Confession: Holy Peace

Post Author: Hillary D. Raining

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Waiting For the Word

Anyone who knows me well has heard my story about confession. Actually, you don’t even have to know me well to have heard my story because I’ve preached on it, I lead with it in my book on confession, and I often use it to describe what it feels like to hear a confession.

As an Episcopal priest, I have the honor of occasionally hearing people’s private confessions. These are sacred moments when people get to lay down the burdens that they have been carrying – burdens of guilt, shame, and the pain that comes from knowing you have done something that has put you out of relationship with those you love. In this role, I continually run up against the need to let the weight of my own sin go as well as helping others do the same. It is an awesome responsibility. And because of my story, I know the importance and magnitude of what can happen when that option and gift is denied to someone.

My story goes something like this: When I was young I decided I would like to try private confession. As an Episcopalian, I’d only experienced corporate confession on Sundays. Since my church did not openly advertise the rite of reconciliation, I decided to go to a local Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday (by skipping class with my friend – which was the first sin I was planning on confessing). They were offering private confession to those who wanted to begin Lent free from the burden of their sin.

As I took my place in the surprisingly long line up, I began to catalog my sins. My trespasses and brokenness began to weigh heavily on my soul. I thought of more and more ways that I had “wronged” God. By the time I finally took my turn in the confessional, I was not only on the verge of tears, I was incredibly elated by the idea of being able to “get rid” of the sins that had tarnished my soul.

As I stepped in the confessional, I decided that I should not add to this list of sins by lying to the priest and told him right away that I was not a Roman Catholic. I told him that if he would listen to my confession, I would feel lighter and understood if he could not offer me absolution as an Episcopalian. He replied, “No. Please leave now.”

This refusal felt like a crushing blow: I was not even worth listening to. It was as if God’s own self was telling me that I was so bad that God didn’t want to hear anything that I had to say, even if it was, “I am sorry.” I left the church in tears and took a seat on a nearby park bench.

After sobbing for a long time, I suddenly remembered all the times that I had in fact heard of God’s forgiveness in my Episcopal church. I decided that perhaps the priest’s reaction was more about his unwillingness to see me as a child of God than God’s own willingness. I made my confession to an Episcopal priest soon after and experienced tremendous joy. I was heard, my story was treated as sacred, and I listened in turn to the story of God’s foreignness and love as pardon was given.

In the passage above, we hear Jesus talking to his disciples for the first time after his resurrection. Imagine what they are going through. They have been locked up in a room following the death of their beloved friend and Messiah at the hands of their own community and government – members of whom could very well be looking for them. On top of that, they have guilt. Oh, how they have guilt!

They have the kind of guilt that far outweighed my young angst in that line. They had let Jesus die after denying they even knew him. They left him to die alone on the cross having run away. The doors that they have locked to protect them from the trauma of the outside world cannot protect them from the trauma they feel inside themselves. How could they have led down the very man they said they loved?

And then the man showed up. Their locked door did nothing to stop him. Heck, being nailed to a cross, walled up in a tomb, and being dead for three days did nothing to stop him from showing up in that room where they were prisoners of their own fears and guilt. I don’t know about you, but if the person I had just hurt had the power to do all that, I might be more than a little afraid that I was in some deep trouble. I might assume that I was not worthy of his forgiveness and be ready for this powerful person to withhold his love or even look for revenge.

I might feel like I did all those years ago when I was told my confession would not be heard.

But that is not what Jesus does here.

Jesus – the very person who has been wronged – is the one who leads with “peace be with you.” He must have known. He must have sensed how very torn these friends of his were. He must have felt their pain, their suffering, their grief, and even their guilt. And feeling all this, his instinct was to offer peace by way of forgiveness. It is literally the first thing he does.

The second thing he does is tell them that they have the gift go the Holy Spirit to go and spread this forgiveness to others. This means when we forgive someone, we are doing it as an act of thankfulness for the ways we have known the peace of being forgiven.

If that priest I had gone to had had the final say in my forgiveness, my sins would have been retained. They would be keeping me locked up like those disciples in the upper room to this day – maybe forever.

But they were not. I was able to hear the very words of peace and forgiveness that they heard and it changed the way I saw everything. Peace was the gift that I retained in place of my sins. And it is that very peace that I get to share when I hear a confession.

Hillary serves as Rector of St. Christopher’s Church, Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. She has worked on many levels of Episcopal Church ministry, having served on several Diocesan and National Church committees.

She has many hobbies like yoga, skiing, hiking, gardening and bee-keeping. She is happily married to Ken Raining who is a librarian. Together they have a beautiful daughter named Delia.

Image by: Emmaüs
Used with permission
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