Forgiveness

In the last few weeks we touched upon the topic of the confession of sins several times in conversations. Someone asked us about it when we were preparing the “FAQ” section on www.episkopalianie.pl and it was brought up in a conversation about receiving Holy Communion worthily. What is confession, what is its sense and aim? Of course, we won’t answer all these questions with one short post. But we hope that we will provide material for further reflections.

The text we post is the introduction to subsection “Forgiveness” of the chapter “The Sacramentals as Means of Grace” from the book Grace upon Grace by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Neal. As we said on a few occasions already, we consider translating this book into Polish and publishing it, since we think that the outline of Sacramental Theology it contains, popular in character yet not without theological depth, can inspire reflection in both Catholic and Protestant readers, and demonstrate also how far from the truth are popular opinions about the role and meaning of sacraments in the churches of the Reformation. We hope thus that our Polish speaking readers, encouraged by this fragment, will motivate us to work on the translation, and our English speaking readers, who have not yet bought the book, will read is, especially because Greg is preparing its second edition.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
-John 20:23

While I was in Seminary I spent a year as a Chaplain in Duke University Medical School’s Clinical-Pastoral Education Program. After my return to Texas, and while Pastor of an inner-city congregation in Dallas, I served as an Adjunct Chaplain at Methodist Hospital. In that capacity one of my most important responsibilities was to serve three nights a month as the Chaplain “on call” in the Hospital. Spending all night on pastoral duty in a busy, big-city hospital like Methodist Central has given me new insights into the need for forgiveness.

One night, at 3:30 am, the pager alerted me to an approaching ambulance. I had been in bed for only a few minutes, and so it wasn’t very difficult for me to get up. I put on my clothing, grabbed my pad, pager, Bible and stole, and headed out the door. I hurried because those being brought in might need spiritual help; they might need someone to pray with them, someone to call family or friends, someone to help them communicate with the hospital staff. The spiritual needs of those who are suffering through the trauma of an Emergency room visit are frequently great… and that’s why I was there.

As I rode the elevator down the seven floors to the Emergency room I wondered about what I was going to find there. The possibilities were almost endless, and what I usually found was hardly ever what I expected; it was a new adventure each and every time.

From automobile accident to gunshot victim, each patient was different, with different needs, different fears, different hopes and different dreams. I have been welcomed by frightened people who had just been through a horrible experience and desired the comforting presence of God. I have been looked at with hatred by someone who viewed all Christians as liars. I have been considered a nuisance by some of the hospital staff – “just another untrained social worker” -and as a “God-send” by others. Indeed, I have had a weary-eyed nurse or physician turn to me when the evening has gone “to pot,” in hopes of hearing a word of comfort, a word which might bring them some sense of sanity. The way a Chaplain is received can be as varied as there are days in the year and people in the world.

The need to be there was great, and so I went. I could easily recount the many times when all a patient needed was a gentle touch and helping hand. However, I could also easily tell of all those times when the patient was so close to death that the need for spiritual comfort and prayer became paramount to them.

As I walked into the department that night I put on the narrow purple stole that I carry for such occasions. Wearing such a stole, in addition to a clerical collar, is one of the quickest ways I have found to make it clear to the patients exactly who and what I am; if nothing else, it eases introductions and often engenders confidence. Thus prepared for the unknown, I began to make my way through the trauma center, stopping at various beds to speak for a moment with an injured soul or a frightened parent and child. Slowly, I made my way across the department, finally ending up in one of the emergency wards, where I found a team of doctors and nurses frantically working on a middle-aged woman who was, obviously, perched on the edge of death.

As I walked into the room her head turned, her eyes caught mine, and her hand reached out for me. I stepped closer and she took my hand, pulled me down so that my ear was right next to her lips, and in desperate, breathless words she gasped out a list of sins that had been plaguing her. Some of her sins were serious, some were not; but all of them were important enough to her that she expended her last few breaths in asking for forgiveness.

In that moment of her utter desperation, when her life was beginning to ebb away, I looked down into her pleading eyes and realized that I was peering into a soul who was seeking a word of peace. She wasn’t looking for healing, or for vain hope of continued life…she was after the blessed assurance that only God’s forgiveness could bring. And, so, in those final moments of her life I offered her that assurance with the glorious words that Jesus gave us for this very purpose. I reached out my free hand, made the sign of the cross over her face – where she could see it – and I pronounced: “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.”

I’ll never forget the look which crossed her face in that moment. No longer were her eyes pleading, full of desperation and fear. No, they were filled with a sense of thanksgiving and with the peace that comes from knowing that there is nothing to fear from God. Peace … the peace that comes from forgiveness, is our lord’s gift to us from the cross. And it was a gift that this woman received in the last moments of her life. This look of peace settled upon her face, and a smile appeared on her lips, as she died.

Standing there, looking down at this woman, I realized that 1 had just watched as our Lord had gathered her into his loving embrace. It was an awe-inspiring experience, and one that I will never forget. The words of forgiveness were what this woman needed to hear before she could accept the peace that Jesus was offering her. My proclaiming to her that her sins were forgiven served as a means of grace, as an instrument of God’s love, which enabled her to accept the gift that Jesus was offering her. forgiveness was already hers for the taking but this dying woman, like many others, simply needed to hear the Good News again. She needed to hear, at the moment of her death, that in the name of Jesus Christ her sins were forgiven.

When we read this story, we thought that it should be read by everyone for whom confessing sins to a minister is an (almost) insurmountable difficulty. Greg ends the subsection beginning with this story with the following words:

One makes one’s confession of sin to Jesus; the minister is there to give counsel and advice and to pronounce the words: “In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

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