Sacraments: reconciliation and unction

230507 Easter 5 A EN

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ (1 Pet. 2-10).

Since Easter, we have tried to incorporate some reflections on the sacraments of the church into our Sunday sermons, by way of a refresher about these special moments in the Christian life where an outward and visible sign speaks to us about a divine inward spiritual grace, a special encounter with God made manifest in the context of liturgy or a pastoral encounter.

So far, we have covered the two sacraments that Jesus gave us – sometimes known as the dominical sacraments, domine being the latin work for Lord – baptism (and confirmation) and the Eucharist.  We have also heard about vocation and ordination, and will be talking about marriage next week.

Today the theme given in the series is reconciliation and unction – otherwise known as confession, and anointing.  These two sacraments go hand in hand in the category of sacraments for healing and restoration to wholeness.

As we heard our first reading telling us of the story of the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr, the setting of violence, resentment and destruction could not be further  from a situation of reconciliation and peace.  And yet, even at the point when he is facing death, Stephen – like Jesus on the cross – is able to extend forgiveness to those who are persecuting him, and who will continue on to persecute the pfledgling Christian church.

As St Peter writes in his letter, it is this quality of mercy which singles out the Christian community – the mercy that we learn to extend as we each become a living stone in the building up of God’s kingdom, the mercy we ourselves receive as we exercise it.

And if there is something that has been obvious throughout Jesus’s ministry, it is that in his task of proclaiming the love of God to all, he exercised a great deal of mercy, bringing back into community those that had been excluded.

Time and time again, Jesus encounters people with whom he falls into conversation, and who suddenly find themselves discussing their life and their deepest yearnings for God. Life can be messy, and they are looking for meaning and redemption in situations that are often complicated and which they know are not in accord with what their faith might have taught them.

And yet, when the conversation comes to an end , Jesus sends them away with soothing words:

To those weighed down by their unworthiness: ‘Go in peace, your sins are forgiven’. To those caught in cycles of dis-ease: ‘Stand up and walk’

The sacrament of reconciliation has often been understood as a visible sign of God’s forgiveness of our shortcomings, the ways in which we wound our lives, the lives of others and the life of the world.  As we grow to understand the immensity of God’s love for us, we are invited to reflect on our lives, and bring our sins – those failings which separate us from God’s love – to light before Christ.

This can of course be done alone in silence within our own prayer time.  But we have an opportunity to confess those sins and hear those words of forgiveness as we come together for worship, as we will again today as every Sunday, after the prayers of the people.  A time to open our hearts in sorrow before God and to hear the absolution by the priest re-assuring us of the ongoing forgiveness of God in our lives.

Being forgiven requires a change of heart, a willingness for us to try again and do things differently, to commit to trying to change our ways in the ways of Christ – not simply to expect to do the same things over and over again and get a free divine pass every Sunday.

It is sometime not well known that, in the Anglican tradition, we do still have the practice of one confession with a priest for a time of discussion, reflection and absolution.  For some of us, voicing our shortcomings can be painful and at the same time cathartic, and hearing the words of God’s absolution and forgiveness can be a liberation.

If this is something you would like, please speak with one of the clergy team.

Like St Stephen, as we learn to live as God’s forgiven people, so we must learn to forgive others continually – as we pray every time we use the words that Jesus taught us: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us’.

Anointing for the Sick, our second reconciliation and healing sacrament, has over time been relegated to the last rites.  Though it is often done in time of grave danger to the body and the soul, especially when there is danger of death, it is in fact a practice which is available throughout our lives when we find that we are in need of physical, mental or spiritual healing.

Acknowledging our need of God – as well as the specialist support of doctors – for ourselves or for others, is a way in which we are restored by grace.   It is a practice we introduced on a monthly basis at our main services at the cathedral earlier this year.

Anointing is a sacrament in which we know the love of God and God’s willfulness for us to be well and whole. The priest makes a sign on our forehead and sometimes our hands with oil blessed by the Bishop and prays words of healing and wholeness which remind us of the love of God for all his creation.

In one sense, anointing goes hand in hand with reconciliation, because we cannot be made whole if we are not at peace with ourselves, at peace with others, at peace with the world, and at peace with God.

And this sacrament of healing and wholeness is not simply evidenced in a physical cure, though of course miracles do happen.  Wholeness is about restoring the right balance for us individually and in community in the new creation in Christ, now and in eternity.

In the well-known reading from St John’s gospel which we heard this morning, Jesus reminds his friends that whatever happens, he will not forget them, and will always ensure that they may be with him –

because in God’s house, there are many dwelling places, and there will be one with our shape on it.

Thomas – while a faithful follower – is not necessarily immediately convinced by Jesus’s promise and wants to know more.

‘I am the way, the truth and the life’

These are statements which invite us to model our lives on that of Jesus in right priorities and right way of being.  They also remind Thomas of what Jesus has been trying to tell him and his friends consistently, yet they could not see.

Because for us Jesus Christ – the God incarnate – is the one which many have seen, and in whom many have believed.  He is the one who again and again calls us back to find ways of peace with God and reconciliation with neighbour, the one who brings healing and peace to us.

The one who, by his constant presence at our sides, gives us the invitation to do likewise in the world today.

Let us finish with a prayer: Living and healing God, at times we are strangers on the earth, disconcerted by violence, harsh opposition, pain, solitude.

And you breathe upon us your Spirit of peace like a gentle breeze. Transfigure the deserts of our doubts into the gardens of your delight, and so prepare us to be living stones, bearers of reconciliation and peace wherever you place us, until love, hope and peace arise everywhere in our world. Amen.

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