April 21, 2009

Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves

            The Epistle reading for the second Sunday of Easter is 1 John 1:1-2:2.  In this text the Johannine community links the life of Jesus with the forgiveness of sins.  “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v.9).  Here is the promise of splendid release; confessing our sins opens us to the redeeming work wrought through Christ. Yet, too few of us practice this spiritual discipline, and we cling to our own sin, bowed down by its weight.  When we refuse to receive forgiveness ourselves, we tend “to retain” the sins of others.  Forgiving others has an organic relationship with forgiving ourselves, according to Scripture.

            Confession has little place in most Protestant churches.  We do not practice the “sacrament of reconciliation” (as do our Catholic sisters and brothers), nor do we make corporate confession a regular part of our worship, thus we lug crushing burdens.  Our sins forge a “chain of habit,” in the words of St. Augustine, from which it is difficult to escape.

            In the underground seminary founded by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he insisted upon confessing one’s sins to a fellow Christian.  Interestingly, he ensured that others practice this discipline, but kept in reserve his own confession. His student and later colleague Eberhard Bethge observed that while others were sustained by a relationship of open confession. Bonhoeffer carried his burden alone. He urged his elder brother in Christ to receive the grace of disburdening himself in the presence of another.  Once Bonhoeffer did this, he was able to receive forgiveness and embody further the grace that was his through Christ.  Forgiveness may be the hardest spiritual practice, but it is God’s transformative work in which we are invited to participate.  God is more faithful and just with us than we are with ourselves. Thanks be to God!


Molly T. Marshall


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