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Imagine you’re living in about the year 500, in Syria. You’re a new Christian who’s just received baptism and is coming to communion for the first time, and your bishop teaches you to hold out your hands, receive the bread, and pray this prayer:
“I carry you, living God incarnate in the bread. You have confined yourself in a fiery coal within my fleshly palms. You are holy, God incarnate in my hands in a fiery coal. Lord, make me worthy to taste the food of your body as a taste of your life.”
It’s a striking prayer, isn’t it? That prayer was written by a Syrian bishop of that time named Philoxenus. And it calls the communion bread a “fiery coal.” Actually, lots of Syrian Christian prayers refer to the bread in this way. It’s a direct reference to the passage we heard from Isaiah this morning, where the angel touches Isaiah’s lips with a fiery coal from the heavenly altar, and Isaiah’s sins are blotted out.
At the beginning of the passage, Isaiah has a tremendous vision of God’s holiness, and it produces two emotions: awe, and unworthiness. The two go together: it’s Isaiah’s awe at God’s holiness and beauty that makes him realize he’s unworthy to stand in God’s presence. Peter has exactly the same response to Jesus in our gospel reading today. Jesus’s miraculous command over the fish of the sea fills him with awe as Peter realizes this teacher is full of the presence of God. And Peter’s response is to say: Go away, Lord, for I’m a sinful man! Even our epistle reading today where Paul relates one of the earliest oral traditions about Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection says that Christ died, quote, “for our sins.” So the very first generation of Christians already understood Jesus’ death and resurrection as somehow connected in with sin, and the forgiveness of sins.
Now it’s sometimes said that Episcopalians don’t believe in sin. But all it takes is a look at a prayer book to prove that wrong. Our liturgies are full of language about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It’s certainly true that Episcopalians tend not to focus primarily on telling people how bad they are. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the reality of sin. Sin is actually one of the best hints at God’s existence. If there’s no God and no real reference point, then right and wrong is basically just a human cultural construction. But for most of us, our spirit cries out against that idea. There really is such a thing as good and evil, right and wrong. And the fact that we realize that all of us sometimes make choices that are wrong is an illustration that there’s a right to strive after. God’s perfection, God’s holiness, God’s goodness are the standard for what the universe should be like. And from Darfur, to Washington, D.C., to our own lives, the universe doesn’t look like that. That’s sin.
It’s been said that sin comes in two kinds, individual and collective, and that evangelical Christians focus more on individual sins while mainline Christians focus more on collective sins. I think there’s truth to that. But the reality is both are real. Some sin is bigger than any one person: the existence of poverty and homelessness. The exploitation of people in developing countries. The human race’s collective participation in climate change. And at the same time, the individual choices we make can be devastating. Substance abuse. Betrayals in relationships. Petty gossip. Bullying. Many of these individual actions resonate down through generations: we act out scripts our parents and parents’ parents created for us, so that addiction or abuse becomes a generational reality, both individual and collective. That’s why I so love the prayer of confession we’ve used on occasion before, and will again today, that names that intersection between individual and corporate sin: “We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Isaiah recognizes that intersection when he says, “Woe is me, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” The individual, and the collective, both at once.
So sin is real. But like our liturgies, the Bible is preoccupied less with condemning sin than with responding to it. God doesn’t leave us to wallow in guilt or self-flagellation. God is bigger than our guilt. So Isaiah receives the fiery coal, and he’s commissioned to preach God’s message. And the same thing happens with Peter: Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid,” and commissions him as an apostle. God is not interested primarily in telling us what sinners we are. God knows what we are, and who we are. And God wants to delight in us, and to use us to spread the good news of God’s love to others. So God can handle our sin. As one Episcopal priest I know says, in the light of God’s forgiveness, “Your sin is no longer the most interesting thing about you. Sin is a problem God has solved.”
How does God solve it? Plenty of ways. God can forgive our sins in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, any time we turn to God with an open heart. It doesn’t take a special sacrifice or offering or any external sign whatsoever. But we’re human beings of flesh and blood, so material things and actions help. One such action is what I already mentioned, an action we do almost every Sunday in church, unless it’s a particularly joyful feast day: we confess our sins corporately, and receive absolution. When a priest stands before a congregation and assures them that their sins are forgiven, that’s a tangible sign God has provided to seal the reality. So if something is on your heart, if you’re troubled with guilt over something in your life past or present, bring it to the liturgy. Hold it in your heart as you pray that prayer of confession, and know that God hears your prayer, and heals you.
There’s an even more tangible way to receive that assurance of pardon, and that’s through what’s sometimes called individual confession, but the Prayer Book calls the Rite of Reconciliation. Not everyone knows that Episcopalians offer this rite; and no one is required to participate in it. But confessing your sins to a priest who will listen with love and respect, who will keep the confidentiality of that confession private to the grave, and who will then lay hands on you and proclaim that God has put away all your sins, can be an amazingly liberating experience. If there’s something on your conscience that troubles you, I or any priest will be happy to celebrate this rite with you so you can know the freedom of God’s forgiveness specifically and personally.
And of course, there’s the most tangible way of all. It’s through that fiery coal—the holy food that cleanses our lips each week. When you come to this altar in faith and love, God unites you directly with Jesus Christ and all his people in heaven and on earth.
So if your conscience is troubling you—if you have that awareness of sin that’s a sign that you are human—rejoice: because God is here for you. Come to the heavenly altar. Be cleansed. And then, like Isaiah and Peter, let God use you to do great things, and to spread the message of God’s love.
Adapted from Aelred Cody, “An Instruction of Philoxenus of Mabbug on Gestures and Prayer When One Receives Communion in the Hand, with a History of the Manner of Receiving the Eucharistic Bread in the West Syrian Church,” in Rule of Prayer, Rule of Faith: Essays in Honor of Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, ed. Nathan Mitchell and John F. Baldovin (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 62–63.
 Gray Temple, The Molten Soul: Dangers and Opportunities in Religious Conversion (New York: Church Publishing, 2000), 158.