Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sacraments - Penance

Reflections from the Pastor – Pastor S. Blake Duncan
…and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ (St. Matthew 1:23b)
For the last few months I have used this space to discuss what it means that we are a Sacramental church.  Last month I discussed the central and formal Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Through Holy Baptism we are brought into community and become a part of God’s family and through regular (weekly) participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion we are fed, strengthened and nourished with God’s presence and empowered for our ministry in the world.  These two Sacraments are the foundation of our Christian life and ministry.  But the Roman Catholic Church holds traditionally to seven Sacraments, and this was the case during Luther’s time as well.  What about the other 5?
The seven traditional Sacraments of the church are: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance (or Confession and Absolution) and Extreme Unction (or Last Rites).  Now, I think it is important to understand exactly what Luther’s position on these is.  He did not throw them all out, as is sometimes assumed.  He re-defined or re-classified them.  Luther determined that a formal Sacrament of the church needed two things – the Word of God plus a natural Element.  The only two that fit this narrow definition are Baptism (Word + Water) and Holy Communion (Word + Bread & Wine).  Luther actually agonized over this because he wanted to keep Penance (Individual Confession and Absolution) but could not find a way to do it.  So he reluctantly re-classified it as a Sacramental action of the church, but one which he felt was very important and one which he wanted people to participate in on a regular basis.  This is why in the Small Catechism there is a section on Penance (Look in your copy at the very end – there is a section on “The Office of the Keys” and on “Confession.”).  We have gotten away from this.  In confirmation materials little to no time is spent on this part of the Catechism.  It is seen as “too Catholic,” by some or as something which is for many uncomfortable, to say the least.
This is unfortunate, for the opportunity to confess our Sin (and our sins) is a very important part of Christian discipline.  Mental health experts will tell you that we all tend to hold things in, to deny, to ignore to internalize and that this is very unhealthy.  Individual confession is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves, a chance for catharsis and an opportunity to come to grips with things in our lives.  It is also the opportunity to hear again the words of absolution – the promise of forgiveness.  Not in a cheap way that just shrugs and says ok, no problem you are forgiven.  But it is a word which takes seriously our failings and is the first step towards reconciliation and healing. 
Penance or Confession is a Sacramental action of the church, meaning that we experience God’s love and grace and presence through it.  Luther links Penance to Baptism.  The promise that is spoken in the words of absolution is the promise which is given to us as part of our Baptismal Covenant.  Which again is why Baptism is so important and why we regularly need to remember our Baptism.
I will not be scheduling times for Individual Confession and Absolution, however, an order for this is included in the Occasional Services book and it is available to anyone who feels a need for it.  It is also fully confidential. In the same way the other Sacramental actions of Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation and Last Rites are also available.  We do not consider them “Sacraments” but they are Sacramental in that they are all linked to Baptism and through each we experience God’s love and grace and presence.  Next month I will talk about the others, focusing on Last Rites.  

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