“What a friend we have in Jesus” who “walks with me, talks with me, tells me I am his own.” Nineteenth Century American hymnody could portray a cozy Jesus, walking together with me in the garden. There is some truth in this. But consider the opposite reaction of Isaiah when he encounters the overwhelming awesome presence of God (Isaiah 6): “Woe to me. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Somehow, it would seem, well, impolite, to bring up those thoughts while walking with Jesus in the garden. Yet the truth of Isaiah is much more compelling.
For, indeed, this is the Creator of countless planets and suns out of nothing, who can unleash power and energy beyond comprehension while simultaneously paying attention to brightly designed microscopic bugs. The whole earth is his, one of his more modest efforts in the universe. To be in his deliberate, conscious presence, attended by thundering seraphs, is beyond awesome and into terrifying. Standing there before him, spiritually naked, it would be easy to see our life flash by in review, in all honesty. “Ruined” might be a mild word to describe the response to the assessment of my life as seen through the absolute objectivity, perfect justice, and, alas, accurate judgement of the eye of God.
It is not that the American Reformed tradition has always ignored this. It is said that, when Jonathan Edwards preached sermons like his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” people subconsciously lifted their feet off the floor below the pews because the heat rising from the virtual flames below made them too hot. “Hellfire” sermons have a long history.
But such sentiments tend today to be contained within non-mainstream churches, patronized by the lower classes. You have perhaps been to the other kind of church, where folks are more polite. In such churches, it is suspected people might have sins, but it just isn’t talked about. Some even have a certain range of acceptable sins, and a book has been written outlining which sins are OK for church people. People pretend to be quite righteous and are careful to never bring up any serious sins. Being spiritually naked would no more be appropriate in this kind of church than being physically naked.
Even in historic churches, the idea of acknowledging one’s specific failings as a normal part of Christian life is mostly absent. Lutheran churches which several generations ago used to expect members to show up for a confessional service ahead of communion have almost universally devolved instead to a short general confession at the beginning of the Liturgy. Roman Catholic parishes with several thousand parishioners have the Sacrament of Reconciliation for an hour on Saturday, because this amount of time will accommodate the small handful of people who will take advantage of it. Several generations ago, frequent appearance in the confessional was routine for virtually all who received Communion at Mass.
Is it possible that the explanation is that Americans are sinning less? There is, of course, no completely accurate data to answer that question, but if we think only of honesty, greed and avarice, it would appear an unlikely conclusion. For example, when the CEO of the financial house Morgan Stanley, of bailout fame, tells a reporter that he believes he is doing God’s will, the perception of what sin is has been altered.
Yet the God who appeared to Isaiah is the same. God has not altered his perception, nor the awesomeness of his Being. The disciples who walked with Jesus certainly counted him as a friend. Yet the gulf between them and him appeared on occasions such as the Transfiguration (see Mark 9). The tension between awesome holiness and tender mercy is present in Jesus, as it is in Isaiah 6.
Thus it is that the risen Christ bestows the sacramental power on the apostles to forgive and retain sin. The early church took that sacrament very seriously. While that community was always willing to forgive, it expected serious and sincere penance, often for a lengthy period of time. The modern church tends to forgive with a wave of the hand and no visible penance required, while at the same time reserving certain sins as essentially unforgiveable (witness various denominational attitudes towards remarriage after divorce, which effects excommunication in Rome and bars, or makes very difficult, entrance into clergy ranks at various levels in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions).
If God is no longer awesome, forgiveness is probably no longer important. The modern age sees mankind as captain of the ship called “earth.” The Soviet vision saw man as displacing God on the throne. The earth is man’s, to rule and exploit for the benefit of man. The capitalist West disagreed with that on Sunday mornings but proceeded to rule and exploit for self-benefit the rest of the week. Neither saw anything in that which would require forgiveness.
But supposing the Psalmist is right and “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps.24), and mankind is not the captain, but rather the mate expected to carry out the captain’s orders. Supposing God is still just as awesome as ever, which seems likely, given his unchangeable nature. Is there any sin worse than the arrogance to claim your misdeeds and failures are not sin? What is uncomfortable in the “office of the keys” for modern Christians is the power to retain sins, given simultaneously with the power to forgive. Is it too heavy a thought that the retention of sin is for the same purpose as the forgiveness of sin? It is to connect the mercy of God with the sinner. We are perhaps afraid, in our consumer culture, that a retention will not drive a sinner to the mercy of the Cross, but will simply drive the person to a competing church with less interest in the welfare of the sinner and more in growing the rolls.
The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of “cheap grace,” which could be accessed with small righteous effort, as opposed to free grace, which is without cost but does connect the sinner to a commitment relationship with the awesome, living God. In the Anglican tradition, the latter has been called “amendment of life.” If you follow Isaiah’s experience in Is. 6, it does not end with his insight that he is ruined, but continues to an absolution after his repentance and then to his amendment of life that he will go when and where God asks.
There is a central necessity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation for all people. It confirms that Christians are messed up, all of us and not just the few who commit obvious public sins. How do we get past the common perception that church is for polite people to receive inspiration from each other and a friendly Lord? Two changes seem essential to restore the office of the keys:
1. The Christian community must be a community which accepts all sinners equally, and a place where people can be and are honest about the depth of sin. The present situation, analogous to an AA meeting where no one admits to a problem with alcohol, is not honest. God, who sees all, knows, better than we, our sinful nature. Who then in church are we kidding? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves if we and the neighbor cannot be open, accepting as Christ accepts?
2. We need to stand before the awesome God, knowing that we are indeed ruined, and we have no righteousness, no righteous deeds, to bring but must depend totally on the sacramental grace of God. Confession and absolution are neither an admission ticket for the Eucharist nor an option in case someone might have sinned. This sacrament looms large as unmitigated grace. We are all Prodigals and this is the path home.