Then he breathed on them 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 (CEB)
Many of us protestants have a confession phobia. We acknowledge that we need forgiveness but the idea of someone to “hear” our confession and pronounce absolution sounds too “Roman Catholic” and after all, we tell ourselves, “all I need to do is go to Jesus in private prayer and I can receive forgiveness that way.” Is that all we need to find forgiveness?
This passage always fascinates me because it puts forgiveness in the hands of the apostles, the leaders of the Christian community. They are to be bearers of forgiveness to those that they encounter, their authority for such work comes from Holy Spirit. If they pronounce forgiveness then people will find it, if they do not then people will not. No “standards” are given or guidelines, I guess the Spirit will be the guide.
I know that the idea of someone hearing our confession is scary. Confession places us in a vulnerable place, our hearts poured out, our “secrets” revealed. This responsibility could easily be abused. It would be easier to keep it to ourselves, just between us and God but does it help us to be renewed?
In the best case scenario all Christians should be part of a community of forgiveness. These communities would be places where we can be accountable to one another for our growth in grace, including confession, but also the declaration that we are forgiven. At times this community could call us to task when our behavior does not align with our baptismal covenant, when we fail to live up to the promise we made at our baptism/confirmation/profession of faith.
In my life I have been blessed to find these communities of forgiveness and accountability. Spiritual directors, covenant groups, spiritual friends, have helped me find forgiveness but also find my way back to God at times when I have failed. This direction, restoration, and growth in grace would not have been possible if I would have just “confessed my sins to Jesus.” I am thankful that I made myself vulnerable and was willing to share my difficult journey with others.
I believe that our Christian faith calls us to such communities of forgiveness and growth in grace. So let us find these communities and claim the power of the Spirit given to us to help each other find forgiveness, restoration, and growth in love of God and neighbor. May these communities become our confessional!