If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
I John 1:9
I spent my final day of vacation from Trinity Baptist by visiting another Orthodox Church. Today, it was St. Basil the Great Antiochian in Poquoson. Poquoson is one of few places in Virginia east of I-95 I had never been to. I never had much of a reason to. The little bit of town that I did see seemed to be a nice bedroom community. I didn’t visit the communities of the legendary “Bull Islander” watermen. The next time I do, I will make it a point to buy some good fresh seafood. But, today was all about worship at the church of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline. About 20 years ago, the Antiochians opened their doors to some 2,000 Evangelical Christians giving them Chrismation into the Orthodox faith.
Even before the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by the deep spirituality of the ancient faith. During the 9:15 Matins service, the priest, Fr. James Purdie, gave the sacrament of Confession to any who would come forward. Yes, Confession. A few (churches aren’t packed at one hour prayer services where there is more standing than sitting) people, in turn, came up to the icon of the Theotokos, whispered their confession to Fr. James. He then whispered back and they seemed to be in a conversation inaudible to the rest of the congregation. Then he placed a portion of his priestly vestment over the person’s head and proclaimed their sin. The forgiven believer kisses the icon, makes the sign of the cross, and takes their place back in the congregation prepared to receive the Eucharist (Communion).
Now, I can hear my fellow Baptist turn their noses up in disdain. “You ain’t gotta do all that to repent. Jesus knows your heart. All you got to do say is, “Lord, I’m sorry. Please forgive me in Jesus Name. Amen.” And there was a time in our rural congregations that a young lady that was pregnant or had a child out-of-wedlock had to repent before the whole church before she could take communion again, change membership to another church, or get married. Rarely did the guy she slept with have to go through such an ordeal and many other sins didn’t require such a process. So, the way it was practiced, confession was unfair (especially since some ministers and deacons were known womanizers) and burdensome. As more and more children were being born out-of-wedlock, the sacrament seemed to be a hindrance to church attendance.
Yet, there is something to be said for the accountability, humility, and trust that I saw today. Not that every sin needs to be confessed to a priest in Orthodoxy. But, he is the spiritual Father of the congregation and is responsible for giving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. So, if one is troubled by a serious or recurring wrong, he or she has the responsibility to let the priest know of this and repent with the priest offering an understanding ear, encouragement, and practical solution to the sin as well as a proclamation that the sin is forgiven. To come and confess one’s sin is a sign of humility and spiritual maturity. That one doesn’t play off his or her missing the mark as something to be nonchalantly brushed aside in private or in some little box in a corner. Orthodox confession is done where people cannot hear what is being said, but they know that something is being said and forgiveness is proclaimed. It takes courage and a sense of trust in one’s priest and church family that the confession will not be material for gossip and speculation. If I had to leave before the Divine Liturgy, Matins and the Confessions were enough for me to praise God for.
“So Rev., are you trying to say we ought to have confession in the Baptist church?” I am not sure how it can be introduced or reintroduced. Nor do I dare say that all is perfect among the Orthodox with this sacrament. But, let us consider what we have in our lack of a sacrament of Confession. We are accountable to no one. I don’t have to tell pastor nothing. All he is supposed to do is visit grandma in the nursing home and get his shout on so I can pat my foot and feel good about myself. We are not humble. We would rather talk about how “blessed and highly favored,” we are than to express any sort of public humility. And we continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of mistrust by not having the courage to trust. And if pastors aren’t challenged with the responsibility to forgive sins, they can be tempted to be irresponsible with their own sins. We can put on great performances of “whooping” sermons and “sanging” choirs and soloist. But without accountability, humility, and trust in the body of Christ; we are missing something in our walk with the Lord that is far more valuable than cultural expressiveness.
I don’t know. I will work on the Sunday School lesson and my sermon this week and be back serving at Trinity next Sunday. Maybe I should keep silent and just chalk this up as a “grass looks greener on the other side of the fence” episode. Or, perhaps the Lord will bless me (or someone else) with a way to explain Confession so that my fellow Baptist can understand it’s value even if they don’t agree to do it. And if we want to do it, how do we bring such a sacrament to a church that doesn’t even see Communion as a sacrament?