Jeremiah 31:31-34 | John 12:20-26
Last week we explored the idea of judgement as it appeared in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. The judgement that Jesus described there was far removed from the sort of judicial imagery that we seem to instinctively associate with the term; (the judge finding you guilty and sentencing you to some penalty); instead what we found was the image of light coming into the world, and people choosing either to flee from the light, because they were too ashamed of what they had done, or choosing to come into the light, so that what they had done could be seen for what it was.
The judgement that Jesus spoke of there was not one imposed externally; it was a judgement that each person imposed upon themselves as they made the choice: will I dare to enter into the light? Will I have the courage to be seen, by God at least, for who I truly am?
And that, of course, is where the Christian tradition of confession comes from: whether it be the traditional Catholic confessional, or a private prayer, or the sort of corporate confession that is more common in protestant circles, in which we acknowledge together that we have fallen short of the standards that we would hold ourselves and other to, that we have done things of which we are ashamed, and that we have left undone acts of love and compassion and justice that were within our power to do.
Confession – of what ever form – if it is real, is all about allowing the light of truth into the darker parts of our lives, about choosing the truth of our shortcomings over the façade that we so often prefer. This is why confession has so much power; why parents work so hard to teach their children to say sorry; why twelve step programs like AA include as steps four and five:
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Confession has power, because it is facing reality, rather than trying to fight against it. But that is only one half of the story. The second half, without which the light remains a dangerous exposure, is the promise of the new covenant in our reading from Jeremiah:
they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more
The most radical power of confession comes with the possibility – and, in the case of God, the absolute promise – of forgiveness. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more; or, as the prophet puts it elsewhere – as far as the east is from the west, so far will I remove your sins from you.
But forgiveness is also only half the story, and much harm has been done over the years by a well meaning emphasis placed on forgiveness without the context of confession and repentance. How many victims of domestic violence have been told that the Christian way is to forgive the one who has hurt them? How often has the call to forgive been used to protect the status quo or to excuse the inaction those who ought to stand against the oppressor? How often does Jesus’ command to forgive get used to add to the injury of the victim?
And how often do we jump quickly to a declaration of forgiveness in order to avoid having to genuinely face the wrong that we, or others, have done.
It’s a long way from “making a searching a fearless moral inventory of ourselves”.
The Christian doctrines of repentance, confession, judgement, forgiveness do not, cannot stand in isolation from one another. Judgement alone too easily becomes the sort of judgmentalism which elevates me, and people like me, and people who think and behave like me above those who are different. But forgiveness alone slips too easily into a denial of the reality of the harm we do to one another.
it is only when we are able to bring together the judgement of light, the honesty before God which reveals to us who we really are, with the certainty of acceptance and forgiveness, that we start to draw close to the heart of our faith, the miracle that we call the grace of God.
When I was a teenager there was a very widely read pop psychology book entitled “Why am I afraid to tell you who I am”. Like many such books, it was really just one idea padded out into a paperback, but that idea was an answer to the question in the title:
“I’m afraid to tell you who I am, because you might not like who I am, and that’s all I’ve got”
To that dilemma there are only two answers: hide who you are, what you’ve done; or face the light and trust that you are beloved anyway.
And the promise, the miracle of grace, is that you are.
The incredible truth that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel is there in the parable in our New testament reading: unless the grain of seed falls into the ground and dies, it will never bear fruit.
Of course, for Jesus – and for many who followed him – that parable had a very literal meaning: they would died in order that the good news of the Kingdom of God might bear much fruit.
But the truth is that for each of us the “stepping into the light”, the preparedness to face the reality of who we are – and who others are – is a form of death.
It might be the death of our self-absorption, as we allow the light to show us the needs of others around us.
It might be the death of our illusions, as we allow the light to show us who we really are.
Or it might be the death of our carefully cultivated image, as we allow the light to reveal the truth.
Whenever we come into the light, there is a sense in which we are allowing something to die. And it is only possible because we believe, not just in Good Friday and the crucifixion, but in Easter Sunday and the resurrection. Because we believe that God will forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more. Because we know that those who cling to their lives, their images, their illusions, will lose them: but those who are prepared to lose them, for the sake of God and for the Kingdom of God, will find that they bear fruit: life that is truly eternal, for it is founded not in darkness, but in the light of truth, and the light of God.