We are winding down our summer sermon series “One Another” where we’ve been asking the question: how can you be a church without a building?
I think, this was one of the pressing questions of the early church.
They didn’t have buildings, and they didn’t have sacred places . . . but what they had was one another.
With the coming of God’s Spirit, no longer was God contained in a building, or a single location. God’s Spirit took his dwelling within his people. This was the church. You are the church.
That’s why the phrase “one another” is used 59 times in the New Testament.
As we have been working through the “one another” passages, we have not been surprised to find things like; love one another, encourage one another, serve one another, and live in harmony with one another but today we’ll be looking at one of the more difficult one another passages.
Let’s read it together: READ James 5:16
When you see the word confess, here’s what might come to mind.
If you were brought up in the Catholic church, you might think of the sacrament of penance. You’ve been taught that after you’re baptized, you have the right and responsibility to then go to the priest to confess your sins against God and against one another. The priest might instruct you to say a few prayers or do something to make up for your sins but ultimately the goal is to be absolved of your sin.
If you were brought up in a Protestant church, you were taught that when you go to bed at night, you bow your head and close your eyes and if you’re really committed you kneel by the side of your bed and fold your hands together, and you just tell God directly about all the sins you’ve committed. Then God, in response, will erase your sins and you’re good to go.
No matter which religious system you grew up with, assuming you grew up in one, there is something in place that ultimately empties your sin bucket. Then you take your empty sin bucket in to the world and fill it up again and then simply come back and dump it out again. And that’s just routine, that’s just part of your lifestyle, and that’s a good thing.
But have you ever noticed that we have the tendency to confess the same things over, and over again. “Hey God, it’s me again . . . you got me, I did it again so can you forgive me again. Thanks! Cool, we’ll talk again next week.”
What’s interesting is that this whole confession system that your accustomed to didn’t show up until about 600 AD which means that it’s not really a bible thing. And it didn’t begin as penance or confession as we know it, where you fill up your bucket and then dump it up. There was an expectation that once you confessed your sin, you weren’t going to do it anymore.
In fact, the word penance comes from the word repentance which means, to turn away from.
But somewhere along the way, we began to believe that the reason we confess is not to stop doing what we’re doing but to relieve our guilt, to clear our conscience.
But if you search the scriptures, guess what? You are not going to find any passages that connect confession and your conscience.
You see, Genuine, confession leads to genuine change and genuine change can’t happen when you keep the lid of your soul closed and only have private conversations between you and God, so you feel better about yourself.
So, what you will find in scripture is that genuine confession serves as the first step toward both repentance – I’m not going to do that anymore, and reconciliation – back into relationship with God and/or a person with whom sin has broken the relationship.
In fact, if you were to look at all the passages in scripture about confession, most of them do not have people confessing to God but rather going to other people; people whom we’ve sinned against and people that can hold us accountable to make sure there is repentance, restoration, and healing.
So, let me put confession in the context of scripture, as a whole.
In the Old Testament, after God has delivered his people from Egyptian slavery, he gave them a social order as to how they are to relate to one another as God’s people and here’s what he said about confession.
“Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.” Numbers 5:6-7
What’s he saying is that if a relationship between two people has been broken because of some wrong doing, you’ve been unfaithful to God. That’s tough to hear, isn’t it?
That’s probably why we tend to separate the two. We like to go to church and say, “Hey God you and I are cool, but I don’t really like that person over there, we don’t get along and there’s been a lot of hurt between us.” but God is saying, “If you are not working toward restoration with that person, then you and I are not cool”.
You see, the relationship between the “one another’s” directly affects the relationship between you and God. These two things go together. And God doesn’t simply say, “Hey, why don’t you go over and give them a big ole’ hug and say you’re sorry so that you and I are cool”.
No, he says, “Relationships are important and they affect the relationship between you and I so I need you to reconcile with one another and I need there to be repentance – I’m not going to do this anymore or treat you this way anymore – and the best way to make that happen is to attach restitution – add a fifth of the value to it - so you’re not going to want to do it again.” I guess it’s like a speeding ticket.
That’s confession in the Old Testament . . . reconciliation, repentance, and restitution. And it wasn’t just between God and man; it was also between people and other people.
After this law was given, thousands of years go by and then Jesus shows up to make God’s dwelling among his people; to reconcile and restore the broken relationships between God and his people.
One day, Jesus was walking down the road with this huge crowd following him and there is the guy name Zacchaeus that wants to see Jesus but he’s short and he can’t see through the crowds, so he runs down the road ahead of Jesus and climbs up a sycamore tree so he can have a birds eye view as Jesus passes by.
Scripture tells us that he was both wealthy and powerful as if that were some kind of indictment . . . and it was.
You see, the Roman government at this point had taken over God’s people and were ruling over them. And they would appoint some who were Jewish to be tax collectors to collect money from their own people and hand it over to the Roman government.
And the way the tax system worked was like this; there was a chief tax collector with a staff of tax collectors . . . and these guys were the ones to collect money for the government but anything they could extort beyond that was theirs to keep.
And so, they would collect taxes on anything they wanted. And if someone can’t pay the tax then they would seize homes and assets and bankrupt people by taking their savings accounts and retirement accounts and their children's college fund.
And after they collected the tax they would have to pay a percentage up the pyramid to the guy at the top and that top guy was Zacchaeus; the chief tax collector.
As you can imagine, everyone hated Zacchaeus.
So, when Jesus sees Zacchaeus and says, “I want to hang out at your house”, it throws everybody off and they were not happy about it. But as a result of allowing Jesus into his home, his sacred space, here’s how Zacchaeus responds:
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8
We don’t know what was said between them but when Jesus came into his life, it opened up the lid to his soul and he immediately recognized that his issue wasn’t just between he and God, it was between he and everybody he’s offended and now he wants to make it right.
In the context of what we just learned, it makes sense. Doesn’t it?
“I’m going to confess, I’m going to own up to what I’ve done, and I’m going to make restitution so that I won’t ever want to do it again - repentance.”
Here’s what Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to your house.”
Jesus didn’t say, “No, don’t worry about it, you don’t need to pay people back. You don’t need to make this public. It’s just between you and me, and now that you’ve confessed, you and I are cool.”
Jesus is reaffirming, that Zacchaeus’s response is exactly what confession is all about.
Genuine confession leads to genuine life change.
With all of this in mind, the Old Testament law and Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus, we come to today’s text: James 5:16
When you read this within the context of what James is saying, he’s not addressing a religious hierarchy, he’s not creating a new set of rules, he just saying, if you are a follower of Jesus, when you get together, open your lives to one another. Open your souls to one another. Open that part of you that you really don’t want people to know because you’re afraid how they will respond. And let the light of God’s truth shine in there because that’s when healing begins. That’s when restoration and reconciliation begin.
You see, James understood something about sin . . . it’s like a splinter and if you don’t get it out it’s going to get infected.
The best thing to do with a sin that just keeps happening over, and over, and over and you’ve said, “God I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” is to confess it to one another, so that there can be healing that comes through reconciliation and restoration, and so that there will be accountability so you will stop doing that thing that keeps giving you splinters.
Something I’ve learned from my friends who have been in any kind of addiction program is that there are habits and patterns that you cannot change by simply telling God about it. It’s not because there’s something wrong with God, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with you.
It’s because God has surrounded you with and connected you to “one another”; a family of faith who can offer the strength you need to overcome and turn away from those bad habits.
There are some habits that have never been broken by simple willpower. Genuine change came when they opened their souls and genuinely confessed to some real-life, flesh and blood, people who were willing to love and forgive and hold them accountable.
That’s what James is saying that followers of Jesus are called to do. Not just privately to God but to one another, and to the people we’ve wounded and that we’ve offended, because at the end of the day genuine confessions leads to genuine change . . . and that’s what God desires for us!
So, if you’re willing, open the lid to your soul appropriately to the right people and you will see life change like maybe you’ve never thought was possible.
Because confession is extraordinarily powerful. Because confession is part of the sequence of events that brings about real change. And genuine confession always leads to genuine change.