Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” - John 20:22-23
Some years ago, somebody asked me, “Why do Lutherans always start worship with confession and forgiveness? It seems so dreary. Who wants to start a church service on such a downer? I think Lutherans should ditch the confession and forgiveness for something that makes people feel good.”
Freshly graduated from seminary and a bit indignant at this person for taking such a dim view of liturgical Lutheran worship, I responded, “Beginning with confession and forgiveness is a long-established pattern of Christian worship, dating back to the early church. It draws on the Jewish practice of making offerings for atonement to God before entering the holy places.”
So there! Well, at least I only thought that part. My answer was as many answers are: precise, pointed, and intended to prove that one of us knew better than the other. It was based on study and expertise. It defended Lutheran theology and worship practices.
It was also the wrong answer.
I don’t mean that it was factually incorrect– beginning with confession and forgiveness IS a long-established pattern for Christian worship, and it IS based on practices found in the Hebrew Scriptures. That isn’t why we do it, though.
We have weekly confession and forgiveness because we need it.
We put ourselves ahead of someone else. We pass judgment on anybody and everybody. We say something cutting and sarcastic for the laugh it’ll get without caring if it might cause harm. We disregard our needy neighbor because it’s too much work to care for them and us. We’re rude to the cashier or the waiter or the janitor because we know they can’t do anything about it anyway. We yell at our kids. Or our spouse. Our parents. Our pet. To put it plainly, we sin.
Sin builds up, like plaque on a tooth, getting ickier and more uncomfortable the longer we leave it. Scripture describes it like a ball and chain, the weight of the chains impossible to shrug off and equally impossible to lift. Against that impossible weight of sin, forgiveness does not offer strength or endurance.
Forgiveness wields bolt cutters.
Forgiveness blazes in and breaks the chains of sin. The very word for “forgive” also means “release” in Greek. Forgiveness sets us free. That’s why we need weekly confession and forgiveness– not because it’s a tradition we’re keeping for its own sake but because it’s a practice we need for our own sake. Nothing else but forgiveness can break the chains of guilt layered on by sin.
Forgiveness, you see, is the work of the Holy Spirit. When I declare your sins forgiven at the beginning of every church service, it is through the power of the Holy Spirit in the place of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t sound like a downer to me at all, but a most necessary part of Christian life. We need confession and forgiveness. Without it, the weight of sin is unbearably heavy. Only forgiveness can set us free.
Dear Jesus Christ, I thank you for the freedom of forgiveness. By your Holy Spirit, forgive me from all my sins. Amen.