Two weeks ago I got one of those phone calls that parish priests in New York City relish.
“Hi, I’m Jewish and I’m writing a movie and I need to understand more about the Episcopalian idea of purgatory.”
Oh. Wow. Ok, there’s a lot there. A really fun teaching conversation ensued… starting with, the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in purgatory. Yes, we believe in heaven, yes we believe in eternal life. I answered some of her questions about Roman Catholic theology and pre-reformation concepts of purgatory—admitting that as a non-Catholic, my answers might be biased. And then the caller got to the type of questions that I think all people wrestle with no matter what their religious background, and which was probably at the heart of not just the phone call, but of her film:
“Do you believe that if someone commits some sort of big sin, they really can be forgiven?”
Yeah. I do. There it is. Sins really can be forgiven. But it’s not automatic. Which is why our gospel today, the Gospel of Mark, begins exactly like as it does: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into not the story of Jesus but the story of John the Baptist, the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent.”
The way we prepare for Jesus is through repentance. And that is the beginning of the Good News—repentance is good news, not bad news, and it is the beginning of the Good News, not the end of the Good news.
Repentance isn’t enough—John is telling his crowds that his baptism of repentance is good, a necessary first step, but that what people really need is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that is coming next through Jesus.
Repentance is the first step in the Good News, but it isn’t the last. Repentance is internal. After repentance comes confession—opening yourself up to another human being and God—the external result of repentance. One that maybe we can only do if we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Saying, “I have done something wrong. And I am sorry.” And then that Holy spirit caries us even further forward: Amendment of life. “I will not do that again—and I will do whatever I can to repair the harm my actions and words have done, which may mean suffering some sort of consequences or judgment or punishment for my actions.” And then—and only then—grace, mercy, and ultimately reconciliation. Forgiveness.
Can anyone think of any situations in our world today where these steps of repentance, confession, amendment of life, consequences, and forgiveness and reconciliation might possibly be applicable?
A pastoral note: many of us are reeling as the news of the last few weeks has dredged up so many of our own stories and our own experiences of harassment and assault, and our responses to them. So many voices crying out from the wilderness that are finally being heard—and so many more that are still quiet out of fear. It is good that in some places, some harassers and aggressors and assaulters are finally being held responsible and facing consequences for their actions. And anyone who wants to can come talk to me—I am a safe space for listening to your story, I will believe you, and Jesus loves you and does not desire you to suffer alone.
But the last few weeks have left me with two concerns: one is that we do not seem to be able to distinguish between levels of sins and transgressions. There is a reason that the Roman church distinguished between venial sins—those that would not damn you—and mortal sins—those that were really serious.
And my other concern is that we don’t seem to have any sort of collective understanding of even the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Part of that is because we’ve all had experiences of people manipulating repentance and forgiveness—mimicking it in ways that are twisted and horrible; the non-apology apology, like “I’m sorry you misunderstood my actions,” or saying “I’m sorry, so now we have to move ahead like nothing happened.” Human forgiveness is a gift, not an entitlement. There has to be a different way than what we see—and I dare say, a different way than what many of us live.
For several weeks before Advent began, we heard a series of parables that all had the same ending: one character was “thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It sounds bleak and it sounds permanent. But here's the thing: I'm not sure Jesus in all his preaching sends people permanently to outer darkness.
If the inevitable result of our sin is being permanently cast into outer darkness, then we can never learn to repent, we can never heed John the Baptist’s call. Because that punishes confession, it denies amendment of life, and it leaves no room for reconciliation, grace and forgiveness. And it falsely separates people who are known sinners from those who are not. Every one of us sins—whether the world knows it or not—and every one of us would be in outer darkness. Some of us do not physically, individually commit major mortal sins. But if we think we haven’t committed those sins in our minds, we are fooling ourselves. Repentance, confession, amendment of life, reconciliation and forgiveness is for everyone, because everyone is a sinner.
Back to my filmmaker caller: I don't believe in purgatory. But the idea that accepting appropriate consequences for our actions can help bring us back to a state of grace and the loving arms of God and community is not incongruous with the gospel. In fact it is the gospel. There is a reason that John the Baptist is in the wilderness and calls people through the wilderness to repent and be baptized: it is when we are forced into the wilderness that our sins are most clear. Spending some time in outer darkness as a consequence to our sins, before we can return back to grace and mercy—that’s part of the Good News.
And the first step is repentance. What sins would you bring to John at the Jordan River?
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the general confession is so eloquent at identifying the ways in which we sin. As a spiritual exercise in inspiring our repentance, I going to read it slowly so you can apply each line to your own life, your own sins. There is one line I disagree with theologically… see if you can spot it, but take it as a whole, and listen for the voice of John the Baptist calling from the wilderness of repentance.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.