How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
Most, if not all of us, have got caught doing something we shouldn’t have done, if not recently then at least when we were children. And what do we instinctively do? We try to wriggle out as fast as we possibly can! “It wasn’t me!” Or if that’s not plausible “I didn’t do anything actually wrong!”
As adults, we face a battle to choose between trying to clear our name and admitting that we don’t always make the best choices. For instance, what if we’re out driving and we get caught speeding? We can ask for our day in court and hope we can get off on some technicality – but the risk is we’ll be given a much bigger fine than if we had put our hand up and accepted our penalty points in the first place!
Part of us will always want to make excuses. But an excuse is a terrible thing! It’s worse than a lie! It’s been called “a lie guarded”. The best way to ‘fess up to our sins is to do so without excuses: “Yes, I admit that I did that, and I’m sorry.”
The great thing about confession, is that once we have pleaded guilty, Our Lord Jesus can deal with your fine. He can’t do anything to help people who make excuses or claim to be innocent. But the moment we plead guilty, a wonderful thing happens. Jesus steps in and offers to pay our fine, in full! He accepts all the consequences of our sins!
Now, what penalty do we deserve for our sins? Let me tell you a story which came to me from a law clerk – in England, offenses too small for a jury are often tried by a lay magistrate who is advised by this kind of law officer. One day, the magistrate on duty was considering a traffic offence. He leaned over and asked the clerk, “What’s the maximum penalty?” The official, knowing all the possible penalties on the statute book, whispered back, “Imprisonment for life!” The magistrate looked very surprised until the clerk said – “Oh, you didn’t specify that you meant for a traffic offence!”
In fact, for us, it’s worse. The maximum penalty is Death. God wanted our world to be perfect, free of all sin. But because we have sinned, we don’t receive the gift of eternal life without death that God wanted to give us in the beginning. Only our Blessed Mother could receive that gift. Because each one of us has messed up God’s plan for a perfect world, God would have every right to destroy us and start again. But that’s not God’s plan at all! He is the Lord of second chances!
Do you want a Second Chance? Yes. Excellent! But to receive your second chance, you must first come before the Judge.
In today’s Gospel, we see a sign that Jesus has the power to forgive sins. He passed this same power on to his apostles, and they to the priests who serve in the Church. So why can’t we pray to God in private and be forgiven? We can, for the smallest sins – but when we confess those to the priest, we receive a special blessing for our humility, which we call the grace of the sacrament, help to resist those temptations in future. Confession wasn’t an idea cooked up by some bored priests so we can spy in your lives – it was God’s idea when he passed on the power to forgive sins to his ministers. This was done by the same Jesus who will come back one day to judge the living and the dead, so I’m thinking that following his instructions is the best idea!
Remember, in a big trial, it’s not the judge’s job to decide whether you are guilty or not. The jury decides whether you are guilty – and if you are, the judge’s job is to pass the appropriate sentence.
This Lent, you are invited to a courtroom – a most unusual courtroom – called the Tribunal of Mercy.
In this courtroom, mercy triumphs over judgment.
In this courtroom, you are both the accused and the prosecutor.
In this courtroom, you are also the jury. And you have come to court for one simple reason – you have already found yourself to be guilty.
In this courtroom, too, a judge is waiting to pass sentence. But the sentence has already been served!
The sentence is Death. Jesus died upon the cross, so that your sins can be forgiven!
In the church, tonight, each priest waiting for you stands in the place of Christ Our Judge. But the judgment is a merciful one. Your place is to go before the judge and plead guilty. The judge will assure you that Jesus has already served your sentence, so you are free to go. Yes, you will be given a penance to carry out – but that is not your sentence. The penance is simply a “thank you” gesture appropriate to thank the Lord who has freed you from your sins.
Just as a lawyer prepares the case carefully before going to court, so each one of us needs to prepare ourselves well to go to a priest for confession. Tonight, I ask you to show respect for the priests, and for the other parishioners waiting to go to confession, by being ready to confess.
Now here’s what sometimes happens when I’m hearing confessions: “Bless me Father! I’m a good person really. I don’t do anything wrong. I don’t cuss, I don’t steal, I look after my family.” Can you see the problem?
This week, you have lots of opportunities to receive blessings, with holy relics and from holy priests. Confession is not another blessing where you just come up for a prayer. Confession is a conversation where you come to the priest and accuse yourself of what you’ve done wrong. In fact, let me make it clearer – in confession, you accuse yourself of the wrong choices you’ve made. You can be sure that something is a sin when you recognise you’ve made a bad choice and you know what the different choice is that you should have made and could have made.
Let me give you an example. Is it a sin to miss Mass on Sunday when you’re in bed with ‘flu? No!
Is it a sin to miss Mass on Sunday when it’s blowing a gale and you’re over 80 and can’t stand up straight against the wind? No.
But is it a sin to miss Mass on a Sunday because you’ve got unexpected visitors and you are too embarrassed to tell them you’re going to church, or to invite them to come to Mass with you? Yes! That’s a double sin – a sin of not honouring the Lord’s day, and a sin of not standing up for Our Blessed Lord against the opinions of other people! We had the choice.
There are times in our lives we really do need to go to confession. When we’ve made a terrible choice, perhaps under extreme pressure, and we need the relief of hearing the priest say that our sins are forgiven. Or perhaps we’ve truly committed a mortal sin – for some reason we have knowingly walked away from God, and instantly regretted it. For these times – and for the person who has suddenly come to their senses after many years away from God – your parish priest is always available on request.
But this kind of service, in a Mission week, is an opportunity to go so much deeper – we’re each being offered a spring clean for our souls. So let’s look deeply into our lives and prepare for a good confession by asking ourselves a few questions.
We are called to worship. Have we put God first in our lives by taking time to pray each day and each week? We also turn away from worshipping God when we look to other spiritual powers for help – that includes fortune telling, seeking to put a curse on someone, and any kind of ‘new age’ therapy that claims to cure you by tapping into spiritual energy. That would include things like bioenergy, reiki and reflexology. It’s important to bring these things to confession so we can be healed by the only true source of spiritual power – God’s Holy Spirit.
We are called to help in our parish and in the wider community. Have we given help graciously even what it was possible but inconvenient? Did we volunteer to give help rather than waiting to be asked?
We make our church community strong when we spend time getting to know each other. We make our faith strong when we take time to explore God’s Word and the Church’s teaching. This mission, but also the future of your parishes, depends on the people who worship in each of your five churches building up good relationships with each other. Have you tried to show good will to work together and get to know each other?
By our baptism, each one of us is an ambassador for Christ. Have we talked openly about our faith, even when we have been unsure how other people would react? Have we tried to invite anyone who’s not already a churchgoing Catholic to share our faith or visit our church?
There are other questions we might ask ourselves, too, but they always boil down to two roots. Did I love God with all my heart, mind and strength? And did I love my neighbour as myself?
We don’t have to go to confession for the small stuff. We don’t have to accuse ourselves before the priest of our smallest sins. We don’t have to become the very best versions of ourselves. But why wouldn’t we want to?
There are two more sins it’s really worth looking out for. One is the sin of pride that says: “I don’t have to go to confession, so I won’t.” The other – that’s the little sin you know so much better than I do. It’s that small sin, more of a peccadillo, that you don’t want to confess because it doesn’t matter that much… and besides, it would be embarrassing to admit it. And yet… what would happen if you did? After that moment of embarrassment would come an overwhelming tide of relief – and more than that, it would unlock some new grace in your life because Our Lord always pours extra help into our life when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the church guarantees it!
Jesus is asking you to clear out the obstacles. It’s a lot easier to trip over a small stone than a great barrier! Have you ever gotten a stone in your shoe and decided not to bother shaking it out? After a few minutes of limping along, you know you’ll feel better if you stop and get rid of it – so why not do that in the first place? Tonight is your golden opportunity.
Perhaps you’ve been to the kind of penance service where a priest has spoken absolution over the whole congregation without asking you to go to confession. It’s important to remember that the forgiveness God gives you at those services is on condition that you do confess any big sins you are carrying to a priest at the first possible opportunity. It’s not a way of escaping naming yourself as a sinner. And if you’re not sure whether the sins on your conscience are big enough to need to be confessed, I’ve got good news for you – if you mention them to a priest in confession tonight, you can be absolutely sure that, big or small, they will have been forgiven by the end of this evening.
Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future.
- If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to begin to get help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous.
- If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. If your problem is Internet porn, I strongly recommend a website called ClickToKick.
- If you’ve given out your anger or haven’t let go of a grudge, it’s time to let go tonight. Let go and let God. Remember, Jesus said that showing anger – not feeling it, but showing it – is like killing your brother or sister in your heart.
- If you’ve been drawn into adultery, then stop it – immediately. There is no excuse for a goodbye visit or trying to be “just friends” – it won’t work. Break that relationship tonight.
- If you’ve been responsible for ending a human life, through abortion or in any other way, know that God can forgive you, but you must admit what you have done to the priest who stands in the place of Jesus.
God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love is always there.
As you look deeply into your own life, what you are looking for is guilt.
Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a snowstorm, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we didn’t have the power to do otherwise, that’s false guilt – because what it is pointing is to is regret but not sin.
Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or same-sex marriage, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps then our second thoughts chip in. Do you hear that little voice saying, “but what if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!
Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.
The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.
True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.
True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.
True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.
True repentance means rushing to the Tribunal of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!” In this courtroom, mercy triumphs over judgment.
We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.
God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.
This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, the Father who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.
This is the loving God who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”
Are you are suffering from guilt?
Rush to the confessional.
Be amazed at Christ’s love in dying to pay the price for your sin.
Rejoice that God’s love for you is solid and unshakeable.
Best. Lent. Ever!