Friday, October 02, 2009

Today the pain of my headache was as unbearable, if not more so, than Wednesday.  Perhaps...perhaps...I handled it a bit better.  No, I don't count refraining from calling Pastor over and over until I got him in order to bed him to pray for me as "better."  Instead, I did manage to cling to the Word more chant a promise beneath my breath even as I clutched my head and neck against the pain.

Because this day was filled more with pain than anything else and I am not feeling well enough to study Walther and Koenig and share more of my happy gleanings, I thought I would offer a bit from an email exchange with Pastor W.  As I mentioned Wednesday, because he often blogs about the readings from the Daily Treasury of Prayer, I asked him a question I came across in the readings for September 16th about penance.  Instead of cheating and asking Pastor to help me understand, I asked more questions and got more answers.  So, I thought I would share them here.  I have deleted parts between the exchange and matched up the pieces across multiple emails to focus on just the answer to my question:

On page 728 in the reading about Cyprian, it says that those who had lapsed from their faith under persecution and wanted to return to  the Church were only allowed restoration after a period of  penance that demonstrated faithfulness.  Why did they have to serve a penance?

I find that at odds with the story of the prodigal son or even with that of Manasseh on page 719.  So often in the bible we are told of  those who sinned against God and then cried out to Him and were  forgiven, brought back to His fold, without any mention of penance,  just forgiveness.

The penance was intended in the spirit of St. John the Baptist who told the Pharisees to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.   Penance should not be heard as punishment, but as therapy. 

God imposes his own penances, of course.  David had his sins forgiven; but the little s(S)on of David died for them.  The thief on the cross  had his sins forgiven and yet he still had his legs broken and died as  a thief on a cross.  Forgiveness doesn't always result in remission or mitigation of temporal consequences for our sinfulness.   Ecclesiastical penances tried to take that seriously, especially when  those who were the first to be welcomed back were also the first in  the next wave of persecution to defect again and hand over other  Christians to the authorities.  The Church simply wanted to test the  genuineness of their faith and they knew that denying Christ before  the authorities was a most serious matter - they commended its final  resolution into the hands of the Savior Himself, though they didn't  deny the Eucharist to penitents who were in danger of dying.

God may indeed choose to mitigate the consequences of our sinful actions - and there's nothing wrong with begging him to do so - but all the while submitting cheerfully to His will, praying:  "nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will be done!"  The Lutheran Symbols point out that the Church has no control over whether God  mitigates temporal chastisements and we shouldn't pretend she does  (Rome at the time certainly was pretending that!).

Certainly the penance system ended up being a total mess!  And it became "token" and more thought of as "punishment" than  "therapy."   That's what's so sad.  And no doubt the weakness was there from the  start, but the Church was faced with a serious problem and addressed  it as best they knew how in most difficult and dark days.

Would you mind explaining what you mean by "therapy"?

Penance as therapy invites thinking of salvation not merely as a "get out of hell free card" but a preparation of a person to actually enjoy the life of the Age to come.  The penance that the Church in those days would assign was intended to help the person long for the life that is to come by practicing for that life already in this age -  spending more time in prayer, in the Word, and such.  It was designed  to make them dissatisfied with this age (which they'd been too comfortable in) and to long for the joys that await us.

As I said, it was abused.  Because our minds are so often NOT transformed by the Word and Wisdom of God, it's easy to turn the faith  from living in this world already as a colony of the future age into paying off some sort of debt so that God "owes us."  What silly creatures we can be!  And we all slip into it so easily.  When that happens, the person thinks the penance is some sort of payment and it loses all its value.  That's why I think the Church was wise finally to recognize the whole idea wasn't the best approach.

When I was a teenager, I was a patterner for a child with CP.  Her mother had a schedule of folks who came in for an hour or two at a time, all day long, to move her limbs in the pattern of crawling to try and teach her how to control her body.  We worked in teams of two, right side and left side, hands about wrists and ankles, moving her arms and legs back and forth.  I still remember the unalloyed joy of seeing the first time the little girl made the slightest attempt to mimic our movements.  I couldn't believe that it happened one of my shifts.  The day she made it down the inclined platform we used to teach her how to crawl, we all cried.  It was hours of labor over months for just that first attempt at movement.  So, your teaching helped me to understand this!  Penance and "fruit," for that matter, are then our patterning for the Life to come!

Our exchange also included a bit on judgment:

It also seems as if, by having them serve a period penance that demonstrated faithfulness, they were a) being judged by man which seems at odds with scripture (1 Corinthians 4:1-5) and b) being judged on works.

But the Apostle does say that we are to judge those WITHIN the Church, no?  And we have no other basis to judge on than outward behavior and confession.

Could you give me a reference(s) for judging within the church?  Do you mean the bits about church discipline?

Check out 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.  And  yes, he was speaking here about the importance of exercising Church discipline so that Christians who persist in sin against conscience, after being warned and rebuked, finally need to be put out.  This is a task that St. Paul lays on the whole of the congregation.  He is not dealing with those who fall into sin and repent, but of those who refuse to repent at all.

I did have a thought as I was reading this morning,  for the judging thing still seems off-putting and I cannot decide if it is my works background flaring or not:  could there be a difference between judging and holding one accountable?  I view church discipline as the latter, that in true discipline there is more of an objective assessment than a judgment, which always feels like condemnation to me (perhaps because I was judged by my family and found wanting even as a small child).

For once again, this morning, we are implored to judge not (Matthew 7:1-12).

Perhaps I am simply caught up in semantics, but I do feel as if there is a difference between judgment and accountability and it is the latter that seems more "biblical" in nature.

What do you think?

NOTE:  The head scratching came because his first answer was just the following, with just a bit of the history after this part:

The penance was intended in the spirit of St. John the Baptist who told the Pharisees to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.   Penance should not be heard as punishment, but as therapy.

As you can see from above, I needed and was generously given further explanation.  All praise and thanks be to God who raises up pastors who welcome questions and who gave us the Internet that makes teaching from one coast to the other even possible!

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