While I, myself, would probably not consider our conversation that night akin to Confession and Forgiveness, I walked away feeling liberated from some burdens that had been weighing me down. As I reflected on our visit in the days that followed, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for God speaking through this parishioner—giving me newness of life by means of the forgiveness of sins. Though he had never explicitly said: “you’re forgiven,” through the love he showed by offering words of consolation, my parishioner served as a vessel for God to speak forgiveness towards the anger and distrust I had been harboring toward others. In our (horizontal) mutuality, this parishioner had done for me what many people might assume only happens vertically from a pastor or priest “down” to laity.
Have you ever—laden with a great burden—opened up and shared with someone who is not a pastor or priest; and after listening to you, they offered comfort and consolation that gave your mind peace and body rest? One of the most powerful practices a person can participate in is what Martin Luther referred to in his Smalcald Articles as the “mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters” (BC 319:45). In his 1520 writing, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther discusses the benefits of this private practice: “As to the current practice of private confession, I am heartily in favor of it…Indeed, I rejoice that it exists in the church of Christ, for it is a cure without equal for distressed consciences. For when we have laid bare our conscience to our brother [or sister] and privately made known to [them] the evil that lurked within, we receive from [their] lips the word of comfort spoken by God himself. And, if we accept this in faith, we find peace in the mercy of God speaking to us through our brother [or sister]” (LW 36:86).
The practice of “mutual conversation and consolation” is one that can be, and regularly is, done among all people in every time and place. There is no need for an ordained minister to be present for us to mutually care for one another in our daily interactions. Whenever we make ourselves available to others, listen without judgment, and comfort another in their distress, empowered by the Holy Spirit we are serving as Christ to them—with God speaking grace, peace, and mercy through our words and actions. Understanding the importance of this life-giving practice, the compilers of our most recent worship hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (otherwise referred to as the “newer red book”), included a rite for Individual Confession and Forgiveness (page 243f). I think the introductory note for this section is worth highlighting: “Washed in water and marked with the cross, the baptized children of God are united with Christ and, through him, with other believers who together form a living community of faith. Although we are set free to live in love and faithfulness, we continue to turn away from God and from one another. Confessing our sin involves a continuing return to our baptism where our sinful self is drowned and dies; in the gift of forgiveness God raises us up again and again to new life in Jesus Christ. Individual Confession and Forgiveness is a ministry of the church through which a person may confess sin and receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness” (ELW 243). We are, indeed, a living community of faith—called to live in love and faithfulness. In the “mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters”—whatever form that may take shape in—we serve one another in love and find assurance in God’s promises of forgiveness and new life in the Crucified and Risen Christ. May you look at your encounters and relationships with fresh perspective—keeping your eyes, ears, and hearts open to receive the burdens of others and serve as a vessel for God to speak forgiveness and peace through you.
(From the end of the Individual Confession and Forgiveness rite, following forgiveness being spoken to the penitent) The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.