The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


The Prodigal Son by He Qi

A prodigal son returns to his father: A parable of forgiveness and reconciliation
Art by He Qi

Reconciliation of a Penitent” (BCP, p. 447-452), traditionally called “confession,” is also a sacrament of healing and is often accompanied by anointing and the laying on of hands. Reconciliation specifically addresses brokenness caused by sin, especially serious sin that besets the soul and inhibits spiritual growth by giving us the sense of being cut off from God. In truth, we’re never cut off from God. God never turns away from a sinner and is always “right there,” present and loving. It’s we who need to be brought back to an awareness of that presence and that love. Even though we sense being cut-off from God, it’s a false sense, a misapprehension. Reconciliation restores our sensibility, as it were of a relationship that was never actually broken. It heals our hearts, which may have been hardened by the false sense of God’s absence from our sinful lives. It’s a profound reminder that God loves sinners and never abandons them. The only “unforgiveable sin” is that which is not acknowledged, and even then we are not left alone to fend for ourselves. God’s love is absolute. It never goes away; indeed, if it did, the universe would collapse into non-being.

The church’s ministry of reconciliation began with the first generation of Jesus’ followers. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be given keys to the kingdom of heaven, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (See Matthew 16.13-20.) In John’s gospel, the resurrected Christ imparts the Holy Spirit to the Twelve then says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20.19-23) In truth, only God “forgives” sins, but the church has been given the ministry of providing an outward and visible sign – absolution (literally, “release”) – for that inward and spiritual grace of God’s forgiveness, knowing that we are always loved by God and always forgiven, even before we ask.

The church’s authority to “retain” sins is rarely exercised. Few of us are capable of the kind of cynicism and ill-will that would compel a presbyter’s refusal to pronounce absolution. Case in point: A murderer confesses his crime, seeking the consolation of absolution by the church and sure knowledge of God’s forgiveness. No presbyter would hear such a confession and not require that the crime be confessed to civil authorities for the good of society. Absolution probably would be withheld until the murderer confessed the crime to police; in the language of scripture, the sin would be “retained.” In a sense, God already has forgiven the sin itself, but the church is charged with ensuring that justice is served in cases of sin that are also criminal offenses. This kind of engagement can be a remarkably healing process not only for the penitent but also for the criminal-justice system, especially victims or their families. Such cases are powerful examples of the Jesus’ teaching that knowing the truth sets us free.

Reconciliation is a sacrament recommended for all but required of none. It’s a healthy process that begins with self-examination and prayerful, confidential counsel with a presbyter of the church. Confidentiality is conditioned by laws in most states, including Texas, that require religious ministers report cases of child abuse.

Pastoral conversation in reconciliation is infused with the presence of a loving God who guides and strengthens us through the process – and, let’s face it, spiritual healing can be sometimes be painful. How do I know when reconciliation would be a good idea? Whenever I’m troubled by sinful behavior that makes feel cut off from God in such a way that personal confession doesn’t bring me that peace that surpasses human understanding and that keeps my heart and mind in the knowledge and love of God in Christ.


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