In the Lutheran 3 Year Lectionary, the Epistle readings for the Easter season are drawn from 1 John. With that in mind, I opted to make 1 John the focus of Sunday morning Bible study to bring some added depth to our understanding of St. John’s text. As is often the case, the very act of leading the discussion brings new insights and is further proof that pastors have as much to gain from fruitful discussion as anyone else does.
In this particular instance, the discussion revolved around the concepts of confession and fellowship. Both of these words feature in the first chapter of St. John’s letter and introduce the reader to what John is going to be dealing with throughout the rest of that letter. Those familiar with the divine service settings from the Lutheran Service Book will likely recognize 1 John 1:8-9 from the confession and absolution, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I don’t often dig into the nitty gritty of Biblical languages, but here I think it is worth the effort. The Greek word St. John uses that is translated as “confession” is ὁμολογέω (homologeo). A more literal translation would be something like, “to say the same thing” or “to agree with a statement.” This sort of usage could crop up anywhere. In a recent episode of Jeopardy! with guest host Aaron Rodgers a contestant, referring back to last season’s Green Bay Packers’ play off game, asked, “Who wanted to kick that field goal?” Rodgers confessed that it was a great question. The word did not take on theological connotations until it came into use in Scripture.
Now, when we as Christians say “confession” we typically think of an admission of sins of one form or another. If not this, then we “confess our faith” through one of the Creeds or some other public declaration of what we believe. We confess our faith in the Creeds, there is often the implicit understanding that we do this together as a congregation and that is part of what makes it a confession. This is true, for we are saying the same thing in unison. When it comes to a confession of sins, this becomes a little more difficult. Sure, when we make a public confession, we are saying the words together, and yet, private confession is no less a confession and is no less worthy of forgiveness and grace.
If private confession is truly confession, who are we speaking with? St. John gives us the answer: God has already spoken. God as judge has already declared us sinners. Our only options are to either confess this statement together with Him, or call Him a liar. If we confess our sins, we say what He has already said and we put ourselves in the same group as all of those who have also said they are sinners. We have fellowship with God and one another because we have confessed God’s declaration of our guilt and have received the subsequent declaration of forgiveness.
In this way, the sacraments fall into the same category, for they are also about forgiveness and grace. Jesus does not give the sacraments as possible options for our use. He does not suggest we put them into practice here and there as we have need. Jesus draws on his divine authority and He commands them. They are not optional. Rather, they are a requirement for Christian life. They means and vehicles of God’s grace because the underlying statement He is making is, “You are a sinner and without My grace you will perish.” Coming to the font, coming to the table is a confession of sins and of our faith. We confess that we have sinned against God and one another and that we need His grace. We confess our trust in His promise that He will forgive those sins on account of Christ. The end result of this confession and of God’s forgiveness is that we are bound together in fellowship with God and with one another.
This fellowship is the end goal of the sacraments and of salvation as a whole. To reunite us with Him has been the entire point of God’s saving work. This work continues in the sacraments and it begins by our confession that we truly need those sacraments. We are sinners and we need God’s rich and abundant grace, found in Word, water, bread, and wine. We gather together as the Body of Christ, washed clean by baptismal water, around His table to share in fellowship with Him and with one another because we are all sinners and we have collectively come to the only place forgiveness may be found.