Rev. Sabrina Ingram
James 5: 13 –20; Mark 9: 38 – 50

The term “best practice” is a phrase used in professional circles to describe a repeatable method or technique accepted as the standard way of doing things because it produces superior results in ways that comply with legal requirements or ethical norms.

The idea of “best practices” is deeply rooted in Christian theology. Throughout scripture we’re given guidelines as to “best” behaviours that are worth “practicing” and we’re given examples of what happens when these “best practices” are and are not followed. A behaviour or talent may not come naturally to us and so we need to practice it repeatedly to master it. Think of anything you’re good at – a musical ability, a sport, teaching, building, art, or something you do to earn a living; some people have a certain knack or gift for doing certain things, but they need to train to reach the apex of their talent. Others aren’t so fortunate, but with practice and determination they can become quite good. Our spiritual growth comes about in much the same way. The Bible views our salvation as both an event, accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and a process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit. None of us have a knack for holiness – we become more Christlike through the work of the Holy Spirit and our own willingness to choose certain habits and ways of being. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives us a “gift”, but we still need to exercise this gift to master it. As Paul advised Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift that is in you” or as The Message puts it, “that special gift of ministry… keep that dusted off and in use” (1 Timothy 4:14). If I now regret not being more disciplined in practising the piano when I was young, how much greater will be our regret be when Jesus returns, if we fail to develop the gifts of the Spirit or we pass up our opportunities to mature spiritually?

There are many places in the Bible which present these best practices; none less than the teachings of Jesus. Today’s lectionary reading also directs us to the writings of James where he gives a succinct list of “best practices”. My original intention had been to look these over one at a time – prayer, singing, anointing, reconciliation, but one discipline on the list, that is not customary in our tradition, caught me and I felt led to focus on it. James writes, “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed” (James 5: 16). To the average Presbyterian that sounds just wrong. We tend to think of confession as a private thing between our self and God, after all, “there’s one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free” (1 Timothy 2: 5). This, of course, is the heart of the gospel, no human action and no other person can bridge the gap between us and God. Jesus “sits at the right hand of the Father” and intercedes for us – he holds us up to God, asking for mercy on our behalf. When we pray, he is the one who brings our prayers before the Triune God. He and he alone, acts on our behalf. Through his death, he gives us access to and unity with the Trinity. Yet, as James wisely notes, sometimes we need to make our confession to one another. This isn’t an either/or thing. Scripture gives us both directives and neither excludes the other. We confess to one another, not because Jesus is too remote or that we are too sinful to speak to him. We confess to one another because sometimes we experience Christ’s love and mercy in the eyes and words of another. We confess to one another because it’s easy to be lazy about confession and, like going to the gym with a buddy or to weight watchers with a friend, another person helps us to be disciplined. We confess to one another because we can easily deceive ourselves by ignoring our sins and believing that God doesn’t see them either. And we confess to one another because it’s Biblical. Jesus gave his followers the ability to forgive, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good” (John 20:23) and because we believe in the “priesthood of all believers”. We are “a royal priesthood”, “chosen for the high calling of priestly work” (1 Peter 2: 9). In OT the high priest brought the sacrifice into the presence of God. As the final and ultimate sacrifice, Jesus leaves us with the ministry of making that sacrifice real in the hearts and lives of other human beings. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows he is no longer alone; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person, as long as I remain by myself in the confession of sin, I remain in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin is brought into the light”; that is, the presence of Christ himself.

Before we take up the practice of confession together, we need to feel safe. The Church is not a fellowship of
saints, but of sinners. When we’re all pretending we’re holy, spiritual giants, we intimidate one another, which causes us to live veiled lies of hypocrisy. Fear and pride cause us to hide. Shame keeps us from speaking the words that will bring freedom. We’re all in it together. Everyone of us holds the guilt of secret sins and the failure of daily living. The very fact that we may see ourselves as better than others is evidence of our sin and needs to be confessed. We also need to know that at the heart of God is the desire to forgive. Love, not anger, brought Jesus to the cross. John encourages us, “if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9). Isaiah pleads, “…come back to God, who is merciful, come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness” (55: 7). James is certain, “…if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out” (5:15). Jesus assures us, “Take heart; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). God’s whole purpose in coming, dying and rising as Jesus was to bring us back to himself, forgive our sin and set us free.

When we take the step to make confession our practice we need to seek out someone we trust to listen without judging, to be compassionate, to keep our confidence and to offer mature, Biblical guidance if desired. If we are hearing someone’s confession we need to be honest enough to know if we have those qualities. We also need to be people of prayer, who know the depths of their own sin, who are not out to “fix” the other, who have the gift to discern the healing that’s needed, who listen more than we talk and have the ability to wait silently and prayerfully while the other person presents themselves to us and God with raw vulnerability. We need to be comfortable in being present to the other so that we won’t minimalize their story with jokes, off hand comments, or dismissive remarks but rather we need to respect and bear their sorrow. Most of all, we must be humble enough to radiate the light, life and love of Christ to someone else.

Once we’ve contracted to make confession to another person (or directly to God) we need to do a ruthless self-examination. There’s no room for excuses, extenuating circumstances, errors of judgement, or blaming; we take ownership of what we’ve done. We stop hiding and come under the gaze of God, where all things are revealed. It is important that we deal with definite sins. Generalized confession saves us from humiliation and shame, but it doesn’t ignite inner healing. Definite sins consist of concrete actions, but they also are sins of the soul: pride, avarice, anger, envy, judgmentalism, hardness of heart, fear, lust, self-pity, disordered attachments, and they are sins of the flesh: gluttony, sloth, adultery, murder, disengagement, self-betrayal, manipulation. We may come to insights about ourselves by dividing our lives into sections: childhood, youth, young adulthood, older adulthood and considering what memories and guilt we carry from those times. We may look at ourselves through the lens of the 10 Commandments or The Sermon on the Mount. We may borrow the structure of other Christians and consider our “deadly” and “mortal” sins. However we approach it, we must be brutally honest.

For confession to be real, we need to be genuinely sorrowful. Sorrow, regret, shame and guilt are not only emotional states, they are an abhorrence and deep regret at having offended and grieved our God. Sorrow is the horror of knowing that Jesus bore, what I’ve done, in his body on the cross. Sorrow is based on our insight, more than our feelings. The will, the decision, to repent and live differently drives us to sorrow.

Which brings us to “a determination to avoid sin”. Unless we really intend to change our behaviour, we’re deceiving ourselves in confession and looking for “cheap grace” – forgiveness without submission or transformation. For confession and forgiveness to set us free, we need to yearn for holy living and have a hatred for all that is evil, blasphemous, immoral, unethical, profane and ungodly. We need to long to be like Christ and to be willing to strive towards that goal.

Confession is and is not a one-time thing. On the one hand, confession takes practice. We may not be able to unburden every sin at once; so, it’s a process worth repeating. When an unspeakable sin haunt us, we need God’s help to bring it into the light. And because we continue to sin, confession needs to be an on-going activity. On the other hand, once we’ve confessed a particular sin, and are forgiven, we must discipline ourselves not to keep revisiting it. Our transgression has been removed, “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103: 12). It’s gone. One person tells the story of going to make confession with his thoughts on paper. After he’d read and discussed his journalling and had been declared forgiven, he went to return the paper to his briefcase. His confessor gently took the paper, ripped it into tiny pieces and put it in the garbage. It’s an insult to God to hang on to what he’s let go. Putting our energy into new ways of living is a much healthier response.

The purpose of confession is to create an objective change in our relationship with God and a subjective change in us. It’s a means of healing and transforming one’s spirit. Freedom begets freedom; being forgiven gives us the grace to forgive others. On top of clearing our souls and giving us peace, it opens the way for the Holy Spirit to change not only us, but the Church and the world, for “The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.” (James 5: 16)