewalde, is the practice of mutual confession they engaged in. And interestingly, he begins that his discussion with the words of James we’re looking at: “Confess your sins to one another.”
Now Bonhoeffer displays a good deal of that wisdom we talked about a moment ago. He is well aware of the some of the dangers of mutual confession. At the same time, however, Bonhoeffer wants to take James’ instruction seriously. Doing so he points us to several powerful reasons why we should learn to confess, or acknowledge our sins, to one another. Of course one could perhaps think of some good psychological reasons for mutual confession. Mutual confession might help you get something off your chest – to unburden yourself of something. Mutual confession might help you discover that you’re not alone in a particular struggle. These might be real benefits of mutual confession. But neither Bonhoeffer nor, more importantly, the earliest Christians leaders want to offer us merely psychological insight into why it is good to confess our sins to one another.
In John chapter 20 Jesus says to his disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Hearing these words, Bonhoeffer points out that if I confess my sins to another Christian, that person is able to speak God’s word of forgiveness and grace to me. Through practices of confession, God may speak his word of healing to me. Yes, Bonhoeffer knows that we might experience God’s forgiveness and grace directly, without confessing sins to one another. So we can’t make mutual confession of sin a kind of absolute law – you must do this. But at the same time, God has given us to live together in community – we are defined by community. And in the context of community God offers us divine help through one another.
When I acknowledge something I have said or done to separate myself from God – when I confess something in my life that is contrary to God’s purpose for me – in that situation God gives the gift of a sister or brother. And in her speaking to me I can hear the voice of Christ: “You are forgiven. You are not bound by the past. You are God’s child. You need not be afraid. You need not live in shame. You are given the strength to live a new life.
If we do not move, even if it be every so slowly and carefully, toward forming a community where such confession is possible, then it will be very difficult for us to break through to the certainty of our forgiveness – to break through to the divine healing of which James speaks.
But let’s stop and change direction for a moment. You see at the heart of this whole discussion is a word that might cause us some trouble – a word that has largely been banished from our culture. The word, you may have guessed – is the word ‘sin’.
Now it seems to me that there are two ways to think about ‘sin’. But when we hear the word, we generally think only of the first way. The first way to think about sin is really in terms of pride. The first way to think about sin is in terms of an insistence that I want to live my life my way, thank you very much. God may have a particular vision for human life – but I have mine – and I’ll stick with my own. In fact, within the Christian tradition this way of thinking about sin – sin as a fundamental pride – has always been given priority. So we think of sin as coming to expression like this:
I’ll spend my money on whatever I want to spend my money on.
Or, I’ll be the kind of person I want to be.
Or, I’ll treat the environment however I want to treat the environment.
Or, I’ll have sex with whoever I want to have sex with, assuming they’re willing.
So many actions, so many ways of living in the world do fall under the broad category of sin as pride. Sin as wanting things my way – rather than wanting things according to the way of the God who creates me, the God who shows me the truly human way of his Son Jesus.
And no doubt for James the confession of such sins would be part of mutual confession. We are called to build relationships or a community in which we can acknowledge to one another those words and actions of ours that represent a refusal of God’s intention. And as we confess such things, we might hear of Christ speaking to us, through a sister or brother: “You are forgiven; walk now in the truly human way – walk in my way.”
But there is another way to think about sin, a second way to describe sin. And the truth is that this second way of thinking about sin almost explodes the category of sin, almost explodes the idea of sin. We think of sin so much in terms of pride – of self will – we almost can’t think of sin differently. But there is another way.
The philosopher Kierkegaard refers to this second view of sin as the sin of not being a self. There are many for whom the problem is not that they pride-fully say to God “I’ll do it my own way. I’ll take my pleasure. I’ll be who I want to be.” There are many for whom the problem is not that they pride-fully say, “My way or the highway.” For some individuals the problem, rather, is the lack of any sense that he is created in the image of God
the lack of an awareness that God gives her gifts for service,
the lack of a sense that Christ calls him to be a disciple,
the lack of a conviction that she can speak among God’s people and in the world.
When we read the New Testament – when we read the gospels – we get a sense of who we are and who we are called to be. We are, and are called to be,
strong in following the way of Jesus,
grace-filled in healing the hurts of others,
confident in speaking the name of Jesus,
courageous in the pursuit of justice,
To be such a person is, by the grace of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, to be a person in the fullest sense of the word. And yet there are many who lack any sense that they are or might be this strong, grace-filled, loving, courageous person, in Christ. These are not those who needs to confess their proud refusal of God and God’s way – these are not those who need to confess their tendency to say “I’ll live my way, thank you very much.”
At the same time, however, this person does need to confess his or her ‘sin’ – even if we want to put that word in air quotes. Here’s where it becomes clear that this view of sin almost explodes our understanding of sin. This person too needs to confess her or his “sin” to another.
To confess that she feels like nothing;
to acknowledge that he’s never believed God would want him for a child;
to say out loud that she has never sensed that God could use her for the building others up;
to confess that he can’t imagine Christ call him to speak words of healing;
to acknowledge she’s can’t believe Christ calls her to speak up for justice.
As this person confesses her or his sin – each needs to hear the word of grace that comes from Jesus Christ. They need to hear the risen Jesus say, through the voice of a sister or brothers:
“I have forgiven you.
I have called you.
I have given you gifts.
I have set my Holy Spirit upon you.”
Each one needs to hear the risen Jesus speak to him or her the same thing he speaks to the one who lived in the prideful form of sin. Through the voice of a sister or brother, Jesus says: “Walk now in the truly human way. Walk in my way, as my child.”
As we conclude, I suspect that we could say that those who gather here are probably situated across the spectrum of sin. There are some of us who live in a prideful refusal of the Christ’s way, of God’s law. We want to live our own way. But there are probably others of us who lack the sense of self that goes along with being a child of God. We have no sense of the courage and confidence and gifts given to those who follow Jesus. And then there are those of us who may live in both these worlds – in one moment pridefully refusing God’s way, in another moment living without any confidence that we are a self fully alive in Christ.
Wherever we find ourselves on this spectrum of sin, James invites us to confess our sins to one another – he invites us to become more and more a community of faith in which such confession might be possible. So that each of us might hear, in the mouth of a sister or brother, the words of our Lord, spoken to us very particularly: “You are forgiven. Walk now in the truly human way. Walk in my way, as my child.” Thanks be to God. Amen.