Br. James Koester offered this homily on the prayer of penitence at the Monastery as part of the Teach Us to Pray series, January 26, 2010.
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle: Acts 26: 9 – 21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1: 11 – 24; Matthew 10: 16 – 22
We continue tonight our preaching series on prayer, drawing as we have done for this series, from the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer and its teaching on prayer. There we read that “prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”  In addition, the Catechism teaches us that the principal kinds of prayer are “adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and thanksgiving.”
Tonight we look at the prayer of penitence, a prayer most apt for us as we approach the coming days of Lent, but one equally appropriate as we examine it through the lens of the feast we mark tonight, the Conversion of Saint Paul, for penitence, to be life-giving, needs to be grounded not in fear of reprisal or retaliation but in our own ongoing conversion to the loving will of God.
The Catechism tells us that in the prayer of penitence “we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.” Such a terse definition of the prayer of penitence, while true, does not even begin to scratch the surface or to plumb the depths of what the prayer of penitence is really all about.
For many, penitence is, well, downright penitential. It is something we must do because we are told to do it. We are told to do it because is good for us, much like cod-liver oil or those nasty fish oil capsules my doctor tells me I must take, but which I hate. If something tastes that bad, how good can it really be for me? If that act of penitence, confession and restitution really is that awkward, embarrassing and difficult, not to mention humiliating, then how good can it really be for me?
But such a “hold your nose, close your eyes and swallow” approach to prayer seems to me to be missing the point, even, and perhaps especially where we are talking about the prayer of penitence. If prayer truly is a response to God, then it is a response to God as God truly is, and as the First Epistle of John reminds us, “God is love.” God is not anger, or retaliation, or fury, but rather love. God is not punishment, or wrath or vindication, but rather love. Prayer then, is our response, not to God’s anger, but to God’s love; it is our response, not to God’s punishment, but to God’s love. And so our prayer and especially our prayer of penitence is our response not to God’s fury or wrath, but to God’s love for us, just as two lovers respond to one another, especially when they have something for which they are truly sorry and which has so obviously and clearly hurt the other. In other words, it is not that “love is never having to say you’re sorry” but rather that love is knowing the healing power of penitence and the merciful grace of forgiveness and longing to at last say to the other, “I am sorry, please forgive me.”
It is the power of that love, a power so forceful that by it, Saul of Tarsus was literally knocked from his horse, which prompts us to be penitent. It was that same love which propelled Paul to preach the message of God’s love to the Gentiles in order “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”
Such love does not condemn us, but rather converts and convicts us, opening our hearts to the power of God’s forgiveness and welcome, so that penitence becomes, not a burden but a joy, not an obligation but a desire. It is that same love which brought the penitent guest in George Herbert’s poem Love to at last sit and eat.
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
Because the prayer of penitence is our loving response to God who first loved us it is a prayer deeply rooted in freedom whereby we freely and lovingly offer God our love in penitential words and deeds. Like two lovers who long to be reconciled, by our prayer of penitence we are reconciled once again to our Beloved and know the healing and converting power of God’s love.
Paul knew the power of God’s love on the road to Damascus when he came face to face with the Risen Christ in that vision which threw him from his horse. It was love, and not anger which threw Paul to the ground. It was love, and not fury, which blinded him. It was love and not wrath which restored his sight and propelled him on his way proclaiming the resurrection.
Had Paul’s conversion been one rooted in fear and terror his proclamation of the Good News of God’s love in Christ would simply not have been true and his audience would have turned away from his message. But it was not, and they did not. Instead Paul’s message came from a place of knowing and being known. He knew that he was least of the apostles and chief among sinners and was unfit to be called an apostle. But so too did he know that he was loved by God and because of that he knew the forgiveness of his sins, according to the riches of Christ’s grace that had been lavished upon him.
For Paul, his overwhelming sense of forgiveness came from a deep and abiding sense of God’s love for him. It was because he was secure in that love that he could freely acknowledge his sin and rejoice in the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness.
Today’s feast reminds us that the same can be true for us. When we know fully the power of God’s healing and transforming love, as Paul did, the prayer of penitence will emerge from us as a loving response to God’s love for us and we will at last know ourselves to be forgiven and free.
 1979 BCP, page 856
 Ibid, page 856
 Ibid, page 857
 1 John 4:8
 Love Story, 1970, film starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, novel by Eric Segal
 Acts 26: 18
 Herbert, George, Love in Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919, [c1901]; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/101/. [downloaded 26 January 2010].
 1 John 4:19 “We love because [God] first loved us.”
 1 Corinthians 15: 9 “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
 Ephesians 1: 7, 8 “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”
 Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
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