First Sunday in Lent, rcl yr b, 2021
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
When theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison—he had been picked up for having the wrong sorts of friendships, friendships with people who were themselves under suspicion for resisting the Nazis—Bonhoeffer wrote a lot of letters, as many as were either allowed out, along with all the ones that could be smuggled out.
In one letter in particular, to his closest friend Eberhard Bethge, it wasn’t politics that were on his mind. Bonhoeffer was, rather, in a penitent mood. Bonhoeffer, you see, wasn’t a particularly easy friend to have, and he wrote about how difficult a friend he was: “I had wanted to express to you … how grateful I was that with so much patience and forbearance you bore my tyrannical and self-serving manner,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “which often made you suffer, and everything with which I sometimes made your life difficult.”
This wasn’t empty self-criticism, nor was Bonhoeffer making a show of his penitence. In fact, it was probably the opposite. Bonhoeffer was loathe to admit that he was, indeed, a very difficult friend.
In one infamous episode, Bonhoeffer and Bethge were planning a driving trip to Switzerland together, but Bethge had made the mistake of inviting his cousin to join them. This displeased Bonhoeffer immensely, because Bonhoeffer had different plans. Bonhoeffer had finally found, in Bethge, something of a confidante, and Bonhoeffer didn’t want anyone else to come along. But instead of making his thoughts known in a forthright way, Bonhoeffer complained. Bitterly.
Bonhoeffer complained that having three people was “not at all so simple” because they would probably have to borrow money. Bonhoeffer complained that even if they were able to borrow money to make the trip work for three, that there probably still wouldn’t be enough. Bonhoeffer then became exasperated when a fourth person was suggested, complaining that that the rear axle of the car would probably break from the weight of so many in the car.
(This was a highly unlikely scenario.)
Bonhoeffer wouldn’t get his way in the end, and Bethge’s cousin did come along. But Bonhoeffer’s complaining became so bad on the trip that Bethge insisted that Bonhoeffer apologise to his cousin.
Bonhoeffer did reluctantly offer an apology, but even as Bonhoeffer apologized he was petulant about it: “I was was tired,” he said. “I hadn’t slept enough.” Bonhoeffer points out that he had already asked for forgiveness, and was irritated that it would take more bridge-mending to set the relationships right. Despite the fact that it was most obviously him who had caused all the friction.
This was the sort of thing that Bonhoeffer had in mind when he wrote to Bethge from prison, now in a much more genuinely penitent mood, and admitting to Bethge that he had “made [Bethge’s] life difficult.” And so Bonhoeffer asks for forgiveness: “I ask you for forgiveness for this and yet know that—even if [we aren’t able to be present to one another physically]—we were granted spiritual participation …in the gift of confession [and] absolution.”
You see Bonhoeffer wasn’t just asking for forgiveness from Bethge. Bonhoeffer wasn’t simply saying “hey buddy, sorry about all that stuff I did to you.” Because that’s not how confession works—at least not Christian confession. Bonhoeffer knew that penitence is far more than saying sorry, and that penitence is far more than saying sorry to another person. Bonhoeffer was asking for Christian forgiveness, which meant that he knew that his faults weren’t just against his friend. Bonhoeffer in sinning against his friend had also sinned against God.
And so it made perfect sense for Bonhoeffer also to mention, as he asked Bethge for forgiveness for being a difficult friend, the fact that was negligent in worship; and that he needed forgiveness for his own self-reproach. Neither of these were things that he committed against Bethge; one was against himself and the other was against God. But all three, were in their own way, against God and God’s good ordering of the world.
So Bonhoeffer folds them all into his confession, a confession that he makes to Bethge, asking Bethge not for Bethge’s own forgiveness, but that Bethge would forgive him in God’s own name.
This episode in Bonhoeffer’s life is on my mind today because we are entering into Lent—and Lent is a season, above all, of penitence. We began our service with penitential order. If you listened closely you may have heard in our confession—confession and penitence being so closely related—the words of the baptismal covenant.
The bidding was that we “remember the covenant of our baptism,” and that we “test our hearts and conscience to know how faithfully we have persevered in resisting evil,” and that “whenever we fell into sin,” that we “[repent and return] to the Lord.”
To repent our sins is far more than saying “sorry.” Repentance is recognizing that we have breached God’s good order of things. God’s good order includes being truthful with ourselves—in Bonhoeffer’s case he repented for his self-reproach; God’s good order includes harmony with others—so Bonhoeffer repented for being a difficult friend; God’s good order includes keeping in right relation with God—so Bonhoeffer repented for being negligent in worship. There are other things, too, that we would repent for as well; and they all would include a genuine desire to set things back in good order.
We cannot, for example, genuinely repent without the intention to amend our lives, to be converted. And that this amendment of our lives is about far more than being good, or doing good—it is about returning to the Lord, recognising that even this returning to the Lord is a gift of God’s own grace.
That’s why Christian repentance comes with divine absolution: the words of God spoken by a friend, who in Bonhoeffer’s case, stood in as Christ for him, pronouncing God’s forgiveness to him; or for us today, in the voice of a priest who speaks not his own forgiveness, but God’s forgiveness into the lives of God’s own people. A forgiveness that has been assured to us by God’s work in Christ, above all else, in the work of the cross, and the reconciliation of God and the world wrought as it is, in Jesus; for which we are thankful in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.