One of the great glories of Protestant faith was its rediscovery of the unmediated relationship of each believer with Christ. But like all glorious truths, it becomes a Lie when it is allowed to become The Truth. [It may well be argued that the exaltation of this insight to the height of TOTAL revelation of the divine will for humanity, which it often became, was in no small part responsible for the rampant individualism of our societies, against which the same Protestant churches so unthinkingly rail and then exhibit in their piety.]
There may well be folk who read this whom like I, always bristled with a certain righteous indignation, (which tended more to the righteous than the indignant), when confronted with the Catholic idea of ‘Our Relationship with Jesus’ being mediated through the saints, most especially of course the Mother of our Lord. [Although few who would take it to the extreme of not asking another member of the church to pray for us . . .]
Suffice it to say that in hanging on so vigourously to this blessed insight, that we might know Christ so directly, we have allowed ourselves to let go of a more mysterious truth. And so have strayed further from Truth and Life – our intimacy with Christ has been seriously hampered, and thus our spiritual lives immeasurably impoverished.
And that deeper truth is that of the Spirit’s indwelling every believer, which means that Christ cannot help but be present to us in and through other members of the church. This uncomfortable Truth, which comes to us through flawed brothers and sisters rather than ‘warm inner intimacies with Jesus’, is Necessary to our Salvation – our truest and deepest healing.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Jesus’ address in the gospels to those of us in the churches, is his emphasis on Sinners – of calling sinners – of sitting and eating with sinners – of bringing Salvation to the house of a sinner. Why uncomfortable? Because whilst we often say such things as ‘we are all sinners’ – we are infrequently if ever so with one another. I do not mean that we do not commit sin in each others presence – we do this all along, but we do not bare our hearts in confession to one another. We do not meet Explicitly as Sinners whom Christ has called to himself to form this rather motley assembly of Salvation Life we call Church. Respectability and living a ‘good Christian Life’ is the pattern we tend to prefer. We make no mention of our sins, even though we commit them with unremitting frequency.
Confession is something which the church has moved away from, and these past years with indecent haste – perhaps because the clarion call of Individualism has become like the air we breathe, we do not even recognise how it distorts our faith. For many years, THE teaching on confession was on living with open hearts before one another – then gradually, especially so following the Great Schism between East and West, the emphasis moved to private confession and only before a Priest. By and large Protestant praxis has abandoned even this sacrament, and we are told to rely on ‘Our Relationship with Jesus’.
Much has been written elsewhere of the greater psychological benefit of verbal confession to another Christian. It somehow makes it Real – and indeed that is precisely what it does, but I cannot help but think that there is something far more powerful going on here. Yes, confessing to another Is confessing before Christ who indwells that other – thus it is truly a Sacrament, but I want to think for a moment about something deeper even than this.
Imagine for a moment, that someone came to you and so opens their hearts – pours out their confession to you. I wonder how that would make you feel? I suspect that for many if not all of us, it would make us feel dreadfully uncomfortable. We say we ‘feel uncomfortable with such self disclosure’ – and those who have grown up in the English culture know all about not pouring out all our emotions. Yet this is not what I am touching on here. Rather someone comes to us and plainly and without excess emotion lays the unpleasantness of their own hearts on the table before us. There Pride, their lack of obedience to Christ, how they have lived careless lives of indifference to Christ in prayer and lack of love for Him. What is going on here – why might this make us feel uncomfortable.
When a Christian in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells opens their hearts, then not only are we exposed to their hearts – we are exposed to the One who happily lives with and eats with sinners. There is Christ, in the midst of that persons heart keeping fellowship with the unworthy, the imperfect. This confession not only releases the individual from the burden of their sin, it also lets lose Christ. Is our discomfort more to do with Christ being mediated to us in this exchange?
It seems that whenever Christ dines with sinners or keeps their company, their is always His winsome invitation to join them. Our churches and our individual lives of faith are not prepared for what happens when a Sinner comes to the party. Not meaning a notorious sinner, but an honest one. One who in revealing their inner reality consciously, also opens the door through which Christ may come, not Into their heart, but Out from their heart – calling us to live in the same openness, an openness which would transform our churches. Of course we may well demand, ‘how on earth could we cope were such openness suddenly come?!!’ We are not ready for this kind of shared Life. But that is The message of Advent – we are not ready, but He is coming. When the Sinner comes to church, openly – then so does Christ, who keeps such people company and thereby Saves and heals them, and so disturbs those who want to enjoy their privacy with Him.
It strikes me that the Life of the Church is always hamstrung by this lack. Imagine for example folk getting up to speak in public in order to be considered for high office in the church and instead of speaking at length about all their accomplishments and why they were the right person for the role, (of course with a few nods in the direction of’ ‘we’re all sinners really . . .’ and ‘nobody is perfect’ ), they spoke instead of how they were amazed at the Grace of the church in calling one such as they. One who had no Right to lead, who was unfit, who was in the words of the prayer of Humble access ‘not even worthy to gather up the crumbs from under the table’
We began by thinking about a truth, but we are called to live in The Truth and at the heart of that Must be genuine honesty. That is life giving and healing. In my work with drug addicts, I was always struck by their necessary and ruthless inventory of life. That those who had hit such a low, and who would seldom be seen in church, had such Life Together and that it was Safe – it was Healing. In opening up their lives, Life flowed forth. Of course to a new member such groups were always intimidating, to be surrounded by those who wanted to be well (a question Jesus asks of us is ‘Do you want to be well?’).
Well, thanks to our ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ the dynamic is utterly reversed. In Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous it is the one who is learning the healing power of confession who is in the minority, the person ‘new to faith’. They come in as yet unsure that they are able to be themselves in vulnerability and thus find healing.
In our churches it is the one who knows this power who is in the minority, and in opening their heart lets out the disturbing Presence who invites us to Life. We Need each other for He is chiefly present to us in one another. In our heart of hearts we know that, and it scares us. We are not frightened of the self exposure of others, it is that we are fearful of the One who steps through the open door of their hearts, calling us to live in healing truth as well.
Christ is both Truth and Life – he calls us to the Honesty that sets Him Free amongst us.