Loving Penitence – Br. James Koester

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.[1] In addition, the Catechism teaches us that the principal kinds of prayer are “adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and thanksgiving.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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[5] 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[6]

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.[7]

Because the prayer of penitence is our loving response to God who first loved us[8] 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[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.

[1] 1979 BCP, page 856

[2] Ibid, page 856

[3] Ibid, page 857

[4] 1 John 4:8

[5] Love Story, 1970, film starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, novel by Eric Segal

[6] Acts 26: 18

[7] 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].

[8] 1 John 4:19 “We love because [God] first loved us.”

[9] 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.”

[10] 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.”

[11] Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

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  1. Rhode on August 27, 2018 at 09:10

    To live a life of shame and fear of retribution is tiring. I read an article where someone wrote ‘Christ never said from the cross ‘Earn This’ – He cried ‘It is Finished! ” My soul jumped up and said ‘Yes!’
    Living in respect and love for God and each other are gifts we can give back for such great Grace..

  2. Rhode on January 25, 2018 at 15:31

    I was on Maui last week when the phones all blared a weird sound to let us know a public alert message was being sent. “A BALLISTIC MISSILE was on it’s way please find shelter. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” All Caps!!! It was 8:05 when my husband shouted OMG, this is it…this is it!.
    I am sure all in Hawaii felt we had 20 or less minutes left to live.
    My husband shouted what should I do?… Forgive me Brothers (and Sisters) but I said,, “Well, ask God for forgiveness and go out and grab our tenants (a young father with 2 small boys) and stick them in our concrete shower.” All the while praying, please dear Lord, don’t let my husband have a heart attack. Not even thinking about the possible irony. Then this peace …this HUGE peace came over me. .I try to love God and Christ with my whole heart and I feel I am so not good at it. Now there was no time left for any acts of penitence or promises to amend my life …But, I had was this GREAT BIG feeling that God was so much larger than my sins, my promises, my paltry acts of goodness…that He loved me, loved my family, loved us all and that a million deaths all around the world were happening and His love was there with each person. I thanked God for this peace and for the love of Christ that has persued me all my life. I prayed, please spare the children…and being given this last 15 minutes I thanked Him for the years I has been given. Those thoughts occured simultaneously in about 5 minutes. Then I made decaf. I didn’t even think to call my son or family, friends etc. It just did not matter. An hour later we received word it was all a bad mistake. Then I made calls! The next day was Sunday and tiny St. Johns’ Episcopal in Kula was packed with worshippers, as I surmised all houses of faith might be. Thankful hearts. Now to go out and live our prayers of love, forgiveness amd mercy one more day as best as we can.

    • Karen Hall Wright on August 27, 2018 at 08:13

      What a glorious story you have shared, Rhode. Few have been confronted With the reality of sheer demise yet had the focus on God is larger, God is welcoming love. Thank you for your amazing story

  3. margo fletcher on August 14, 2017 at 10:01

    Lord forgive your church its collusion with the Western world’s values for ever more goods and ever more engaging experiences of body mind and imagination, coupled with our blindness and neglect of the needs of our whole world and all your children, Give us a truly encompassing and inclusive vision of your kingdom on all the earth as it is in heaven. Give us hearts that deeply and joyfully desire this no matter what sacrifices we may have to make to bring it about. Amen

  4. Arthur W on August 14, 2017 at 08:56

    “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.”
    Respectfully speaking, a loving and true God does not want to make a world where penitence is a “joy” or “a desire”.
    A loving/true God never uses love as a means of thrusting people into impiety (which may precede penitence). In fact a loving / true God forgives without asking for penitence.

  5. Sally Gunn on June 2, 2015 at 16:05

    Heavenly Father,

    I am truly sorry for the times that I forget to place you first in every thought. My selfishness seems to distract me away from You at times. I ask for your forgiveness and for You to help me to strive for more awareness of you throughout my daily living. In Jesus Christ’s name, I pray. Amen

  6. suzannem. johnson on June 2, 2015 at 11:05

    Dear Savior,friend forgiver of all our inequities, I am truly sorry for all the things that I have done to hamper the continuing of the Kingdom of God. Grow in all of us,a loving response to your all encompassing forgiveness and let us truly forgive ourselves and one another. Amen.

  7. Mosuoe on June 2, 2015 at 10:47

    I give thanks to Almighty God for the protection and love that He gave us, and as people of God we should love one another as He loved us first, lets show love to our brothers and sisters,

  8. J on June 2, 2015 at 10:28

    I do not have access to the forms of contact mentioned, so here is my prayer now:
    Dear Lord, You know all of the things that I am sorry for. You see me fall over and over. I humbly come before you to ask for Your forgiveness, strength and guidance. I cannot do this without you. I keep losing my way and am heartbroken and disgusted with myself. Please be my strength. My penitent soul entreats you to hold me up and keep me going.

  9. Bev on August 29, 2014 at 17:03

    In the scriptures that you note, nothing is said about a horse. Paul did not fall off a horse.

  10. Clarice Boyd on October 20, 2013 at 08:25

    I am moved by the act of reconciliation. It is faith-affirming. It brings me closer to the Lord of all mercies and closer to myself as a Child of God. The more I realize that I am stumbling around in my prayer life, the more I realize that I am seeking His forgiveness. Rather, I am seeking to “clear the air” between us and realize that He bends down to whisper to me just what I need to hear.

  11. Derald W. Stump on June 21, 2011 at 10:55

    Thank you, Brother James, for your thoughts and for the wonderful poem by George Herbert, who never fails to touch one’s heart !

  12. George Hanford on February 27, 2010 at 14:07

    A refreshing and reassuring response to the author (I forget who he is – or was) who characterized the Old Testament God as a fear-inspiring despot and the New Testament One as not much better

  13. jane goldring on January 29, 2010 at 18:00

    James called up on computer your loving penitence listened to it and thought you had a very good message. Jane do hope you arrived back safely

  14. Ed Nilson on January 28, 2010 at 10:32

    Brother James Koester’s sermon on penitence is an anchor to my soul. When I consider the unforgiveness of others I love, even when I have asked for forgiveness, penitence provides new possibilities with God. I believe it allows me to come at last to a Heavenly home, much as the Prodigal Son, into the loving and open arms of my Heavenly Father. It is God’s furious love that relentlessly pursues me and penitence will help me find my way when there seems to be no way.

  15. Polly Chatfield on January 28, 2010 at 09:05

    The freedom Br. James speaks of is nothing short of miraculous. Some years back i didn’t think I had enough free time in my life to pray a lot. But it turns out that the more time I spend in prayer the more time i seem to have for doing; and what I do often turns somehow into a kind of prayer. More and more things feel like blessings. Br. Curtis writes in his book about saying “yes” to life. I feel more as if Life were saying “yes” to me.

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